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Monday, November 14, 2011

Applied Food Ethics at Joseon Village

Vegetarians, myself included, often think they have the market cornered when it comes to eating ethical. Killing is bad, causing suffering is bad, and being selfish is bad, so the less meat you eat, the better, end of story. While I do think that for the most part these premises are correct, and that the world would be a better place if everyone tried to keep such principles in mind while making decisions about food, much of my reading and living over the past two years has complicated my notions about what I ought to be eating. My experience at Joseon Village was no exception.

Joseon is the name of the dynasty that ruled over the Korean peninsula – North and South – between the end of the fourteenth and nineteenth centuries. To quote from wikipedia, “The Joseon's rule has left a substantial legacy on the modern face of Korea; much of modern Korean etiquette, cultural norms, societal attitudes towards current issues, and even the modern Korean language and its dialects stem from the traditional thought patterns that originated from this period.” Andy was right on, then, when in his article about the traditional heating systems at Joseon Village he said that he felt we had been sent back in time.

Our bedrooms

We turned in pretty early the first night, having gorged ourselves for most of the day, so I woke up early, determined to explore and get in some good photos before our whirlwind food tour recommenced. As I ambled around, I made an effort to take in all the sights, sounds, and textures of the place. Maybe it's the lack of cars zooming around, or maybe it's the fact that there are no buildings so tall that I couldn't have climbed with my own bare hands; something about Joseon Village feels distinctly human. Things are small and simple: a rabbit hutch with ten inhabitants here, a stable with two cows there, a few chicken coops, some peppers out to dry, pots of fermenting vegetables and sauces. Tall trees, huge rice paddies - everything that's big is also natural, inspiring a sense calm awe and proper proportion. The TV camera guy started following me around, taking footage of me taking pictures of just about everything. He asked me how I felt, and I told him it was nice not to be surrounded by asphalt, concrete, plastic, and glass.

Still full from the previous day's escapades, we snacked lightly on apples, persimmons, and mandarins for breakfast, then got on with the day's work. The first stop was the kitchen, where we observed and helped out a bit with the process of making tofu (details in a separate post). Then we took a stroll and got to do a little hands-on work with perilla, one of my favorite substances on the planet (details also in a separate post). Next came perhaps the most intense experience of the tour, when the five of us told the crew that we wanted to be the ones to kill the chicken that would be prepared for our lunch.

This was the first experiment in food ethics. It's easy to say that we do or don't have the right to kill animals, but it's much harder to do look the issue in the face. Being present at, and being involved in, the moment of slaughter gives you a much truer connection to the feeling and meaning of the act, and furthers your insight into the questions of whether and under what circumstances the taking of innocent life may be justified. Greg, a former vegan and current "there's-no-name-for-this-but-I-try-to-consider-the-effects-of-all-my-food-choices," was the one who snapped the generous bird's neck. His thoughts and impressions can be found here.

After the kill, we dunked the chicken's lifeless body into hot water, swished it around for a minute or two, then pulled it out, plucked it, chopped off the feet and head, removed the organs, and sent it over to the kitchen to be made into Dakdoritang (Greg's post here), chicken soup in a spicy broth loaded with red pepper flakes, potatoes, onions, and other vegetables. We also had Baeksuk (Andy's post here), a milder chicken soup with a few more herbs, and a nice assortment of side dishes.

The highlight for me, though, was that I had the good fortune to sit down across to the owner/philosopher regent of the village, whom I had been thinking all day was just an eccentric who liked to pace around wearing odd hats.

I had had a funny, if tense, conversation with him earlier in the morning. As he walked by the five of us and our translator hanging out and messing around with tofu, we greeted him. Hoping to make a joke at our expense, he said, in Korean "You're in Korea now, you ought to be speaking our language." To which I replied, nonchalantly "OK, not a problem for me." He cracked a big smile, gave me an enthusiastic hand shake, asked me how I had gotten so good, and invited me to come back anytime.

We went our own separate ways for a while - that conversation actually took place before the chicken slaughter - but we started chatting a bit again when he sat down at the table. I asked if they grew all the food nearby, and he said of course, that he and a team of about eight others, including his wife, took care of it all. Then, thinking back to the time when I lived in a similar eco-village in India where we composted all our (human) waste, I asked him about the toilet system in his village. Somehow this really set him off (in a good way): he mentioned how they used to have a traditional composting system, where you just do your business into a big pit, but that city people weren't careful enough, and kept dropping their keys and cell phones in and demanding the staff go get it. They also apparently used to draw their water from a well, but the younger guests often took to dropping stuff in and ruining it for everybody. It also seemed to me that he mentioned something about someone committing suicide, but he was on such a roll that I couldn't stop and ask him for clarification. He continued, complaining that they used to serve real traditional Korean food, with different spices and with kimchi over a foot in length. In the old days, people would have stuffed the whole thing into their mouths; now, though, they want it cut up into bite-size pieces before it's plated. A lot of guests in the village even bring in their own snacks and ramen; if the The Chief (his name is written in Chinese characters on the business card, but I can't read it) sees them, he kicks them out, saying they clearly don't know how to appreciate his village. What a guy!

That was just the beginning. He went on to explain why he thinks that our general lack of appreciation for is a serious problem. Up until recently, most people spent a significant portion of their time working with food, either by sowing, harvesting, hunting, preserving, or preparing. Household relationships were also culinary ones; men, women, and children would each have their separate roles, and would work together towards the common goal of feeding one another. It was the man's responsibility to provide the food, the woman's responsibility to cook it, and the kids' responsibility to do whatever they could. This may sound a little sexist, but The Chief insisted that the system of obligations was mutual, and that different roles didn't mean different statuses. True, women were expected to cook; but, by the same token, men were required to return home to eat. Not eating a meal that had been cooked for you was as great a sin as not preparing a meal for your family in the first place. If a man missed a meal and wound up eating leftovers and complaining that they didn't taste great, shame on him for failing to place appropriate value on his wife's work and on the food itself. If a man was strong and wealthy, and his children in good health, then all credit would go to the woman, who was clearly feeding them well (in addition to all the other work she would have been doing to maintain the household).

This was all very interesting to my modern ears. I do have a few reservations about what he said. In particular, I doubt that men and women really need so many pre-defined expectations and set-in-stone rules in order to cooperate, and I wish that I had had the opportunity to talk to my two female teammates about the guy's speech. Still, every day I think about the ethical and environmental implications of what I eat and where it came from, but I find it harder to keep in mind that there's a whole 'nother dimension to the story, which The Chief got me thinking abotu: that my food choices and eating habits affect my family, my community, and spiraling outwards, my society as a whole.

Now, in our age of instant noodles and microwave pizzas and canned beverages, all of which are pumped full unpronounceable ingredients combined in factories using processes we can't imagine, from plants picked and planted by we don't know who, how is it possible to be authentically, deeply grateful for your food? Who can you look in the eyes and thank? Who can teach you the history and the meaning of what you eat? How much other knowledge is left for parents to pass down to their kids? And what pretext can bring the family together repeatedly, day after day, year after year? We often think that we're saving time, effort, and money when we pay others to do the majority of our food work. We're often right. But we also pay for this convenience with our health, with the health of our relationships, and with the health of our environment. I don't know what the answer is, exactly (edit: there's surely more than one answer), but I'm glad to have been given a chance to continue looking for it.

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