Opting Out

In retrospect, maybe April 1st wasn't the best day to notify my friends that I was "giving up meat". It was an announcement met with skepticism, suspicion, and downright fear. (People seem to fear zombies, who consume human flesh, as much as humans who choose not to eat the flesh of other animals.) It's hardly a day to announce anything of a serious nature, but that was exactly the point. I didn't plan on the timing, it just worked out that way.
 
My friends had always (and only) known me as a devout and fairly boisterous carnivore. The self-justifying mantra of "If the universe didn't want us to eat animals, why did it make them so tasty?” actually made sense at the time. Who are we to argue or question Mother Nature? While I've never been one to tuck into a 32-ounce Porterhouse steak (and, frankly, those who do are frightening to me), I've certainly enjoyed my share of animals as a main course or side dish. Odds were good that some unsuspecting creature would play either a starring or supporting role in nearly every single meal I consumed. I didn't quite grasp the frequency and quantity of my animal consumption until I omitted it entirely.
 
This challenge of giving up meat is at least two-fold; the first is that it goes against everything I've always known and believed from a food perspective. Every one of my rants against vegetarians (and their dark overlords, the vegans) must now be tempered or attributed to my ignorance at the time.

The second challenge is giving up all of those delicious, primal dishes that are only possible with an unfortunate and ultimate sacrifice on the part of an animal. How can I possibly transition from animal consumption into a world where I wonder if butter is such a great idea? Regardless of my success or failure (and the struggle to define what those words even mean in this context), this is a test of self-discipline; something at which I've never been particularly good.

Like most people, my carnivorous tendencies were borne more out of tradition than choice. The first thing humans consume is arguably non-vegan (though offered up quite willingly by the mother that provides it). Beyond infancy, we consume whatever our parents give us (though some offerings are met with more enthusiasm than others). We don't really know what we're being offered, where it came from, or whether or not it's good for us. What you eat when you're young defines what you consider food for the rest of your life. Children in Japan eat sushi, tripe in France, haggis in Scotland, and children all over the world eat insects. People wouldn't think of eating a cow in parts of India any more than people in the U.S. would think of eating a Labrador Retriever. (More on that in a bit.) Childhood food decisions are made primarily with our senses; if we don't like the flavor, smell, or even texture of something, we won't eat it.

To suddenly omit meat from a diet is both a challenge and an opportunity. I now truly need to plan how I'm going to cook a meal from beginning to end knowing I can't just throw a dash of bacon fat on greens to "fix" them. It's also a challenge to my friends, some of whom are no doubt reading this right now. Responses have ranged anywhere from "Wow, okay. Cool." to a full-on "Explain yourself, man!"

I do have a few ground rules for this foray into meatlessdom:

1. I am not "a vegetarian". The "a" is included in the quotes for a reason. I may be vegetarian in behavior and preference, but I am not "a vegetarian". The term will always conjure up visions of tie-dye shirts, dreadlocks, crystals, and endless yoga. Until "meatlessarian" catches on, I have no other word to use. I did discover "flexitarian" but that just sounds like "hypocrite" with "-ian" at the end.

Nor am I vegan, but that should be obvious by now. Vegans aim to tread so lightly on the earth, they don't seem to be part of it. It's a lofty goal to not even mildly inconvenience an animal. Consensus seems to be that, if a cow could eat humans, it would. Given the working conditions some humans endure in Chinese factories, I think sheep being sheared for their wool is a pretty decent lifestyle. 99% of the time, you graze on grass and stare at the horizon, 1% of the time you get rounded up and held down for a rough haircut. (What happens to them after they retire from wool making is a whole other discussion.)

2. I'm not repulsed or offended if I consume an animal product. After 4 decades, I can hardly claim repulsion. I still "get" the appeal of meat. I happen to like Clamato and it took me a few weeks to make the connection. French Onion Soup was another. Yes, there are onions in it, but they're technically swimming in liquid steak.

3. I don't want vegetable knock-offs of meat dishes. I don't need "Tofurkey", I don't want vegan "cheese" (which is one of the worst things I've ever attempted to ingest.) As any self-respecting chef can tell you, there is plenty to explore in the vegetable world without "Bakon®".

4. I'll eat eggs, but prefer to see the farm generating them. The conditions under which most eggs are produced rivals the disturbing, cramped, dark - albeit brief - life of veal.

5. I now generally drink soy or almond milk with cereal but cheese is non-negotiable. It's one of the top reasons I've found to be alive. A friend of mine developed anosmia (complete loss of her sense of taste and smell) from a rollerblading accident. Her biggest regret was that she could no longer truly enjoy cheese. If there's one thing that might shorten my life but make me love it more while I'm here and is relatively light on environmental impact, this is it.

I do miss steak and pork meatballs, but there are some things I won't miss:


Chicken

For all the potential found in a well-roasted chicken at a restaurant like Zuni in San Francisco, far more common is bland, generic variations. When it's good, it's really good. 99% of the time, it's not. When it isn't raised right, fed right, handled right, or prepared right, it's about as flavorful as a seat belt. When has anyone ever said, "Wow, this chicken I added to my Caesar Salad for a mere $6.00 extra is amazing!" Never, that's when. We don't consume "a chicken" we consume "chicken." It's no longer an animal, it's a substance; "a protein". It's often "grilled" (scorched with lines) to make you think you're getting something worth the extra price. It never is.


Turkey

Good riddance. I know, it's tradition but turkey feels like a joke we fall for every year. At Thanksgiving and/or Christmas, forgetfulness leads us once again to huddle around a mutated and mutilated animal for all the flavor of foam packing peanuts. No one I'm aware of ever says “Hey, let's make a turkey and some of mom's fruit cocktail Jello molds topped with Cool Whip for dinner” in June.

People inevitably ask about “the” reason I gave up meat. There isn't one reason, there are about nine. I've already learned that making any health-related arguments means quickly being discounted by other complicated research results (I'm not looking to live to be 90 anyway) and when environmental impact is mentioned, it inevitably leads to discussions about global warming, so the debate turns political. The health and environmental information on raising and consuming animals is out there and most people search for something to confirm what they wanted to hear in the first place. The one aspect few people are willing debate is the lives of the animals themselves. It generally takes the form of "I don't want to know."

It's important to make a distinction here; I'm not talking about their death (they, like us, are going to die anyway), I'm referring to their life prior to death.

Humans are not unique in the world of animal consumption; mother nature seems to almost have a "policy". There is no shortage of one animal eating another. In fact, it's an arrangement created long before we even existed. However, we are somewhat unique in our ability to feel sympathy and apparently the only to feel empathy toward other species. Dolphins and several primates seem to come pretty close.

I remember watching a nature show when I was young. A baby “deer” of some kind (they all looked like “deer” to me) had been noticed by a lion. I was panicking. There was clearly a camera crew there, why didn't someone intervene? They could have either shot the lion (a hypocritical solution in retrospect) or at least chased it away. I couldn't yet comprehend that some variation of this scenario was playing out all over the world; on land, under ground, and in the ocean, from the microscopic to the massive. The loss of one baby "deer" meant that 3-4 lion cubs, as well as their mother, could eat. And it meant that one inattentive parent had one fewer instance of genes to pass along. Natural selection is neither a pretty or a perfect mechanism, and certainly an unforgiving one.

There began my justification for being a carnivore. We didn't make the rules, we just play by them. Some animals seem almost destined to be eaten. Minnows, for example, are born in massive numbers and crowd together in a vain effort to appear as a single, larger animal for protection. Unfortunately for them, plenty of other animals have figured out this disguise and charge through those swarms, mouths open, until there are too few to worry about. The lucky ones that do survive go on to produce the next batch.

By this rationale, why can't cows be “destined” to be eaten? The food chain put us one link above them (the number of people slaughtered by cows - or any other animal for that matter - is extremely small compared to the inverse. Mosquitos come the closest.) In the same way Mother Nature creates lots of extra minnows to feed other fish, humans cultivate cows to feed ourselves and our pets. We raise one type of animal to feed to another.

We seem content to eat a cow or a pig, but cringe at the thought of eating dog or a cat. (In my case, more the former than the latter.) Apart from their size, those that have had both pigs and dogs as pets can tell you they're not radically different animals. The irony, as Jonathan Safran Foer points out, is that we are forced to kill millions of dogs and cats every year and not a single one of them is eaten. In other words, we view the humane euthanasia of animals we consider pets as an unfortunate necessity, but to use the resulting carcass to feed starving humans seems unthinkable. The emotional attachment is difficult to sever. Therefore, we raise and slaughter “different” animals. Sadly for the animals we consume, the humane methods used to euthanize cats and dogs is comparatively expensive and renders the meat poisonous. The animals we eat are dispatched with far less care in a sloppy and error-prone process.

In between pets and "livestock", there are plenty of animals that offer a challenge to consumption. Bison is a good example. Few people have them as pets so they can more readily be considered food, but it's not an instant sell. Rabbit also seems to be a tricky one. El Bulli in Spain served a course of fried rabbit ears. While I assume most people managed to eat them, but I doubt many did so without a moment of hesitation. Apart from kitten whiskers, they are perhaps the most iconic of all cute animal parts.

I remember cringing in horror when I learned that Alaskans still hunt whales. The largest of the United States still hunts whales. So does Japan under the guise of "scientific research". Discussing the condemnation of whale slaughter over a steak dinner just wouldn't work any more; the cognitive dissonance was as relentless as it was impossible to ignore. People have the right to hold on to their cultural heritage, but whales don't need to pay the price for it. The earth deserves to keep whales and the whales deserve to be left alone. It's curious that, in those cultures, they make allowances for running shoes and cell phones which smack of modernization and an utter divorce from their heritage. Their daily lives can evolve; so too can their traditions. Most of us consume meat out of tradition or habit, not necessity. In fact, we now consume meat on a scale that rarely requires us waiting more than 22 seconds at a drive-thru window.

Not one aspect of large-scale farming and processing resembles what mother nature had in mind. The horror stories of a slaughterhouse “kill floor” make a serial killer novel read like “Finding Nemo”. (If you want a sobering read, read “Eating Animals” - www.eatinganimals.com) The very process by which an animal can be “harvested” humanely is at odds with their profitability. They're essentially born into concentration camps, modified (castrated, debeaked, branded, etc.) without anesthetic, live in conditions in which they can barely breathe or move, never see sunlight much less a field, and during the process of slaughter, are treated in horrible, horrible ways. As for their demise, mother nature doesn't have many graceful ways for animals of most any type to depart. That arrangement is made even more awkward by death being mandatory. Hence, the death of an animal at the hands of humans is hardly the issue; with or without us, they're going to die. Given the multitude of options, a rather firm smack on the skull (to put it lightly) and a nick to an artery makes for an unfortunate, but comparatively quick, exit – when it's done correctly; and plenty of times, it's not. From the moment every factory-farmed animal is born, until their heart stops, they basically live in hell.

And they did nothing to deserve it. Nothing.

Being inherently social animals, pigs have been known to nuzzle workers on a kill floor, obviously having no idea what's about to happen to them. This is, of course, an abbreviated version. Most people think they have a "general idea" of what goes on in a slaughterhouse.

No you fucking don't.

It's easy to be concerned, but hard to get angry, at climate change. It's easy to feel unsettled, but difficult to feel rage at nitrogen levels increasing in streams. What we do to animals simply makes my blood boil.

However, I fully recognize that my giving up meat will never prevent the slaughter of a single animal.  Not one. The same number will be killed today and every day. No less petroleum is consumed, no less drinking water is sprayed on crops or given to the animals, the same amount of fertilizer is used and runs into the same bad places, the same amount of hormones are administered, and so on. Everything is basically the same, the overall state of the universe is unchanged by my "opting out". I simply can't be part of it any more. Learning has made me give up meat. And that is saying something.

Comments

Bret Waters said…
I am a hypocrite: I eat animals but only if I don't have to kill them myself. One of the benefits of living in the First World is that we're completely insulated from where food comes from - we get to just buy and enjoy meat as a packaged consumer product. No fuss, no muss.

A few years ago there were animal rights protests over the fact that some grocery stores in Chinatown sold ducks that were still alive. In fact, I think the animal rights advocates should be *in favor* of selling food animals this way. If families had to take their dinner home and kill it before eating it, they'd at least be connected to the ethics of their choice.

I don't think I'm going to give up meat. I like it, and I'm comfortable with that. But it bothers me when people chow-down on hamburgers while decrying the killing of baby seals (the only possible rationale being that "cuteness" is the standard we should use when deciding which animals should live and which should die).

So good for you, Daniel Brown, for making a well thought-through, reasoned choice. It's more than most people do.
R-Co said…
"A dog's got personality. Personality goes a long way."

I'm not quoting Pulp Fiction to be funny (although it kinda is), but to confirm what you and Bret pointed out. We humans are good at ignoring what we don't want to know, and rationalizing what we do know but would rather not. We can't see an animal that is a pet and part of our family as food but it's easy to consider an animal that's one of thousands in an anonymous herd somewhere as such. Is it right? Maybe not. But we're good at looking the other way and getting on with our lives. Maybe that's a kind of survival instinct.

Human beings do so many deplorable things, not just to animals, but to each other and to the Earth. Sadly, that's not going to change. It's easy to ignore what's being done to other humans in Darfur and other parts of the world until we see an ad on TV asking for money to help. Then some of us throw in a few bucks to try and assuage some of our guilt. We say "that's terrible. Someone should do something about that." And go right back to eating our dinner.

I applaud and respect your decision.
Hey Daniel -

I suppose I should say "welcome to the dark side" or something like that :). Seriously, congratulations on having the courage to listen to your conscience. That is the hardest part of so many decisions. We know inherently what our conscience is telling us to do, but we fight it off for any number of reasons. God knows I do in plenty of areas. Well written piece, too. Thanks for sharing it with me.
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