Transformative memoirs centred on travel or crisis have been in vogue in the last decade.
This food-focused debut takes a different approach. Author Berlin Reed, a 30-something American butcher, chef and blogger, offers an account of his personal growth and issues a call for revolutionary change in the food industry.
His title, The Ethical Butcher, is also the title of his blog; his aim is to connect consumers to what they eat. In this task, Reed follows with mixed success, in a tradition of books exploring the ethics of food and consumption.
He argues the profound disconnect between producer, consumer and consumed results in an unhealthy and unsustainable relationship.
Reed passionately advocates for personal consumption responsibility. He argues for the primacy of local and responsible sourcing. He sees a denial of social and ecological obligations in the modern industrialized-food system circumscribed by economic pressures.
This is reflected in animals raised under deplorable conditions, overreliance on corn- and soy-based pseudo-foods, seas treated like inexhaustible treasure troves and the land reduced to a dumping ground.
Reed catalogues a variety of travesties committed in the name of getting cheap food to market. Excessive levels of bycatch, pollution of land and water, and over-exploited stocks move him to plead for drastically reduced seafood consumption. He criticizes the green food movement, in part, as a mixture of shrewd marketing and non-existent labeling standards.
The Ethical Butcher's greatest strength is connecting large ideas and action. There can be little doubt as to his sincerity and commitment to the issues surrounding ethical butchery and consumption.
Reed dispels the notion living with a more sustainable food philosophy is expensive or time-consuming. Community food co-ops and direct consumer-farmer relationships represent important transitions.
His argument for conservation of heritage breeds through consumption is interesting if not entirely convincing, and his practice of offering inexpensive community farm-to-table meals is inspiring.
He maintains an impressive balance of respect and critique. He is consistently critical of systems while retaining an awareness and appreciation of the humanity of the individuals involved. Farmers, butchers, activists and mentors all receive generous praise. This sense of fairness makes his overall project more approachable.
But for all its strengths, The Ethical Butcher has not successfully moved on from its roots as a blog. Reed frequently contradicts himself and bounces unnecessarily between ideas. He claims to have no interest in telling the reader how or what to eat, but has written an entire book doing just that. Reed would be more effective if he avoided masking his own agenda in a veneer of polite tolerance.
His occasional potshots at vegans and vegetarians are odd. One has sympathy for his contention that withdrawing from eating animals is hardly sufficient to effect wholesale change. Yet Reed falls victim to the all-or-nothing perfectionist tendency familiar among those with an especially strong commitment to a cause.
Jarett Myskiw is a Winnipeg teacher.