Sep 7, 2018

rethinking table fellowship

Earlier this year, I read Sunaura Taylor’s book, Beasts of Burden—wolfed it down, as it were, in a couple of days. It’s full of excellent analysis all around, linking together animal ethics and disability rights in ways I’d never considered. But it’s how she tackles Michael Pollan’s notion of “table fellowship” that has stayed with me so profoundly, and it’s this analysis that got me all the way to vegan, starting in January. You can read the book, or you can read this excellent article that pre-figures that chapter here: Vegans, Freaks, and Animals: Toward a New Table Fellowship.

In this article and chapter, Taylor sets the scene as an invited guest at the Headlands for a meal, art performance, and debate between herself and a sustainable eating expert who farms cattle. But the event itself is fraught: part of the evening takes place in an inaccessible building; Taylor and her partner are the only attendees eating a solely plant-based meal; and the room appears to be devoid of other disabled people. Taylor debates anyway, on many and multiple grounds, but it’s this seemingly small matter of table fellowship that gets to the heart of the matter for so many of us considering our ethical responsibilities around food.

As I sat in that inaccessible space at the Headlands, waiting downstairs for the debate to begin, feeling like a freak in both my body and my food choices, I thought about Michael Pollan and the numerous other writers who speak of “table fellowship,” or the connection and bonds that can be made over food. Pollan argues that this sense of fellowship is threatened if you are a vegetarian. Would I have felt more like I belonged if I had eaten a part of the steer who was fed to the guests that night? On his attempt at being a vegetarian, Pollan writes: “Other people now have to accommodate me, and I find this uncomfortable: My new dietary restrictions throw a big wrench into the basic host-guest relationship.”

Pollan feels “uncomfortable” that he now has to be “accommodated.” It is a telling privilege that this is a new experience for him. Disrupting social comfort and requesting accommodation are things disabled people confront all the time. Do we go to the restaurant our friends want to visit even though it has steps and we will have to be carried? Do we eat with a fork in our hands, versus the fork in our mouth, or no fork at all, to make ourselves more acceptable at the table—to avoid eating “like an animal”? […] For many disabled individuals, the importance of upholding a certain politeness at the dinner table is far overshadowed by something else—upholding our right to be at the dinner table, even if we make others uncomfortable.

Pollan assumes you can make it to the table in the first place. I looked around at the audience I was about to speak to and thought about those who were not at the table: people whose disabilities, race, gender, or income too often render them invisible in conversations around animal ethics and sustainability. [Jonathan] Safran Foer asks a simple question in his book Eating Animals: “How much do I value creating a socially comfortable situation, and how much do I value acting socially responsible?”

It’s this willingness to need accommodation—something my son will always need to ask for, something he can’t simply opt out of, for fear of being merely “uncomfortable”—this willingness is what I was missing. But after reading Taylor’s book, I understood. And I got there. I do wince a bit when I’m with others in a social eating situation. I had to face the fact that I loved the way I could say, upon receiving a dinner invitation: “Whatever works! I’m easy.” I’m easy—like, I won’t be a problem for you. I can choose to blend right in, never to cause a moment’s friction. I loved that status, and I had to let it go. On multiple ethical axes, eating a plant-based diet is the right choice for me. And I’m willing to receive accommodations for it.

Don’t worry—I’m not going to berate you about your food choices, in person or online. But I’ll keep recommending Taylor’s book forever.