When I was fifteen I stopped eating red meat – actually, any meat except poultry and seafood. This wasn’t a huge change: my parents never really cooked it anyway, and because I hadn’t grown up eating things like beef burgers and steaks and lamb legs, I had no attachment to them. (I did miss bacon, but unless you’re actively in the state of eating it, everyone misses bacon.)
Then, just before I turned eighteen, when I moved to Ann Arbor and started college, I became a complete vegetarian. This was mostly because I knew it to be the more sustainable and environmentally-friendly route, but was definitely inspired by the guy I was dating at the time, Matt, who is still one of my best friends. I feel there is a stigma against making such big decisions because of someone else’s influence, but every decision’s a reaction in some way to outside forces. Why is it a bad thing if the outside force is the inspiration of a person you know and respect?
This means I’ve technically been a vegetarian for about eight and a half years, which is also almost exactly a third of my life. I think of it as a piece of my identity now. But it’s always been something I’ve thought a lot about – and, of course, had to frequently explain to others. Sometimes it makes me overtly proud and puffed-up feeling (like the worst stereotypes of vegetarians). Sometimes it feels silly and contrived. Sometimes it’s a quiet fact about myself that matters no more than the fact that I have long hair or grew up in Michigan. And always I keep working on my reasons why. It’s a big decision, to make a stark rule about an activity you do multiple times a day, every day. And I realized today, in the midst of a period where I’m more “flexitarian” than I’ve been since high school, that I’ve never written about it, even though I write all the time. So here are some musings.
Truthfully, I’ve actually eaten meat several times in the past eight years. I should say that right off the bat. I’ve always had my exceptions, the big ones being, 1) if you are on vacation to a wholly foreign place, you should immerse yourself, learn new things, and at least try the local dishes, even if they have meat in them; and 2) if someone surprises you with a home-cooked meal and it happens to be all meat-based, suck it up and be a kind guest; and, more recently added, 3) if an animal was wild and then I or someone I knew, killed it, prepared it, and served it, I would eat it and feel a happy part of the food chain. (So far this has happened with fish, venison, and wild boar.) I suppose there is also a rule 4) if I am ever stranded somewhere and literally the only available food is meat and it’s that or perish, eat the effing meat, but that one hasn’t come up yet.
My reasons for not eating meat have always been a little bit hard for me to explain. I definitely like meat. I think it is delicious. And it’s not because I just love animals so much or find it inherently wrong to eat them; animals eat other animals, and there is nothing wrong with that. I’m not pissed at a cat for eating a baby bunny. It’s nature, and humans are omnivores.
The biggest reason, really, is that I don’t like the way people eat meat in America today. (And I apologize for how pretentious that sounds.) Clearly lots of people talk about this; it’s not some brilliant realization I’ve come to uniquely. Americans eat a shit ton of meat. Most of our meat comes from giant, pretty disgusting, pretty cruel factory farms, and all of our meat is killed and processed in giant, disgusting slaughterhouses and processing plants (if it’s sold commercially, that’s where it came from.) All of these animals consume a hell of a lot of food and water, and produce loads of waste. The system is inefficient, dirty, takes up a lot of space, and produces a lot of greenhouse gases. Compared to eating low on the food chain and consuming nutrient-rich vegetables and grains and so forth, eating a lot of meat is a really energy-inefficient way to eat. There is math to look at: energy is lost as sunlight is turned into grain, and energy is lost again as that grain is turned into cow flesh, and energy is lost again when cow flesh is turned into human flesh.
I am also not a fan of the intense hypocrisy of how everybody eats meat. I have this memory from high school of this guy Drew, who was already a vegetarian then, explaining why he didn’t eat meat. He didn’t think he’d have the guts to kill a cow or pig or even a chicken himself, directly, and thus felt that eating animals (that he’d had someone else kill behind closed doors) was a terrible kind of hypocrisy. I’m not sure if I’m even remembering his words correctly, but the message has stuck with me. How ridiculous is that, this complete separation we have today from the things we eat? How is it ethical to sit down to a meal of something that was recently alive and capable of feeling pain and making at least rudimentary decisions if we don’t even have the guts to look it in the eye, give it a quiet thanks, and chop its head off? If we make someone else, or some machine, do that, and then label it ‘beef’ or ‘pork’ and dip it in breadcrumbs?
Whenever I start explaining my reasons for being a vegetarian to someone who has asked, usually someone who is just beginning their meal of a juicy burger, I always feel guilty for making them feel bad. But it’s not some big secret that your burger was recently a living cow, and it’s also pretty universally known, at this point, that it probably came from a large factory farm dumping waste into holding tanks and sucking up corn for feed. It’s just that everyone chooses not to think about it very much.
For a long time, I was pretty cold turkey (is that a pun?) about my meat-eating, with the exception of the first two rules above (and #4, I guess.) Then I added #3. Over the past several months, I’ve been questioning things anew. I think there is a right and decent way to eat animals: to be conscious of the whole animal and its life, to eat meat sparingly and infrequently, to come to terms with the fact that we are omnivores, part of the web of life, and that death is necessary for others’ life. In ‘An Everlasting Meal,’ Tamar Adler quotes Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall:
It seems obvious to me that the morality of meat eating lies in the factual details of our relationships with the animals we kill for food. It is what we do to them that counts.
I wish it were easier, in this time and country, to kill and prepare animals yourself even if you live in a city, or at least to find meat that you could be sure of the history of. As it is, I’m starting to realize that one of things I like about calling myself a vegetarian is one of the things that for awhile I didn’t like: that, every time it comes up, there is a moment of opportunity to broach these issues and to have a philosophical discussion about food, and the morality of meat, and the circle of life, and what it feels like to take a life (which I have personally only done with fish and arthropods), and climate change, and open land, and the pleasure of picking meat directly off a bone, and tradition, and cultural heritage, and health, and all of the other things that we should think about and talk about in conjunction with food. My vegetarianism is a conversation starter – and it’s a very, very important conversation.