19 June 2007

Why I don't eat meat

I've been a vegetarian for over five years now, although not a terribly strict one, because I eat any and all fish and seafood. I've been thinking about eating meat again, and while I've eaten a bit here and there--even trying my mom's classic sloppy joe while I was home in May (flavors of childhood! could...not...resist!)--I think not having an overwhelming desire to continue eating meat after doing so means that I shouldn't rush into it.

As part of the process, I've been mulling over how my reasons for not eating meat have evolved over these few years, covering the gamut from political reasons to personal taste to questions of health and lifestyle. Thus, when people ask me why I don't eat meat, the answer is never easy, especially (as is often the case) when I'm explaining it to Europeans and in Spanish or Catalan or French. (Although, hands down, the hardest three people to explain it to are M's grandmother and my grandparents, who live in corn-and-cattle country. M's grandmother has resigned herself to strange food requirements, as our Senegalese brother-in-law and our two nieces don't eat pork.)

While the "easiest" reason to give, and the one people most like to hear, is that I just don't "like" meat (because it absolves the interlocuter of any implied judgement), this is only partially true. I've never been a huge fan of red meat in the form of a juicy steak or ribs, and poultry is all too often a bland white canvas for real flavors (and thus can be abandoned altogether), but I've got quite a weakness for a tasty German sausage, or a flavorful pork tenderloin, or a sweet and salty baked ham. So in many ways eating vegetarian has indeed been a sacrifice, and the smells of cooked meat are often terribly tempting.

The next most commonly assumed response, especially in the US, has to do with "animal rights." Again, this is only true in part. I don't have any problem with killing animals for food, and I believe that if animals are kept in a healthy environment and killed humanely (see the work of Temple Grandin on this problem) then there is no moral obligation not to eat animals. More on this in a moment.

In actual fact, what prompted my somewhat sudden decision to eat vegetarian was the influence of my housemate at the time (I was living in Ipswich, Massachusetts), and a book she had on her bookshelf: Diet for a Small Planet, by Frances Moore Lappé. (You can find information here on the book and the organization set up by her and her daughter.)

One Sunday afternoon, at home by myself, I read the book from cover to cover, and decided then and there to stop eating meat. I remember that I even called some "vegetarian hotline" number I found online to receive information about where to begin. I think I wanted to make it official, and since no one was around, I had the urge to call someone!

At that moment, the decision was a political one, wanting to do my part in re-adjusting the huge and injust imbalance of food distribution in the world, also addressing the environmental costs of food production. To put it very very simplistically, I think it makes much more sense to use acres and acres of wheat to feed a hungry world, instead of putting all of that equivalent energy and fuel into one cow. In other words, eating vegetarian is a more efficient way to eat, especially for fat Westerners who aren't exactly lacking in alternative sources of protein.

I still wholeheartedly endorse this point of view, and support the work of the Small Planet Institute (link above). But I have to admit that I find myself wondering if my unconsumed meat really makes a dent in all of this. I wonder if eating meat that has been produced locally and organically, not as the base of my diet but as an occasional treat, would be just as effective. (Here, of course, the problem is access. It seems easier just to be "vegetarian" in order to avoid what would be perceived as a snobbish insistence on local/green meat, questioning every restaurant chef and market vendor, dinner hostess and mother-in-law who provides my meat.)

But then I go back to some of the other reasons I have for eating vegetarian, the reasons that kept me going after the initial zealous decision. First of all, after meat dropped out of my diet, I felt great! I got more slender (although, ahem, I have certainly gained it back in the intervening years!) (oh, let's be honest: it was this year), and as an added bonus, I really learned how to cook. Because the experience coincided with my first on-my-own apartment, and my first real attempts to cook for myself, I was forced to get more creative with my meals and learn how to make some excellent dishes from my housemate's vegetarian cookbooks.

And then, of course, as I found out more and more about the meat-production industry (see, for example, Fast Food Nation, and any number of exposé articles on the unhealthy practices of feed yards and slaughtering houses), I became more and more glad that I wasn't eating meat. I won't go into any more detail, but the thought of the chemicals and waste products that go into making a chicken or a cow churned my stomach. And they still do.

So if I do start to eat meat again, I will try hard to know where it comes from, and what goes into caring for and feeding the animal before it becomes "meat." This is going to take some doing, as I don't exactly live next door to a farm. And I might have to retain a "vegetarian" cover so I don't have to be quite as pesky when we are guests at someone's home. But I feel encouraged by the fact that Europe in general has stricter guidelines about meat production, and the farm-to-market system in every neighborhood promises better quality meats than the plastic-wrapped supermarket stuff.

I guess I'm a little worried that if I do start to eat meat, it will become harder and harder to maintain these standards, and I'll eventually just end up giving into my bottomless appetite and willingness to try about anything by eating whatever kind of meat is offered to me, whether it is street food or at a cocktail buffet or even--gulp!--a McDonald's sandwich. Because the irony of the self-imposed vegetarian limitation is that I am SO NOT a picky eater, and I always want to try everything. (This was then and is now the principle objection of the Mister--who, by the way, has continued to eat meat all the while. We once had the wide-eyed owner of the restaurant in Barcelona called Organic pronounce our vegetarian-carnivore matrimony true love, because she could never marry across that--in her view--immense gulf.)

Anyway, the question of more easily maintained boundaries makes me wonder if I should just stick to not eating meat. In any case, I'm sure you can see why this already long process will likely continue to be drawn out for a while, and why I'm not even sure that I will go back to the meat-eating ways of my Iowan forebears, or my Iberian--um--postbears.

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