Vegetarianism and tradition

Aside from the difficulties vegetarianism presents him as a houseguest, Michael Pollan has trouble reconciling vegetarianism with tradition. He writes in The Omnivore’s Dilemma,

Healthy and virtuous as I may feel these days, I also feel alienated from traditions I value: cultural traditions like the Thanksgiving turkey, or even franks at the ballpark, and family traditions like my mother’s beef brisket at Passover. (314)

It strikes me as odd that Pollan should invoke the Jewish tradition as he goes about trying to justify his hunting and eating of a decidedly un-kosher pig. This might seem like a petty objection, but I think there’s an important point here.

In planning to hunt a pig (or, for that matter, eating the “delicious barbecued tenderloin of pork” that was his last meal before turning vegetarian), Pollan has implicitly accepted the idea that traditions can be modified to suit changing circumstances. So too might the Thanksgiving, ballpark, or Passover traditions be modified to be conform to vegetarian values. Indeed, quick searches reveal that bloggers have made a vegan brisket, and that Pollan’s local baseball stadiums (in Oakland and San Francisco) have been recognized for their vegetarian fare.

Jonathan Safran Foer argues in Eating Animals that vegetarianism actually furthers the goals of culinary tradition. He explains,

The point of eating those special foods with those special people at those special times was that we were being deliberate, separating those meals out from the others. Adding another layer of deliberateness [by making those meals vegetarian] has been enriching. I’m all for compromising tradition for a good cause, but perhaps in these situations tradition wasn’t compromised so much as fulfilled. (191)

By contrast, Pollan’s feelings of alienation seem to arise from a narrower view of tradition, one that directs him to do exactly the same thing as his ancestors did. It isn’t necessarily incorrect to look at tradition that way, but that view is hard to reconcile with his eating and enjoying the pork forbidden by his ancestors’ kosher tradition.



  1. […] kind of meat-eating, which likewise represents a “personal dietary prohibition.” He then proceeds to discuss his alienation from traditions like the Passover brisket, apparently not allowing for […]

  2. […] make a few more missteps in the vein of Waters’ comments on shark fin soup, give us too many twisted rationalizations, or insist too stubbornly that we should be eating rack and loin of veal, they’ll seem less […]

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