For 15 years of my life I was a strict vegetarian, abiding by some vague notions centered around animal cruelty. Then, one night, about 12 years ago, sitting at one of Suzanne Goin’s restaurants, I saw a plate of jamon serrano whizzing by and I simply had to have it. Under the astonished eyes of my friends, I devoured the entire thing without batting an eyelid. And never looked back.
What I know now about nutrition is a lot more informed than what I knew then. I was a perpetually anemic vegetarian because I was paying little attention to what kind of protein, if at all, I was ingesting. Needless to say, as soon as I resumed eating meat, I felt generally more energetic and was never plagued by anemia again. My meat consumption is no more than once a week: not a big fan of beef, I will eat poultry, game and pork but my very personal guidelines have been evolving and, after a 8 year stint in the food industry which forced me to look up close at how animals are raised and butchered, I have come full circle and I am now struggling again with the moral issue of eating meat.
Setting aside for a moment the environmental implications involved in transporting meat and the ozone-killing methane gas emitted by the millions of cattle bred for our voracious demand of beef, the quality of the meat we mostly purchase and cook (or are being fed) is what first raised my concerns. The increased resistance humans have developed to antibiotics is in large part to be blamed on the antibiotics being injected onto animals to prevent diseases in cramped and unsanitary conditions. And what to say of the hormones pumped into poultry and cows to deliver abnormally plump breasts and steaks to a public that has come to expect such extra-sized (and flavorless) cuts?
Not long ago, when purchasing a chicken at a Farmer’s Market, the farmer half apologized for the 3 pound bird – as opposed to the standard 5. But, having spent endless summers playing in the chicken coop with the nearby farmers’ kids and having seen chickens routinely butchered, I actually appreciated holding a chicken that looked surprisingly normal (not to mention it was juicy and delicious).
And then, there is the killing. Cows are shot in the head, as they advance through a maze-like structure that prevents them from seeing what is happening ahead, and sometimes don’t die and are still alive while being skinned. Chickens are hung upside down, on a conveyor belt system that pairs water and electrocution. I won’t horrify you with details we have all heard or read about. Still, as we swoon over our pets as if they were family members, we have no compunction in reaching for a sanitized and harmless looking piece of packaged meat. How do we reconcile such opposite behaviours? If we do believe animals have feelings and some kind of thought process, and anyone who ever has owned a pet couldn’t argue such points, what differentiates cows, pigs and chickens? Or fish?
I have personally not reached a conclusion I can ethically live by. Humans have adapted their stomachs to the digestion of meat thousands of years ago and, even if too much meat consumption can lead to a host of diseases, moderate amounts of it have not harmed us in the long time. Plus, eating meat is in, if we are to believe the new Paleo diet craze.
For the time being, I will only eat meat if I know where it comes from and how it is fed. Because grass-fed, hormone and antibiotic free meat is way more expensive, it forces me to keep my consumption really low. On a recent trip toLindy and Grundy , the butcher shop owned and run by two spunky women who only sell meat sourced within 150 miles of LA, grass-fed, and from farmers they personally know, I was thrilled to see that the tenets I live by are becoming more common. And Wholefoods, love it or hate it, has done a lot in establishing guidelines that even McDonald’s, to a certain extent, is starting to follow. Slowly, but surely, the meat industry will have to bend and change to such giant pressure.
What is stopping me from becoming vegetarian again is the thought of not being able to taste prosciutto again, the highest form of pig use in my world (sorry bacon). Is it morally wrong to raise a pig humanely, butcher it when the time comes and use every bit of it like farmers have done since time immemorial? I am not sure yet. As to the vegan option, I consider eggs to be the most perfect form of food ever created and I can’t conceive of ever letting them go.
But Franz Kafka’s utterance after becoming vegetarian keeps on playing in my brain: “Now at least I can look at you in peace. I don’t eat you anymore”. Kafka said to his friend Brod after seeing a fish swimming in an aquarium at the Berlin Zoo.
And where do you stand?