Salon senior writer Frances Lam has sworn off cheap chicken.
In a New Year's Day post on the Salon food blog, Lam shared his resolution for 2011: "I will only buy chicken that is well raised, so that I will support the people doing that work. I will ask where the chicken came from, I will read up on farming practices."
As Lam explained, his reasoning was partly ethical, partly environmental and largely rooted in his concern that eaters are devaluing food. Chicken was once a luxury item: The second half of Herbert Hoover's famous campaign slogan about chickens and pots promised a "car in every garage," implying poultry and Model As were equivalent indicators of prosperity. In the age of the KFC Double Down, chicken no longer seems so special. Lam's out to reverse the trend.
What interests me most about Lam's project is how much it mirrors a failed resolution I made for myself on December 31, 2009. I had spent the better part of the year covering food politics, policy and culture in the South, which meant I spoke regularly with presidents of various fish and seafood industry groups. Our conversations tended to return to the same theme: Asian imports are a scourge that must be stopped.
As anyone who's followed food news knows, the nation's catfish and shrimp industries haven't been able to withstand the onslaught of cheap product from China and Vietnam. Since 2002, U.S. catfish pond acreage has dropped 42 percent. Catfish farmers and fishermen told me they couldn't compete with an unregulated system rife with labor abuses, environmental exploitation and lax oversight. While newly passed legislation calls for increased inspection of imports, the Southern Shrimp Alliance reports less than 2 percent of imported seafood is currently checked for contamination.
Since I care deeply about Southern food culture -- and since I didn't want to support environmental degradation or the mistreatment of workers -- I decided to give up imported seafood in 2010. I kept my resolution for about three weeks.
Here's what happened: I came upon too many talented workaday cooks who had no idea where their catfish was caught. Eager as I was to experience the connections that food engenders and the culture it exposes, I found myself unable to turn down expertly fried catfish with mysterious origins and shrimp without provenance at seaside shacks. It didn't feel right to support our nation's hardworking farmers and fishermen by denying earnest restaurant owners my dollars. Nor was it a tenable position for a food critic.
Plus, I wasn't sure exactly what I was really accomplishing by ordering chicken with black bean sauce instead of shrimp with black bean sauce (according to Lam, who wrestled with these same issues, I was endorsing a meat "that is mass-produced at unbelievable scale, poisoning the earth and water for hundreds of miles, that is treated brutally, that goes through a disassembly line so fast and furious that it injures 1 out of every 3 poorly paid workers who works on it"). Sorry about that.
I hope Lam does better than I did. He's gone public with his resolution, so perhaps that'll help keep him honest. And he's using the resolution as an occasion to educate his vast readership about food issues, which solves the "Why am I doing this?" problem.
And here's the really good news: Those opportunities aren't available only to Lam. Tell us about what you resolve to eat or not eat this year: We'll share your resolution with City of Ate's other residents, and we'll check back for progress reports. Whether we focus on catfish, chicken or chicarrones, we all have the chance to eat more mindfully in 2011.