Killing Traditions


A student of mine once wrote a paper saying he couldn’t stop eating meat because it would mean giving up too many traditions. For example, on Thanksgiving Day you’re supposed to have the smell of roasting turkey wafting through the house all day. A vegetarian meal would simply cook too fast.

To a purist this is an atrocious argument. What, a turkey is supposed to be bred to ridiculous, uncomfortable proportions, housed in cramped conditions, and carelessly slaughtered, just so we can enjoy all-day cooking?

I see myself as pro-animal, but not as a purist. I do take it seriously that traditions would have to change if we were kinder to animals. It’s hard to completely embrace a vision of the future with no sheep dotting the hills in Wales, and no cattle milling around in west Texas. It’s hard for me to say the good people of Dallas should close down their barbecue restaurants and steak houses. I even have some sympathy for Eskimos who want to go on killing whales.

Last summer I had a chance to learn about the Eskimo whaling tradition in depth at the museum of art and history in Anchorage. Native peoples necessarily depended on animals for everything—food, fuel, clothes, even the walls of their houses. (It turns out Eskimos never lived in igloos year around—that’s a myth.) They were very clever about this, even making windows and waterproof parkas out of seal guts. Whales served the community’s needs, but also brought it together in an activity that had to be communal. (You can catch a hare on your own, but not a whale.)

For all that Eskimos vitally needed to hunt whales before first encounter with westerners and their resources, they weren’t as crudely exploitative as we are today. They didn’t think of the whale as a mere commodity. The Eskimos justified killing whales with the thought that they made a voluntary sacrifice—they gave themselves up for slaughter. No doubt wishful thinking, but at least this myth shows an awareness of a moral problem—how can I justify giving priority to my life over any other living creature’s life?

Eskimos want to keep killing the bowhead whale today. Now, I think that’s a bad idea, both because there are too few of them left (despite what native ecologists want to think) and because each whale is a truly glorious creature. But I take the loss of native traditions seriously. One wants to think there could be a way to hang on to something of it, if not the main thing. (Maybe establish a world-class Cetacean Research Institute in Barrow Alaska?)

Getting back to my student, and Thanksgiving—who says traditions have to stay exactly the same? Here it is, food that takes forever, and probably the only recipe you will ever see on this blog. To my fellow colonials—Happy Thanksgiving!

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(serves 10, takes all day, adapted from Fields of Greens, by Annie Somerville)

  1. Make mushroom stock. In large pot, use 9 cups of water to cover 1 chopped onion, one clean chopped leek, 4 cloves crushed garlic, 1 oz dried shitake mushrooms, 1/2 oz dried porcini, 1 tsp salt, ½ tsp peppercorns, ½ lb sliced mushrooms, 2 small carrots, 6 parsley sprigs, 3 fresh thyme sprigs, 2 fresh marjoram or oregano sprigs, 2 fresh sage leaves, 2 bay leaves.Simmer an hour or two, strain, and simmer some more until you have 3 cups. Set aside.
  2. Make a pie dough with 1 ½ cups flour, 6 TB butter, ½ tsp. salt, a bit of cold water. Keep in refrigerator until needed.
  3. Using a big heavy pot, heat 2 TB olive oil and add 4 cups sliced mushrooms. Sear for 6-7 minutes over high heat, add 4 finely chopped garlic cloves and ½ cup sherry. Simmer until mushrooms are pretty dry. Put all that in a bowl.
  4. Chop firm vegetables of your choice, such as potatoes, celery root, parsnips, turnips, rutabagas, fennel, carrots (best with all of the above). Use enough to nearly fill 2-quart oval earthenware casserole (or whatever you have).
  5. Heat more oil in the big pot and add a chopped onion over medium heat. Saute a little while, then add all the chopped vegetables. Cook and turn for about 20 minutes. Add 2 TB each of fresh marjoram, thyme, and parsley. Add salt and pepper to taste. Turn off heat.
  6. Make sauce out of stock. Heat 3 ½ TB butter in medium size saucepan and add 5 TB flour. Whisk until smooth. Gradually add stock, whisk, cook over low heat, turn off heat.
  7. Pour all the vegetables and mushrooms into the casserole dish. Add the sauce. Don’t fill the casserole to the top or it will boil over in the oven.
  8. Roll out the dough and cover the pie with it, crimping the edges. Roll out leftover dough and cut out turkey image. Affix to top of pie using whisked egg. Brush the rest of the pie with egg. Make slits in top of pie.
  9. Place on baking pan just in case of spills. Bake in 375 degree oven for 40 minutes. Take out and let cool 5 minutes.

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