Et Tu, Almonds? On Guilt and Eating

et-tu-almonds; an image of almonds in the shape of a heart, with an  arrow made of almonds through the center.

Well folks, it’s official. Almonds are the latest Worst Thing in the World™, thanks to the nuts’ excessive thirst in drought-ridden regions, combined with the sheer scale of industrial agriculture needed to satisfy the consumption of more than 7 billion hungry people. The news hits me hard because, like many of us, I feel guilty about eating (can I get an amen?), and I eat a lot of almonds. I love them. They’re delicious and vegan and always there for me. Learning about how harmful they are feels like betrayal. Et tu, almonds?

My journey through food guilt is not unique in the first world. I know I am not the only Gen Xer whose first foray into food purity was encountering the Smiths’ “Meat is Murder” in high school, a song replete with the sounds of saws buzzing and cows mooing. Being a rule-abiding (and insufferably self-righteous) teenager, I proceeded not only to stop eating meat but also to shame my family at every meal. My mother and I finally came to an agreement that I would eat fish “for my health” once in a while, and she made an effort to accommodate me with increased provision of legumes.

I mostly maintained my vegetarian credentials through the next decade on pasta and campus salad bars, but eventually I married a carnivore who is not only a wonderful cook (which I am not), but whose company meant I didn’t hang out with many vegetarians anymore. I became a regular meat-eater for some years … until encountering Eric Schlosser’s book Fast Food Nation, a stark reminder of meat’s horrors, not only for animals but also for workers and the environment at large. Like many others I gave up fast food, which really wasn’t that much of a sacrifice, and my beloved husband/personal chef agreed to cook only humanely raised meat. This shift led to several years of locally raised half cows and quarter cows and half pigs, until we realized that we just couldn’t reasonably eat that much meat, even with the addition of a third person in the family. And frankly we really didn’t want to eat all the parts that came with a share of an animal. (Seriously, even half a cow tongue comes in multiple large packages! Who wants to run a whole extra freezer for that?)

As it stands now, my spouse and kid eat meat while I generally avoid it, except when someone offers me hospitality with no meat-free options. But guess what? Even being vegetarian isn’t a guilt-free lifestyle, because milk products are also Just. The. Worst. The dairy industry is “devastating” in its impact on air, land, and water quality, as well as cruel to cows and chickens and dangerous for workers. I retooled my approach to food again, this time working to substitute soy and nut milks and yogurts for my old faves and trying (unsuccessfully) to wean myself from cheese. By now you know where this is going, though. Industrial soy is an environmental and economic disaster, and my family history of breast cancer makes me even more anxious about it, so I generally opt for other things: coconut yogurt, cashew milk, and almonds in every form.

Oh, almonds, how I love thee. Let me count the ways! My unusually skinny kid has a peanut allergy and concomitant food phobias, so he has survived his whole short life primarily on cow’s milk, wheat products, meat, and almond butter. In feeding him, we parents discovered that almond butter is delicious (if rightfully expensive), so we now eat it, too. We put it in our smoothies. We bake it into cookies. We smear it on pancakes. We’ve even sometimes ordered it by the case when we couldn’t find it in our local rural grocery. We also snack on whole almonds (damn you, Blue Diamond, with your tempting flavors like wasabi, or salt and vinegar!) and we use almond milk on our cereal.

But if we thought we had finally stumbled upon food righteousness by moving toward a plant-based diet, we found that we had run straight into our food folly once again. Almond farming may be kinder to our four-legged and feathered friends, but almonds apparently bear a significant share of responsibility for the world’s “beepocalypse,” since moving migrant honeybee workers around the country is “like sending bees to war.” Meanwhile, California almond farms blithely use inconceivable amounts of water despite the state’s frequent water shortages, shipping the vast majority of their product away from the region in which they are grown. One source facetiously refers to almonds as “the devil’s nut.” Even Chidi Anagonye, the ethicist on The Good Place (in a moment that confirmed him as my soul mate), blames his use of almond milk for his eternal fate: “I knew it was bad for the environment, but I loved the way it coated my tongue with a weird film.”

When the evil of almonds enters mainstream comedy, you know you’re in trouble.

So let’s review: eating meat is terrible; eating dairy is barely less terrible, and eating nuts is possibly no less terrible than that. Apparently oat milk is now the preferred option, but I’m sure it won’t be long till some new research highlights its evils as well. Am I wrong to start wondering whether eating itself is terrible?

As it turns out, I wouldn’t be alone. Food anxiety stretches least as far back as the sixteenth century, as evidenced by a passage in John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion that sees right into my soul (despite my resistance to much of his teaching). He must have known a few Genevan Chidis in his time:

“For when once the conscience is entangled in the net, it enters a long and inextricable labyrinth, from which it is afterwards most difficult to escape. When a man begins to doubt whether it is lawful for him to use linen for sheets, shirts, napkins, and handkerchiefs, he will not long be secure as to hemp, and will at last have doubts as to tow; for he will revolve in his mind whether he cannot sup without napkins, or dispense with handkerchiefs. Should he deem a daintier food unlawful, he will afterwards feel uneasy for using loafbread and common eatables, because he will think that his body might possibly be supported on a still meaner food. If he hesitates as to a more genial wine, he will scarcely drink the worst with a good conscience; at last he will not dare to touch water if more than usually sweet and pure . . . Here some must by despair be hurried into an abyss” (book 4, chapter 19).

Yes, folks, even the dour John Calvin thought it possible to be too scrupulous about food. (Then again he was French, so perhaps this is to be expected. And mmm . . . now I’m thinking about cheese again.)

When I’m entangled in the net or hurry myself into an abyss where the only things I can imagine guiltlessly eating are the dandelions that grow uninvited on my lawn (except of course that I shouldn’t have a lawn at all), my mind wanders to the Jain tradition of sallekhana—further evidence that food anxiety goes as far back as the sixth century BCE. This practice, of voluntary starving unto death, is generally intended to help dying people detach themselves from this life spiritually, before being forced to do so physically. It’s also a way to honor the primary Jain virtue of refraining from harming anyone or anything—an all-but-impossible task. Eating, as we have seen, inevitably harms someone or something, thus binding karma to oneself. True liberation comes only from eliminating karma, and because less eating generates less karma, it’s not too big a leap to see the best state as one that doesn’t involve eating at all.

I am not Jain, so it must be said that I have an impoverished interpretation of sallekhana. But I take some comfort in the fact that, for thousands of years, the most scrupulous humans have always realized the ethical bind in which we find ourselves when it comes to eating. Perhaps only in death can I completely cease to harm other beings, whether flora or fauna, and the planet on which we all rely.

But at the moment I don’t want to die. I don’t want my loved ones to die, I don’t want cows or bees to die, I don’t want farm workers to die, and I don’t want starving people to die. For that matter I don’t want forests, rivers, oceans, or grasslands to die. So what are well-intentioned, first-world people to do? For now, we may be stuck living with the least terrible options we can discern, perhaps eating just a little less of whatever we eat, or eating with as much mindfulness, compassion, and gratitude as we can muster.

Meanwhile I forgive you, my beloved almonds, for not being harmless; I am not harmless either. I will always love you, but we might need to spend just a little less time together, and I might need to support policies that go against your expansion. Still, to live is to eat, to eat is to harm, and we’re all in this together.

[Image source:]

Kate Blanchard is Charles A. Dana Professor of Religious Studies at Alma College in central Michigan. She is the author of The Protestant Ethic or the Spirit of Capitalism (Cascade, 2012) and co-author of An Introduction to Christian Environmentalism (Baylor, 2014). She has published essays in Religion Dispatches, Inside Higher Ed, and the Chronicle of Higher Education, and occasionally tweets at @BlanchardKate.