Posted on July 20th, 2012
I became a vegetarian by accident. This wasn’t hard, at the age of twelve, in a family that didn’t eat meat at home. I realized one day that I hadn’t eaten any meat in weeks and decided to see how long I could keep it up. More than ten years, it turns out.
I reacquainted myself with carnivory in a far more intentional manner than I left it. “Be so careful at first,” everyone told me; “your stomach won’t be used to meat and it might make you sick.” I tried bites of fish, then some chicken soup, taking only small portions or tastes off other’s plates. I listened anxiously to my GI tract, alert for signs of distress, ready to pursue my stomach when it packed up my small intestines and lit out for the hills. I was committed to taking it slow. But then there was brunch. At an annual weekend gathering a few months after my omnivorous shift, my best friend found me sitting in the front yard one morning, a mug of black coffee in one hand and…his head swiveled around in a double take. “Are you,” his eyes narrowed, “are you eating bacon?”
I was. It was delicious.
He shouldn’t have been surprised, really. As punk rock, counter-culture vegans 6 years previous, he and I found ourselves at the deli counter of a grocery store one infamous night, suffering from a shared craving. We bought a whole rotisserie chicken, took it back to his dirty, furniture-less, third floor apartment, and tore into it with our bare hands. Stuffed with poultry and shame, we threw the bones in the alley dumpster and didn’t tell anyone for years. He felt sick that night, but me? I was fine. Only a typed and signed letter could have been clearer: my body wanted to eat meat. I ignored the memo, of course, and hung onto my vegetarian identity until the summer I was 23 when – trying to shed a period of my life (and, tale as old as time, a man) characterized by limits and control – I ended up barefoot in the grass chewing greasy strips of pig.
It’s been a good three years. The free reign I’ve unleashed on my diet echoes a larger change in attitude. I waste less energy on the categories and labels of identity, both for myself and others; I say ‘yes’ more and embrace things I haven’t done/thought/eaten; I am both an easy guest and an accommodating host. Our food, what we eat and how we eat it, is one of the most intimate parts of who we are and the culture that we choose to participate in. Eliminating my own restrictions has opened me up to other people; I am able to immerse myself in the life and living of each person I meet. Forget walking in someone’s shoes, try eating at their table. Conversely, I have been able to explore who I might be through cooking, eating, and feeding others. What do I like? What if I liked everything? Imagine the amazing inner beauty of someone who likes everything.
But what about the poor chickens, you ask, pecking each other to death in the hellish depths of a factory farm? I don’t eat those chickens. It turns out that you can eat meat and still not participate in the gross machines of corporate “food” production. This is even easier if you live around a lot of other people who think like you. I know where my meat comes from, I know how it lived and died, and I don’t feel guilty. The moral rationale that I developed over a decade of vegetarianism wasn’t discarded; I didn’t smash it with a meat tenderizer or hide it in a turducken. Emerging from the smoky haze of the BBQ pit, I discovered that my ethical objections to eating meat were, in fact, ethical objections to industrial agriculture, genetic engineering, the divorce of production from consumption, loss of food communities, and corporate profit off of basic human needs. My local, grass-fed burger, grilled on my friend’s deck during a potluck, is none of those things.
Back in the front yard, my friend stared at me as I took another bite. “Weird,” he said. He’s not wrong. I don’t eat much meat these days, and I certainly don’t take it for granted. I am still a little uncomfortable with my new status, but I believe that discomfort keeps me honest. I may not always eat meat – one day I may turn down a bowl of chicken soup – but for now, at least, I will stay to dinner, no matter what we’re having.