Ethical Meat and Ethnic Eats: Why Don't We Worry About the Chicken in our Pad Thai?

I had a nasty sinus infection this weekend, so I sought solace in a bowlful of bun bo hue, a spicy broth heaving with noodles, assorted pig parts and congealed pig's blood. I didn't pause to ask my server where the restaurant bought its meat, and I'd be willing to wager none of the other pho dilettantes in the room did either.

I'm not a stickler for locally-raised, organic, grass-fed meat, but a growing number of carnivores have become very exacting about their meat sources, arguing the health and environmental hazards associated with eating meat should rightly be linked to the nation's massive meat industry. That's a respectable position, yet the political eaters I've known are apt to shelve their philosophy when dining in immigrant-owned restaurants.

There's a fair amount of overlap between eaters who venture into restaurants showcasing unfamiliar cuisines and eaters who think deeply about the significance of their food choices. These are eaters who care about food and its meaning. Eaters who take an ethical stand against a certain food, be it foie gras or high-fructose corn syrup, are likely to harbor deep affection for time-honored dishes that encapsulate a culture. They'll go after arepas and pad thai and injera with gusto.

And then, the disconnect: The same eaters who insist on knowing which farmer raised the pork chops on a gastropub's menu will gobble up mysteriously-sourced shrimp, chicken, beef, pork and fish at an ethnic restaurant. While surely there are principled eaters who brook no exception to their self-imposed rules, I've dined in the company of gourmands who'll implicitly excuse immigrant-owned restaurants from meeting their dietary requirements.

Perhaps they assume the entrepreneurs behind these eateries couldn't possibly afford sustainable meat and seafood - and they're probably right. But so-called "ethical meat" is costly for restaurateurs of all races: Why give one restaurant owner a pass and then gripe about another restaurant owner's reliance on Sysco? That double standard strikes me as paternalistic at best and bigoted at worst.

At the turn of the twentieth century, urban slum touring was a popular American pastime. The well-to-do would buy tickets to gape at Chinatown's opium dens and gambling parlors. They'd set aside their Protestant mores to cavort with cross-dressing dancers and sample bathtub gin.

Interestingly, scholars now view those tours as a largely positive activity that promoted social mixing and tolerance. It's still too early to know whether this latest round of locavore slumming will turn out to be merely insulting, or a means of advancing how we eat.

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