I had never been much of a meat eater. I remember, as a child, sitting at the dinner table, chewing endlessly on a single bite of steak. I am sure that, to anyone who happened to be watching, I probably appeared very much like the cow I was trying to consume, unable to sufficiently break it down into pieces that could be swallowed and digested. With continued chewing, it eventually lost all flavor of the seasoning or smoke from the bbq, and began to taste and feel like the thing it really was, like I was chewing on animal flesh. Since I would not be allowed to leave the table until finishing my meal, I would often try to surreptitiously spit pieces out into my napkin when no one was looking, or ask to be excused to the bathroom where I would discard the contents of my mouth into the toilet. Though I was terrified of dogs in my younger years, I remember wishing on countless evenings that we had one.
Several years later, my orthodontist discovered that I had a problem with the alignment of my teeth that made breaking down food, meat in particular, extremely difficult. But like most children of the 1970s and 1980s, I was taught by my well-intentioned parents that meat was an essential part of a healthy diet. In the conservative small town where I grew up, vegetarianism was almost unheard of, and was difficult to maintain outside of one’s own home kitchen, without eating lots and lots of salad or the occasional slice of pizza. I learned to prefer the softer varieties of meat such as hamburger or sliced deli meat, which not only tasted and felt less like the animal it came from, but looked a lot less like it too. With no bones, skin, or shape of the original animal, it was easier to forget about what I was eating or from where it had come.
Fast forwarding to my college years, I left my small east coast town for the University of California, Berkeley. The fruit and vegetable bounty of the California farming valleys was accessible and affordable, there were vegetarian options on every menu, and no host batted an eyelash if I requested a vegetarian meal. Suddenly, I was introduced to whole new way of thinking about food, and countless vegetarians of all stripes and persuasions. In the politically and socially charged atmosphere, for which Berkeley is best known, people gave up meat-eating for reasons of politics, environmental protection, animal protection, and health. Though my own initial reasoning was far more personal, over time I began to adopt a more political and environmental stance, and found a supportive environment for finally giving up meat once and for all. I assumed I would never look back.
One day, towards the end of my time in Berkeley, I was chatting on the phone with a friend that I had only known to be a committed vegetarian, as he rummaged through his nearly empty fridge and freezer looking for something to eat. “Elk sausage!,” he exclaimed excitedly. I laughed. He didn’t.
“No, I’m serious,” he said, and went on to explain that he did occasionally eat meat, but only if that meat had come from an animal killed by him or a member of his family. As it turns out, he was not opposed to the eating of meat, nor the slaughtering of animals for food, but rather the disconnection of so many Americans from the process of killing an animal for meat. Perhaps more importantly, he was highly critical of the way that most meat in this country is produced, and the fact that most Americans had no idea what this process actually involves. In other words, he had not sworn off meat, but rather meat raised and slaughtered in the horrid conditions of industrial farms and processing factories (known as CAFOs, Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations), then wrapped in Styrofoam and plastic wrap, clean and neatly presented in the refrigerated cases of every American grocery store.
Recently, I’ve had an odd obsession with the proliferation of reality television shows depicting homesteaders and subsistence hunters living on the last frontier of Alaska or rural Appalachia. These individuals rely heavily on the resource of wild game to feed and sustain them through the long months of cold, dark winter. There is a brief warning before the shows begin that some hunting scenes are quite graphic and not appropriate for all viewers. Even as someone who is pretty squeamish, I will be the first to say that on the whole, I have not seen anything particularly brutal or unnecessarily violent, but rather quite the opposite—a sensitivity to the act of killing an animal. I was struck by the number of times I witnessed them taking a moment to acknowledge the fact that they had taken a life, and thanked the animal for providing much needed sustenance for them and their families. I have been impressed by the thoughtfulness displayed by these hunters as they reflect on the sadness of having taken a life, but also the gratitude they feel for the ability to feed their families.
Heavily influenced by books such as Diet for a Small Planet (Moore Lappe, 1971), and countless media articles explaining how many natural resources can be conserved by vegetarianism, I felt convinced that meat was an unnecessary indulgence that was slowly depleting our planet. Yet, after watching the above-mentioned television shows, and re-reading a few chapters that I recalled from Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (2007), I have begun to reconsider that stance. Kingsolver argues, quite convincingly, that there are cases in which meat is the more sustainable and responsible food option.
For example, in remote locations, particularly those with a short growing season, such as Alaska, it would be difficult to grow or gather enough vegetable resources to sustain a family through the winter. Moreover, these subsistence hunters are not eating neatly butchered and packaged meat, which had been raised in inhumane conditions. These are animals are a wild resource from the local environment, to which these hunters feel intimately connected. Likewise, as in the case of Kingsolver’s family farm, they are harvesting animals raised in a healthy, free-range environment. Up until the moment they are slaughtered—which, let’s face it, is the reason they were raised in the first place—they were living the good life. In the words of many committed, activist farmers, the animals raised on their farms “only have one (really) bad day!” When raised in a humane, sustainable manner, these animals too, can be seen as a more responsible option than trucking in tofu or other vegetarian proteins.
Never in a million years did I think that my first article on vegetarianism would actually advocate for eating meat! But, to be clear, this is not just an unfettered stamp of approval. Rather, it is a more complex way of looking at food from animals, and an acknowledgement that the issue is not black and white, as few issues really are. It is something that requires a more nuanced perspective.