Chocolate is a vegetarian food. It can even be vegan. It is frustrating for me to meet vegans (so many of them!) who have been denying themselves chocolate for years because they believe it has animal product in it. If it's dark chocolate, it doesn't. The only animal-derived ingredient in chocolate is milk powder, and that only in the milk variety (excepting, of course, those delicacies that incorporate meat in a more determined and glorious way, such as the Vosges bacon line, lauded a few posts back). The rest of the stuff is completely plant-based.
I find myself reminded of this today, because today we harvested a chicken. We keep a flock of chickens where I live and one of them had, for various reasons, to be culled. We made this decision a couple of days ago, and it was with no small amount of grief and moral reflection that I came to terms with it over the last 48 hours.
The chicken did not really need to die; we are not starving people, we did not have to kill it to keep ourselves alive. Culling the bird was only the most expedient option, the solution that best suited the elements of this particular case. But it was a decision that brought forth a confrontation with food, life, and morality in a way that does not happen for me very often.
We prepared for the act as thoroughly as possible and as one of my friends has killed a chicken before, we were able to do it in the most humane possible way. Afterward, we gutted the bird and prepared it for roasting and will eat it tomorrow for dinner.
As I fully expected it would, taking something from living creature all the way to cooked meat with my bare hands brought me closer to my own humanity in a very profound way. We are a meat-eating species, but only few of us (very few, in North America and Europe) are asked nowadays to have anything to do with the messy, bloody, heart-wrenching steps of looking our meat in the eye and taking its life. And yet this is a basic function of our species: locating, over-powering, and killing our food.
My emotions about the act have been very mixed, and I am still not sure whether this experience will prompt me to eat less meat. Certainly, I ordered a vegetarian burrito on my way home after clean-up (we did the killing at a friend's house). But I think, once my feelings shake themselves out a little more and after I sit down to dinner tomorrow night, that I will feel, more than anything, a sense of gratitude.
Gratitude to that chicken for its life: a life that, I can attest, was lived fully and with the carefree abandon of poultry, who seem to know only food, water, and the joyous destruction of delicate garden plants, along with the tender, nestling act of egg-laying. I feel grateful that chickens exist and that I am privileged to not only bear witness to, but also to be a contributing part of their everyday lives.
A lot of the time I find them frustrating, but they can be funny and endearing too. A few weeks ago I cleaned out my fridge and gave the chickens an old jar of fig jam. I watched as they first scooped up the jam in their beaks and then immediately trod in it, their jam-covered claws collecting a thick shoe of dirt, hay, sticks and leaves as they proceeded to run around the yard. They are terribly stupid, chickens, but they make me laugh, they are a source of liveliness here in our garden. I am glad to know them. I have also been very glad to eat them.
So I feel most of all grateful that I was able to help make the last moments of this particular chicken's life as honorable, painless, and dignified as possible. Her life meant something to me, and so her death meant something to me, too. I can think of no other animal I have consumed whose life was meaningful to me. That was a significant realization.
But what of plants? Moral questions become obvious and magnified when we are killing an animal for food. But the consumption of plants, Theobroma cacao among them, doesn't push us into that same moral bind, raising questions of the relative value of life. Or does it?
For me, chocolate does bring up issues of right and wrong, good and bad, luxury consumption versus necessity. It is a question of life, though not necessarily the life of the tree.
Before today's event, chocolate was the only food I had been so intimately involved with from start to finish. I have been to origins. I have seen the trees, felt them, embraced them even, broken open pods like eggshells, taken the seed and fermented it, dried it, rendered it dead and infertile, journeyed with it to the factory where it lost all original shape and form, became something processed and smooth and sweet, not rough and messy and bitter.
I know the plant as cocoa and as chocolate. Much as I knew this chicken as a living animal, and then as a set of skin-covered breasts and thighs (which, quite frankly, looked a lot more to me like chicken than when it was dead, but with its head, feathers, and feet still attached).
I have looked cocoa farmers in the eye, many of them, and heard their pleas for help - of any kind - because the suffering caused by their material poverty was great indeed. I have seen men and women trying to live out their dreams through cocoa, or doing all that they could to get away from cocoa, because they knew it would fail them in the end. I have seen people who have made passable livings from beans and great fortunes from chocolate. And I have met even more who love chocolate passionately, and who have no idea of the grief and labor and dead dreams that it can represent.
The more time passes that I have been away from Africa and Asia, the two places where I have spent the most time with cocoa, the more I lose sight of that. The easier it is for me to feel less gratitude - for the tree itself and for those who grow and transport and process its issue. Gratitude for all the life that lies within the bar in my hands.
Today's experience with the chicken reminded me forcefully that gratitude must be a part of my consumption - not just of the things that I harvest or kill or grow myself, but of all the foods that I eat. For in each morsel there is a universe of life, and however we choose to honor it - by eating it or not - life is something to be grateful for.