Tag Archives: vegetarianism

A Conversation on Meat-Eating

30 May

A few months ago, a reader of We*Meat*Again named Heather sent me the first email below — a proposition…

I think being vegan is the ideal diet, and you disagree. Therefore, I have a fun proposal if you are up for it.

I would like to discuss the ethics of eating meat with you over email. We can go back and forth for a little while. Then, I’ll post the debate on a blog that I haven’t created yet. You can do the same at your blog.

I loved the idea of letting our ethics play out in conversation form, as it was a long series of conversations I had several years ago that led me back towards meat-eating. It wasn’t an issue or singular decision, so I thought this would be a great way to represent the myriad perspectives on the ethics of eating meat. Enjoy!

Heather

I’ll start off with animals. After all, protecting animals is the main reason I am vegan.

I think it is very important to protect animals from harm. They are defenseless, and we have the power to do anything to them that we want. But might does not make right.

Animals raised for food are almost all kept in factory farms where they are confined in tiny cages. Egg laying hens can’t even flap their wings and they stay in those cages for up to two years. Breeding pigs are kept in stalls so small they can’t even turn around.

A lot of suffering goes into producing meat, and it’s not neven a necessary food.

Marissa

I have a tangential thought, based on what you mentioned below about animals being defenseless. Of course, I know you mean domesticated livestock animals, but I wonder how this view of our obligation to protect animals might impact your views on hunting? Wild animals are certainly not defenseless, and defend themselves against predators all the time. But back to your initial thoughts…

As you mention, almost all animals raised for food are kept in extremely inhumane conditions. I completely agree, and this was the primary reason I had for becoming a vegetarian myself many years ago. I can’t abide those conditions and do not want to be a part of them. However, there is a small, and growing movement of much more small-scale humane conditions for raising animals. I’ve met and befriended many farmers and ranchers who treat their animals with love and kindness, who raise them in healthy, free-roaming conditions and who ensure their deaths are as pain- and fear-free as possible.

My view is that I can affect more positive change in the current food system by choosing to invest my meat-dollars by supporting those new, emerging models of agriculture than I can by opting out or boycotting the existing system.

There’s a lot to explore in the idea that meat isn’t a necessary food, too, but I’ll stay on topic for now…

Heather

I don’t think many animals that are hunted are able to defend themselves against hunters. Doves come to mind, as do ducks, rabbits, etc. but that’s a different issue.

I think those farms that don’t use factory farm methods are an improvement, but they still kill the animals. There is still suffering. For example, male pigs are still castrated. I think it’s an improvement, and for people who refuse to go vegetarian it’s a good alternative. But for those willing to go all the way, isn’t it preferable to not have any animals killed for the dinner plate?

Why kill if we don’t need to?

Marissa

The question at stake for me here is: what system of eating is without suffering? I think a lot of vegans and vegetarians are mistaken in the assumption that by not eating the body of an animal, they are avoiding participating in death or suffering.

A few examples: Most mainstream meat substitute products, including boxed products like Boca burgers, or tofu, are subsidiary brands produced by major multinational corporations. Boca is owned by Kraft, which also owns Oscar Meyer. Yves and Tofutown are owned by Heinz, which also owns several frozen meal brands, made with chicken contracted through Tyson (one of the worst-of-the-worst when it comes to inhumane and pollutive CAFOs).

Even on the smaller scale (for organic, locavore vegans and vegetarians) the very act of growing food often results in death. Even the most low-till farming methods neccesarily kill worms. Even the most natural pest-avoidance will likely cause the deaths of insects. And these are not non-sentient beings (I’ve always hated when people accuse vegetarians of “killing plants” — that’s just not the same thing). These are living creatures, many of which can experience pain, and have an equal right to life as a human, or a chicken, or a pig.

And so, if death is unavoidable in the process of growing and consuming food, I believe it makes the most ethical sense to be honest about it. To acknowledge the suffering I cause (in my case, in the form of an animal’s death) so that I can most responsibly invest my food dollars with producers who I know seek to actively minimize suffering.

Heather

I don’t agree that worms are equal to intelligent species like pigs, just like I don’t agree that pigs are equal to humans. However, let’s take your argument at face value. Assume that raising 8lbs of soybeans causes X number of worms and other insects to die. We can eat that 8lbs of soybeans directly and the number of insects dead is X. Or, we can feed that soy to a pig and get 1lb of meat. A farmer feeds roughly 8lbs of feed to a pig to get a pound of pork. So if we ate the vegetarian food directly, it stands to reason there would be 8 times less insects killed than in a form of food production where those crops are filtered through a pig first.

I don’t think buying vegetarian foods from a company that also sells meat is anything like buying meat from a company that sells meat. If anything, buying the vegetarian food shows these companies that there is profit to be made in plant based foods. Those companies are not going away. But if they see there is profit to be made by producing more ethical foods, that is a good thing.

So, in closing, one kills less insects that would be harmed in crop production if they eat the crops directly. Also, showing multinational corporations there is profit to be made by producing more ethical foods is a good thing.

I think those points reinforce the argument for vegetarianism.

Marissa

The flaw in the mathematical equations or soy, or corn, to meat production is that vegetarian food isn’t just soybeans. It, too, requires processing, and a balanced diet requires produce, which takes more land to grow, etc. So it’s difficult, if not impossible, to suggest that such a correlation between # of worms killed for one pound of vegetarian food is less than # of worms killed for one pound of pig. Especially because that equation still only takes into consideration animals fed a grown diet, as opposed to free-range animals.

But those small logistics aside, the more important thing is to note that we all — whether we eat meat or not — make a distinction between certain kinds of life. You acknowledge a worm > pig > human hierarchy, and the existence of such a hierarchy suggests that even vegans don’t necessarily have a problem with knowing some life died to create their food. That is much the same as my take. The real question is, why do we consider some life forms acceptable deaths and others unacceptable?

My issue with buying vegetarian foods from a company that also raises meat is that I don’t separate all those forms of suffering out. I accept that much destruction (of the earth), death and suffering (of animals, farmworkers, etc.) comes along with the process of any species attempting to feed itself. I try to minimize my participation in that suffering, because I look at the whole picture. I would rather buy a free-range, antibiotic-free, humanely-slaughtered side of beef from a local farmer who treats his workers with respect than a box of industrially-produced, long-distance, GMO-based meat substitute product from a parent corporation responsible for labor rights, clean air/water, and animals rights, violations.

If some people are vegan or vegetarian because they simply cannot stomach the idea of eating the flesh of a dead animal, I can wholeheartedly accept that. I just think it’s a personal choice, not one that, when judged in terms of the food system as a whole, is in and of itself morally superior.

Heather

Ok, I had not thought about produce requiring more to grow. But how could tree fruit affect worms in the ground? I don’t think it can.

Plus, there is no question people have lower rates of heart disease as vegetarians.

Marissa

It’s certainly true that people have lower rates of heart disease (and many other chronic health conditions) as vegetarians. But that’s because the only studies up to this point have compared a diet without meat to a diet of industrially-produced meat (even including processed meat like bologna or spam. ick.).

I’m all in favor of reducing our meat consumption as a nation dramatically. Americans far over-eat protein in general, and are especially fans of red meat, which is especially bad for the heart. But I think a diet that emphasizes fresh, whole foods and produce can include some meat and still be very healthy. In fact, the studies that have been done thus far suggest that many of the health issues associated with meat are a uniquely-industrial problem. So if we are supporting sustainable, chemical-free sources of meat, we can avoid many of those health problems.

Heather

Ok, that’s an interesting rebuttal.

We agree meat consumption should be reduced.

Basically I think there are 3 main reasons to be vegetarian, and they are:

1. There is no question that animals suffer greatly in factory farms. Anytime one buys a chicken sandwich, they are supporting that. Even when people say they eat free range meat, if they go to a restaurant or eat meat at a cookout, they are likely eating factory farmed meat. I don’t believe that people who say they exclusively eat free range meat really exclusively do. If they are telling the truth then they must eat vegetarian meals most of the time.

Even with free range meat, an animal is still killed for something unnecessary. Of course we are talking about animals like pigs, which are as intelligent as dogs. Chickens, turkeys, cows; they all are intelligent enough and aware enough to suffer and to be aware of their misery, pain and fear as they go down the slaughter line. I don’t think we can say that about worms. In fact, you can even cut a worm in half and it becomes two worms. Slice a chicken in half and she is dead.

Lastly, with grass fed cows, if we were to eat as much meat tomorrow as we do today, and all the cows are grass fed, we’d use half the country for grazing.

2. Clearly a vegetarian or vegan diet is healthier than eating meat. You did a good job of refuting my heart disease argument, but vegetarians do live longer than meat eaters on average. We have lower rates of stroke, lower obesity and all the problems that come with that, etc.

3. Meat production is an environmental catastrophe. So many more resources go into growing feed to feed to animals, and then raising, transporting and slaughtering the animals than if one just eats crops directly. There is also the issue of manure run off contaminating soil, water and air in rural communities. So much petro fertilizer has to be used to raise feed crops. It’s just a mess.

The three points together make a strong argument for being vegetarian.

Marissa

I have some responses to your three points individually, and then to the underlying assumption.

1. You’re absolutely right that choosing not to eat factory-farmed meat means absconding from meat in many situations (thought not at all restaurants), but I wouldn’t go so far as to say “most of the time.” Most of my meals are eaten at home, cooked by me. But to assume they are lying, or misinformed, isn’t necessary. You don’t have to believe they are always eating sustainable meat any more than they need to believe you are always reading ingredients list and never accidentally eating chicken fat or beef byproduct in your soup, crackers, etc.

The idea that the animal is being killed for something “unnecessary” is part of the problem I have. If an animal dies in any process of growing food (and somehow, somewhere along the line, I do believe that happens, whether worms and insects or animals slaughtered by parent companies of vegetarian products), then what kind of death is “unnecessary.” They are all, in some way, going towards a person’s eating. Couldn’t we take the next logical step and say it’s not “necessary” for humans to live any more than animals? Of course, such a position wouldn’t work. If death is inevitable, no death is unnecessary — but there is such a thing as an inhumane death or a death that happens in a way that isn’t necessary.

2. My response to the argument that vegetarians live longer than meat-eaters is the same as my response for heart disease — only because the only available data matches vegetarian against modern-day, red-meat-heavy, industrially-produced-meat eater. Vegetarian versus low-consumption, sustainable-produced, chemical-free meat-eater would look different. They may well be equal.

My response to your third point, about the environmental consequences of meat production, is similar to my response to your note about grass-fed cattle. Along with agreeing meat consumption should be reduced, we both agree on all the negatives of the current factory farming system. But if you add reducing meat consumption to attempting to reverse, undo, or change the industrial system, you can create a small-scale, sustainable system that produces less meat on less land using integrative practices that feed and fertilize the land, without the massive pollutive consequences of a factory farm. I’ve chosen to invest in the creation of that system, rather than just boycott the existing one.

At this point in our exchange, Heather threw in the towel, and admitted I had successfully rebutted all of her reasons for strict vegetarianism. I’ll close with my final response to her, which is the most important take-away:

My intention is never to get people to stop being vegetarians — just to start being more conscientious of the fact that the line between ethical/unethical eating doesn’t necessarily fall along vegetarian/meat-eating lines.

Forks Over Knives Review

23 May

I’ve been catching up so far this summer on my Netflix instant queue, including watching some of my backlog of food-oriented documentaries, so expect occasional reviews in the coming months (and feel free to make a request if there’s a movie you’re thinking about seeing but want to know whether it’s worth your time). Up today? documentary about the vegan diet Forks Over Knives.

The basics

The documentary focuses specifically on the relationship between dietary choices and health — by which I mean both daily levels of comfort, but also chronic illness. In examining the connection between the consumptions of meat and dairy products and serious conditions like cancers, heart disease, and of course, obesity, the film explores and ultimately, advocates for the benefits of a whole-foods, plant-based diet (yes, by which they mean vegan).

What I liked

I particularly enjoyed that, despite the fact that they were refering to a dietary plan with a name — vegan — the doctors and filmmakers refrained from calling it such. This suggests, first, a flexibility on the part of those advocating for this diet. They did mention several times that reducing or minimizing the consumption of animal products was the goal.

And they also were careful to clarify the whole foods part of the dietary plan several times — that is, they were not suggesting a sharp increase in tofu or other meat substitutes, but rather a diet, focused on plants that were cooked but minimally processed, if at all.

What I learned

A lot of the health connections between meat and chronic disease were not a mystery to me (though I know they would be to some audiences) but the research in the film relied on international dietary models to form the basis of comparison, and I hadn’t heard much of that. Since science tends to be (rightly) focused on proving the causal connection between diet and health, American medicine doesn’t often look to other countries to see what might be different elsewhere, both in terms of what we eat and how it supports our body’s functions.

One especially striking statistic was this: the average annual number of prostate cancer — a disease causally linked to overconsumption of red meat — diagnoses in Japan is 18, compared to the American average of 16,000.

I also learned that rat-based studies have found an inverse relationship between diet and cancer tumor growth. That is, rats fed a diet high in red meat protein experienced growth in cancerous tumors. But when those same rats were fed a plant-based diet, they experienced a reduction in tumor size.

All of this is to say that the arguments for fueling our bodies with plant food, rather than animal food, is compelling. Not only in terms of avoiding serious illness, but also in terms of what works best for our bodies. (The film profiled several high-performance vegan athletes including professional triathletes and an MMA fighter!)

What was missing

When the film was over, I went back and checked what year it was released and was surprised to find that it was just 2011. I remembered it being recent, but after viewing the documentary, I wondered if I had been wrong. Because the information — but more than that, the perspective — seems dated.

I kept waiting for the point when the narrator and filmmaker, or the doctors who were at the center of the film, would discuss non-industrially produced animal products, and that moment never came, despite the fact that the ills of animal foods, according to the research, was mostly focused on the presence of hormones and steroids.

The notion of organic dairy and grass-fed meat are addressed on the film’s website, but not in great enough detail for me to be able to discern whether I believe the information is accurate. The registered dietician on that site writes that “Even organically produced dairy contain naturally occurring steroids and hormones, which can promote cancer growth,” but that is the extent of the detail. She goes on to note that there is no significant nutritional difference between grass-fed and grain-fed meat (which is true) but doesn’t address the notion that grass-fed meat is absent much of the fat and therefore, cholesterol of grain-fed meat, and is also absent synthetic chemicals, toxins, antibiotics, etc.

If the film addressed these ideas, and had the research to suggest that it would be better to reduce or eliminate meat than to simply eat antibiotic-free, pasture-raised meat, I could accept that. I wouldn’t eat that way, but at least I would know where they stood. But for a film made in 2011 to ignore the alternatives completely seemed strange to me.

The verdict?

Overall, some interesting info, but a pretty snooze-worthy approach to documentary storytelling with not much new for a reasonably-informed food advocate. Watch if you’re interested in learning more about a plant-based diet, and the science therein. But if you want an engaging film about the dangers of the western diet, try Supersize Me instead.

If you’ve seen Forks Over Knives, or have some perspective on the dietary plan, I’d love to hear what you think! Leave a comment and share your thoughts below.

We’re In This Together

11 May

The recent NYTimes contest calling for essays advocating for the ethics of eating meat produced some interesting responses. My take on it was similar in thought process to the winning entry. But for now, I’m interested in the reactions from around the world of food to the very idea of the contest.

In peoples’ responses, I saw evidence of the beginning of a splintering in the food movement, between those who advocate a vegetarian or vegan diet, and those of us becoming known as “selective omnivores”–who advocate a diet that includes meat but focuses on local and sustainable sourcing.

Here’s an example of the take that ethical vegetarians seemed to have to the contest:

Do ethical vegetarians…pose such a “threat” to the meat and dairy industries that the Times Magazine must now invite its millions of readers to shout them down? … We find it disturbing that the Magazine would organize such a one-sided contest, and moreover that Ariel Kaminer should introduce it with such frivolity. “Ethically speaking, vegetables get all the glory,” Kaminer writes, caricaturing vegans as members of a “hard-core inner circle” who have “dominated the discussion.” With her very breeziness (“Bon appetit!”), Kaminer seems intent on trivializing the warrant for ethical veganism.”

Michele Simon, a public health lawyer whose work I normally greatly admire had a similarly dismissive take on the notion that the ethics of meat eating are worth discussing:

Was this really a burning problem that needed solving, the lack of justifications to eat meat? What do you suppose has caused America’s love affair with meat in the first place? …  It saddens me that given all the pressing problems of our day, many of which caused by excessive meat eating (global warming, contaminated air and water, chronic disease, worker injury, and yes, animal suffering, just to name a few) the Times is promoting such a self-indulgent contest.

I’ve heard similar rumblings from some of the sustainable meat producers I know — those who raise grass-fed cattle or run small-scale slaughter operations — that the push for meatlessness is misdirected, and hurts those who are striving for a more sustainable, animal-friendly meat. One farmer friend suggested that “Meatless Mondays” should be renamed “Pasture-Raised Meat Mondays” to better support his business, and draw the line where it should be placed.

Ironically, after calling the contest self-indulent and accusing meat-eaters of being brainwashed by industry, Simon  finishes her entry by saying:

Moreover, we don’t need even more ways to polarize people over personal dietary choices. Let’s stop the infighting and focus on the core of the problem: corporate control of the food supply.

Overall, I find the notion of criticizing what the Ethicist column chooses to devote a contest to a bit frivolous in itself. But the end of Simon’s letter makes a good point, and is my point in this post: staying strong and united is in our best interests.

Ultimately, ethical vegetarians and ethical omnivores want the same things, and we need to spend more time thinking about what we have in common than on what divides us. Just as the civil rights movement, the women’s liberation movements, and now, the LGBQT movement have all struggled with this kind of splintering, the new movement of food advocacy will likely occasionally butt heads over territory or priority.

Advocating for a decrease in overall meat consumption is good for all of us. Most ethical vegetarians believe that we should eat less meat overall, and while sustainable meat producers may bristle at this initially, it’s in their best interests, too. Aside from being better for our health to consume less meat than we currently do, and better for the land overall, a smaller national hankering for meat is one that can be met exclusively by small-scale, pasture-raised operations.

When I met with Bartlet Duran of Black Earth Meats a few years ago, he made an interesting point by saying that his operation isn’t interested in getting into the large chain grocery stores. To produce enough to meet the demands of a Wal-Mart, or Safeway, or Hy-Vee, they would have to scale up. And they like doing things on their scale, because it allows for ultimate control over the animals’ diets, living conditions, slaughterhouse conditions and worker pay. Direct marketing to consumers makes more sense, and that requires being a smaller operation. So if ethical vegetarians get their way, and can convince Americans to eat less meat overall, small-scale producers will be uniquely suited to meet those demands at the most competitive price point.

On the other hand, supporting sustainable meat operations is in the best interest of veg*ns, too. In every conversation I’ve ever had with a vegetarian (including with myself) about her reasons for being one — be they environmental, economic, labor-rights, or ethical — those reasons can be nearly universally addressed by the sustainable meat industry. Every problem a vegan or vegetarian has with meat is actually one they have with the industrial meat complex.

Even vegetarians who are not personally comfortable with a reversal of their diet surely can admit that if some Americans want or need to eat meat, they would rather they come from family-owned, biodynamic operations than anywhere else. In advocating for those operations, no one is suggesting that we force anyone to eat meat — just that we all work to make sure the meat that is available comes from the best possible source.

So rather than fighting with each other, let’s turn our joint attention outward to our common enemy, the industrial food complex. Let’s focus on our common ground, and we can get some real work done.

Readers Respond: Why It’s (Un)Ethical to Eat Meat

18 Apr

Last week, I posted some of my thoughts on Why It’s Ethical to Eat Meat. I got some really interesting comments on that post that I wanted to respond to, and thought I would share my responses in a new post, to keep the conversation going.

Michael writes:

Indeed suffering is an inevitable part of simply being a living organism, but you’re rationalizing unnecessary suffering on the grounds that it’s impossible to eliminate it completely. This is simply not cogent. We can’t eliminate crime completely, but this is no argument for doing away with law enforcement altogether.

My response: The first part of this I have to object to is the idea of unnecessary suffering. While most of us in the developed world have the luxury of choosing our diet, if suffering is inevitable for any species to feed itself, how can we define any suffering as “unnecessary?” I simply don’t think it’s fair for any single person to make a determination of necessity for any other eater.

But I believe that by participating in the models of meat production I do, that I’m working towards reducing suffering — not just throwing up my hands and giving up. To extend the law enforcement metaphor, my thought process is akin to an argument to change law enforcement policy. Admitting that our current system of raising animals is inhumane, and therefore participating in an alternative system to support it’s growth is like saying “the war on drugs isn’t working so let’s try legalization.”

You refer to “humane” meat. Human means to have compassion or benevolence. How is unnecessary termination of life compassionate? It’s simply not.

My response: Well, “humane” meat is just my term for the standards I ask my livestock producers to adhere to — it’s not any kind of universal standard. But by your own definition, humane can also mean benevolent, a term that usually applies to those who demonstrate respect for the power they wield over others. Given that humans domesticated livestock animals, I think we can all agree we are in a position of power over them. To be benevolent is to treat them with respect, and to care for them in a way that honors what they truly are and have to offer us. I believe my methods for supporting animal agriculture do so.

You cite environmental reasons for low impact animal ag. Eliminating animal ag would eliminate all of the environmental impacts altogether. It also would allow for much more efficient use of land for ag and for other purposes.

My response: Actually, there are several flaws in evidence there. First, any kind of agriculture has an environmental impacts. Growing produce impacts the land by tilling it, and inorganic produce growth involves spraying it with chemical fertilizers and pesticides. So eliminating animal ag would not eliminate all environmental impacts — it would just reduce them, or change them. In addition, biodynamic, integrative models for animal ag can actually have a positive environmental impact by producing greater natural fertilizers and pesticides, reducing the need for synthetics.

The argument that a diet without meat is “more efficient” is also only true based on our current system of agriculture. Since most of the land impact of animal ag comes from the corn grown to feed cattle, yes, of course that land could be put to better use. But in some regions, grazing cattle or other animals is a more efficient substitute for that corn than growing produce for vegetarian diets. In the Northeastern United States, for example, most soil is too rocky and uneven for planting, so there are limited small amounts of produce that can be grown there. Combining those small-scale models with grazing cattle allows for more food to be produced on the same land, and keeps food production fully local, creating a negative carbon footprint.

I’m afraid your arguments are rationalizations for morally unjustifiable normative practices.

My response: In a larger sense, I think it’s important for us all to realize that what is “morally just,” unless aligned with a legal system, is an individual decision (much as many of us would like it not to be). I hope to help people grapple with these ideas, and certainly have my own sense of morality — but I also understand and appreciate that we all have our own moral compass. I’m not a moral relativist, but I have made my decisions based on morality. It’s unfair for anyone to assume that my ulterior motives are to rationalize normative behavior — it’s not that I just wanted a cheeseburger.

Mijnheer writes:

You also claim that “the basic ethical defense of vegetarianism is utilitarian in nature.” Many vegetarians/vegans abstain from meat for a deontological reason — i.e., respect for the right of the individual animal to lead its own life, which is violated when it is used simply as a means for the ends of others. There are also ethical reasons of a feminist or ecological nature for abstaining from meat. For example: http://www.caroljadams.com/spom.html

My response: You’re absolutely right that there are other ethical defenses for vegetarianism, though feminist and ecological perspectives are gender-based and ecological arguments which have responses in those realms, not in the realm of philosophical ethics.

But my understanding of deontologics is Kantian in nature, wherein an action is morally permissible if the harm caused is less than the greater good, and if the action is driven by motivations towards a duty to do good. One of the weaknesses of deontologics is the idea of the “conflict of two goods.” Imagining that the question of debate between vegetarianism and support of sustainable meat production is a conflict of two goods. The former avoids direct contribution to animal death but may include indirect support of those deaths by financial investment, as well as in the suffering of workers whose consumer pesticides and other chemicals in slave-labor conditions on produce farms, and in the ecological impacts of large-scale agriculture, even when organic. The latter involves direct support of a smaller number of animal deaths in exchange for the elimination of the latter — and that is why I believe the latter is the choice that does more good than the harm is causes.

I have to say I’m rather bemused by your argument, which seems to amount to: Let’s actively participate in causing suffering so that we can help minimize it.

My response: In fact, my argument is that we all already participate in causing suffering. I try to keep We Meat Again food-focused, but the truth is, this goes outside the bounds of simply our diets in that we all make moral trade-off decisions every day. Most of us drive cars, even if we want to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Most of us buy clothes whose origins we can’t always trace, but still object to child labor in factories. Most of us consume chemicals, fossil fuels, and the results of the suffering of others — people and animals — on a daily basis.

Because of this, I have made the decision to take active steps towards acknowledging the existence of my participation in suffering, so that I might try to minimize it. The first step for me is facing the deaths of the animals for my food. Somehow, animals die for us all to eat, whether we consume their flesh or not. I am going to give those animals the honor of looking at them, head-on.

I’d love to hear what you all think (whether an original commenter on the post or not!) Above all, I hope we can keep things civil, but I think this question is at the underpinning of what I’m trying to do here on We Meat Again, and I want to hear as many voices as I can. Leave a comment, drop me an email, tweet at me — and let’s keep the conversation going.

Why It Is Ethical To Eat Meat

11 Apr

The New York Times’ Ethicist, an ethics-advice column, recently put out a call for submissions for short essays from carnivores explaining why we believe it is ethical to eat meat.

Of course, I had much to say. I even managed to get my thoughts down to the 600-word limit. Since I have no reason to believe this will ever actually make it into the Times, I thought sharing my thoughts here would be a great way to re-introduce We Meat Again, as a sort of manifesto for this blog.

*

Eating meat is ethical because it allows the eater to face the reality of suffering head-on, so that we can choose how and where to invest our food dollars to do the most good. Suffering is an inevitable part of our food system, the unavoidable byproduct of any species trying to feed itself. The ethical dilemma of the eater, then, is not to avoid suffering altogether because that avoidance is impossible.

Attempts to circumvent suffering often lead to dietary choices that are willfully ignorant of the part they play. For example, vegetarians who purchase boxed meat substitute products like soy burgers or chik’n nuggets are simply purchasing subsidiary brands of the same multinational corporations, such as Smithfield or Tyson, that own and operate inhumane and environmentally destructive concentrated animal feeding operations. Recent exposes such as Barry Estabrook’s Tomatoland have demonstrated that even produce sold at alternative grocery chains is picked by underpaid workers in near-slave labor conditions. Even the small-scale, organic, family-owned vegetable farm where I worked used fertilizer that was a chicken waste byproduct, a nearly-invisible part of an innovative and sustainable food production chain that would connect the most locavore of vegans to a system responsible for raising livestock animals.

The basic ethical defense of vegetarianism is utilitarian in nature, the principle of the greatest good for the greatest number. Vegetarianism is considered ethically superior by some because the pleasure of a non-starving human is not justification enough for the widespread death and suffering of animals. Vegans or vegetarians who cannot abide the death of an animal for their meal certainly do their part in affecting positive change by investing in locally-sourced, chemical-free whole foods. But eating meat offers eaters a unique opportunity to positively impact the entire web of their food system.

While factory farm systems for raising food animals are still the primary source of meat in the United States, new models exist and are thriving across the country to provide consumers with sources of local, biodynamic and humane meat. By investing in these sources of meat production, we can attempt to offset the suffering implicit in any act of eating.

What I’ve seen of living animals on small-scale, locally-owned farms, and what I’ve learned about corporate connections, environmental degradation, and human suffering in the food system suggests that the way an animal is raised and killed for food affects much more than an individual’s eating pleasure. How the animal is raised impacts the ground on which it lives. The quality of that land impacts the farm and the farmer, and their larger community, environmentally and economically. The practices on a farm and the pricing of food affects whether a community has enough jobs, which affects whether or not members of that community will be able to afford to eat. Whether or not someone will buy an animal to eat impacts the labor conditions and pay scale of farm workers.

The question of whether or not to eat meat is not simply an animal-rights issue. It’s an environmental issue, a labor rights issue, a fair trade issue, an issue of our global community’s economic, environmental, and human progress. If our ethical goal is to live in harmony with our world, eating a hamburger doesn’t have to run counter to those ideals. It can be a way to invest in them, to practice them with every bite we take. Only by being honest about our participation in the suffering of animals can we seek to minimize it.

As always, I’d love to hear what you think. Leave a comment, tweet at me, or drop me an email to share your thoughts, ask questions, or request future post topics!

Becoming Food Advocates: Steve’s Story

23 Jan

A few months back, I asked We*Meat*Again readers to leave me questions they’d like answered about me on the site. Cristina posed this question: I know you don’t like the term, but what made you become a “foodie”? Lots of people like to eat, but what makes you care about the state of food.

Little did she (or I) know at the time what would come of the asking.

You can read my answer here. But I was so inspired by the responses to my original post, that I decided to ask some friends to share their stories with me. I sent out a few rounds of emails to people I’ve known in various stages of my life, asking if they would share their “becoming a foodie” story with me. And of the responses I’ve received so far, all have been powerfully moving accounts of wild variation, centering on the theme of food. So I decided to start showcasing some of them here.

One common theme, however, is a near-universal dislike of the term “foodie,” so I’ve decided to try and pioneer the new term “Food Advocate,” since I hope it allows for multiple meanings (some people feel themselves advocates for artisinal food, others for food justice, others for environmentally sustainable food, etc.) without being too unweildy to say or remember either. I’ll explore this in more detail in a future post.

For now, enjoy our first installment in the new “Becoming Food Advocates” Series, from my good friend from New Hampshire, Steve, who writes the blog Or Until Golden Brown. Read, enjoy, and leave us comments sharing which aspects of Steve’s story resonate for you.

Becoming Food Advocates: Steve’s Story

When I was growing up, I fondly remember my mother asking me every year around my birthday what I wanted for my birthday dinner.  And inevitably, I always chose macaroni and cheese with sliced up bits of hotdog throughout.

Kraft macaroni and cheese.  The kind with the powder that you mix with margarine and skim milk and stir into cooked noodles.  And probably generic brand Shaws hotdogs.  Sliced into discs.

This was my idea of gourmet.

It tasted so good.  And it was salty.  And a fun, bright orange color.  And those hotdog slices were meaty and fatty and just so good.  And it was the one night of the year when I didn’t have to eat microwaved frozen vegetables with my dinner.

But of course, it was the 80′s.  Convenience was all the rage.  Butter was out, margarine was in.  Whipped cream?  Out.  Fat-free cool whip?  Yes please.  And anything that could be thrown together out of a box, anything frozen or pre-packaged or canned was very much in.  With my family, anyway.

The idea of mashed potatoes is one perfect example.  On a regular basis, my mother would prepare mashed potatoes for dinner.  But did this involve peeling, boiling, and mashing an actual potato?  Of course not.  It involved measuring out potato flakes and mixing them with boiling milk and then adding…what else?  Margarine.  Are you sensing a theme here?

Only on Thanksgiving would my mother prepare “real” mashed potatoes.  That was the distinction.  Either “mashed potatoes,” which came out of a box, or “real mashed potatoes,” which came from a potato.  Even at the time, I recognized a disconnect between preparation of food and awareness of what that food actually was.

I’m sure there were people in the 80′s who ate organic.  Who had a clue where there food came from.  Who put time and energy into cooking everything from scratch.  Surely, some people already had a finger on the pulse of what I’ve come to think of as post-millennial food awareness.  But they didn’t live in the Gravelle household.  Or probably in Merrimack, New Hampshire, a small suburb boasting King Kone, the local soft ice cream stand, five Dunkin Donuts, and a frequent Meat Bingo at the VFW Hall.

Which is not to say that it was my mom’s fault.  She grew up eating only seven things.  Seven meals.  My grandmother, child of the depression, made exactly seven meals.  One for each night of the week with no variation.  And that’s all my mom knew.  She had never tasted pizza before she met my father.  Had never had any cheese except American slices.  Had never tasted a fresh strawberry.  She was 21 years old.

And so I can’t blame her for not knowing how to cook many things, and for playing it safe.  Frozen spinach would never go bad and have to be thrown out like fresh might.  Canned wax beans can’t develop mold.  And a box of mashed potato flakes is surely more economical than pounds of fresh potatoes.  And she was raising three children!  Who can fault her for wanting to employ cost-saving and time-saving into her cooking?

I don’t remember exactly when it happened that I started to seriously think about food.  How I went from actually thinking of vegetables as being frozen to being aware that they grew out of the ground and could be bought fresh.  I know that college was a big part of my food awareness.  Before leaving home, I had never tasted Thai food.  I didn’t know what sushi was.  I thought that I didn’t like asparagus because I had only tasted it from a can and it was stringy, salty and mushy all at the same time.  It turns out, I love fresh asparagus.

In college, I feel like my friends and I were starting to move from the quick, easy meals of our childhood and into more awareness of food generally.  Trying international cuisine certainly helped.  Sneaking ziploc bags of vegetables from the dining hall salad bar home to make stir-fry helped a lot.  And when I decided early in my sophomore year that I was tired of the Tater Tot Casserole (ground beef, leftover tater tots and lots of cheddar cheese), I had the idea to experiment with vegetarianism.  To see how hard it would be to leave peperoni pizza behind and to give up Chicken Patty Wednesday and to stop eating meatballs with my spaghetti.  And I found very quickly that I started to question all of those paradigms I had as to what food is, why we eat it, and to how it makes us feel.

I wanted to incorporate more color into my diet.  I tried every color of bell pepper for the first time.  My friend Ben taught me to sprinkle salt on my eggplant before cooking to draw out some of the moisture and prevent it from getting stringy.  I tried fresh arugula for the first time and found myself loving it.  And suddenly, I was only visiting the dining hall to pilfer ingredients and I cooked most of my meals at home.  I fell in love with veggie burgers and meat substitutes.  I started cooking with beans and tofu and considering foods I’d never seen before.  I first heard the idea of buying “Local” produce when our local grocery store started a small rack of entirely local foods.  It was the beginning.

For the next few years, I went back to eating meat, first poultry by way of incorporating animal protein back into my diet to help put on muscle mass.  I was living in New Jersey and working out three to five nights a week, and I realized that tofu and beans weren’t enough to get me through a weightlifting plateau.  So I started eating chicken and developed shoulders like mountains.

But just because I started eating meat, I was still primarily vegetarian.  I kept the idea of putting lots of color on the plate.  I kept experimenting with new vegetables and fruits.  I tried my first pomegranate that year when my Iranian roommate brought one home from the market.  I still remember the juice dripping down my arms.  My Texan roommate taught me to cook black-eyed peas and how to drink bourbon.  My Jersey-born roommate got me a job at an Italian restaurant, where I tried Lobster Ravioli and Chicken Piccata and Clams Fra Diavolo and Fried Calamari for the first time.  Moving away from New Hampshire and developing friendships with people from all over the country and of different cultural and ethnic backgrounds opened my eyes to food in a whole new way.  The possibilities of what ingredients were out there and how one could cook them seemed endless.

Around that time, I moved to Philadelphia to become an apprentice at a well-known local theatre, where I met a friend from Georgia, one from Virginia, people from California and Colorado and Montana and Seattle.  From the South, from Spain, from Michigan and Canada.  And the more I cooked, the more I found myself talking about food.  And obsessing about food.  And all of these friends I made started to realize how much I loved food and we all started talking about it.  All the time.  And people shared their family recipes with me.  And their methods for cooking one thing or another.  And I just kept cooking.  I cooked every week and started cooking for my friends.  And I started watching the Food Network on a regular basis and discovering new ingredients and new cooking styles I’d never even heard of.

And all of this food talk and cooking and watching and learning started to mingle with documentaries like Food, Inc. and books like The Omnivore’s Dilemma and various shows on NPR about food and food issues.  And the idea of Food Justice started to enter my mind.  And what we eat and how we eat it and things I’d been thinking about for years suddenly combined with the question of where does my food come from?  And I met some friends who advocated passionately for Whole Foods, and I started going to restaurants that promote local food.  And I discovered first hand how much better food tastes when it’s both local and seasonal.  And I just kept cooking.  And started going to farmer’s markets.  And buying local meats and learning about where my cheeses from from.  And tasting.  And eating.  And cooking.  And hosting dinner parties.  And a weekly Brunch Club for my friends.  And then I found myself cooking a huge meal of both vegan and omnivore versions of the same food.  And I cooked all the food for my own wedding’s rehearsal dinner.  I started a food blog to share my food experiments and experiences.  And I just kept cooking.

So where does this leave me?  I feel like a perfect storm has been brewing in America’s social consciousness about food.  Suddenly, it seems like everyone is asking these big questions about food.  Where does it come from?  Why do we eat so much imported produce?  How are the animals we eat being treated?  How does something fresh taste versus something frozen?  How important are questions of ethics to food?  How important is organic?  Who actually produced and food we consumed?  What is in that McDonald’s hamburger, and how different is it from a grass-fed, locally produced burger at a nice restaurant?

And I don’t have all the answers to those questions.  But to me, being a foodie doesn’t mean always making the perfect food choices.  Sometimes, I just want a Cheez-it.  But being a foodie means asking the question.  I’m not going to visit every farm to check out the growing of everything I put into my body.  But I’m going to try to only buy local produce.  And seasonal.  And to support what I see as a better system.  Local farms are like any local business… without the support of local people, they die out.  So even though it may sometimes be more expensive, a potato that came out of the ground today will always tasted better than one that travelled across the country from Idaho in the back of a huge truck.

And I feel fortunate that I am living in a time when food matters.  And when it isn’t enough to open a box, add margarine and milk and call it good.  When we actually care and are starting to demand more knowledge and more participation in our food system and how our daily choices affect the system as a whole.

As for my mom?  She had ovarian cancer in the late 90′s and started eating an entirely organic, vegan diet, blaming preservatives and pre-packaged foods for her cancer.  She went through a number of dietary changes over the years, from developing an allergy to gluten, beef, mushrooms and soy, to finding the Blood Type Diet and following that for a while.  Now she’s eating cultured vegetables and kefir as part of the Body Ecology Diet, and she’s feeling great.

She’s come a long way from the 80′s.  And so have I.  I don’t eat boxed mac n’ cheese anymore, and I only eat hotdogs rarely, but I do make a mean baked mac n’ cheese from scratch, and I make my own sausage with a meat grinder and sausage stuffer.  But now I use local pork and locally sourced natural casings.  And it tastes—and feels—so much better.

Interested in sharing your story of becoming a food advocate? We’re looking for all variety of stories, from people of all walks of life, whether you consider yourself a casual amateur or a gourmet chef, whether you care about the environment, nutrition, your children’s health and safety or your local butcher.  If you’d like to submit your own post, here’s all you need to do:

  1. Write up the short story of your food journey. What inspired you to start thinking about what you ate and why it mattered. What your wake-up call was. What’s changed. What your challenges have been.
  2. Anything goes — nothing is too small or tangental. (But please write something new — don’t just send us a link to an already-published post.)
  3. Email this story to us: marissa@wemeatagain.com. Use the title: BECOMING A FOOD ADVOCATE STORY.
  4. If you have them, also send along 2 (or 3) photos to help illustrate your story.
  5. Include your contact information (name, what you’d like us to call you, blog address — if you have one, etc.)
  6. Be patient. We’ll get back to you ASAP — but publishing on the site may take several weeks.

Of course, if you have any questions — just leave ‘em in the comments section or email us at marissa@wemeatagain.com.

And don’t forget today is your last chance to enter for a chance to win a copy of the new, illustrated edition of Michael Pollan’s Food Rules, as We*Meat*Again celebrates our 10,000th site visit!

How I Became a Foodie

14 Nov

In continuation of the “Introduction to Marissaseries of Q&A posts I’ve been writing over the last few weeks, today we have a question from Cristina from An Organic Wife:

I know you don’t like the term, but what made you become a “foodie”? Lots of people like to eat, but what makes you care about the state of food.

This is a great question because it taps into one of the fundamental questions that really drove me to write The Vegetarian’s Guide to Eating Meat.

I began caring about what I ate when I became a vegetarian. As I’ve covered in one of the earliest posts ever on this blog — for better or for worse — that decision came as a result of watching a PETA video in college.

I grew up in the suburbs in the 80s and 90s, which means that I truly did not know what a farm looked like. As far as I was concerned, food came from the grocery store. So when I first understood the reality of a concentrated animal feeding operation, I was so horrified that this was the normative standard that I quit, cold turkey.

But even as a vegetarian, I didn’t spend enough time thinking about the larger issues of food. I barely even spent time thinking about how well I was eating. So while being a vegetarian was designed to help me become a ‘better’ eater, I wasn’t concerned with the state of food until seven years later…

I began caring about the state of food when I began thinking about eating meat again. Or rather, thinking about the state of food is what made me consider eating meat again.

In the summer of 2009, I bought and read The Omnivore’s Dilemma. And while much of that book was a revelation to me (as it was to the country), the aspect of the book I found most illuminating was Pollan’s discussion of the corn monoculture industry.

In tracking a fast food meal backs to its origins, Pollan ends up in a corn field in Ames, Iowa. At the time I read the book, I happened to live in Ames, Iowa, so I had some sense of how much of the land of the Midwest was taken up with growing corn. What I didn’t know was how much of that went to cattle feedlots, or how much damage was being done to the land in the industrial growth methods being used. What I really didn’t know was how much the federal government was invested in corn growth — so much so that corporations were practically being paid to come up with non-cattle uses for all the excess corn.

I went home and started checking the ingredients lists on all my vegetarian foods, and found either corn or soy byproducts in nearly everything — yogurt, salad dressing, whole wheat bread, lemonade, and certainly in my fake meat substitute products — and I was pretty horrified.

The realization I had standing in my pantry on that day in mid-August was that being a vegetarian didn’t necessarily mean that I was opting out of the larger, flawed system of industrial agriculture. Sure, perhaps I wasn’t eating animal meat (though this is often also cleverly hidden in seemingly-innocuous foods) but I was still spending my money within the same system. Corn and meat were part of the same agricultural behemoth.

I spent a few weeks feeling very angry and very disillusioned. But then I kept reading the book, and discovered, along with Pollan, that there was such a thing as a farmer who actually worked with, rather than against the land. And while I read along while Pollan toured one particular farm for his book, I began to wonder whether there may not be some of those farms around me.

As it turned out, there were many. Perhaps because of the overwhelming presence of industrialized agriculture in Iowa, it also seems like a hotbed of sustainable innovation. I met biodyanmic cattle farmers, toured family-run organic vegetable operations, and bought wild, sustainably-harvested Alaskan salmon from Inuit fishermen through an affordable, no-membership-fee buying club right there in Ames, in the middle of the cornfields.

As a result of all this, I was forced to re-examine my initial way of thinking about food. Clearly, being a vegetarian and “opting out” of the system had not solved all the problems, or absolved me of input into the industrial system. And on the other hand, it appeared as if I could buy meat that did side-step that system, and instead supported

At any rate, what I began to learn that summer and fall was that the whole question of what to eat, and from where, was much more complex than I had initially thought. My interest was piqued, but more importantly, so was my conscience. I knew that if I wanted to eat meat again, I was going to have to establish some standards and hold myself to them.

And as I began to do research, to meet more farmers and read more books, I found so much information, so many great inspiring ideas, and so many horrifying, disgusting realities, that I couldn’t turn away. I was sure that many people were in the dark, like I had been, and may  be inadvertently supporting things they disagree with.

So I decided to write a book about my realizations. And two years later, here we are.

What moments in your life have made you care about food — the state of food, your dietary choices, or just how to cook a particular ingredient in a new, illuminating way? Leave a comment or drop me an email at marissa@wemeatagain.com and share your “becoming a foodie” story, and you may end up in a future blog post!

Reading & Writing The Vegetarian’s Guide to Eating Meat

9 Nov

I promised you all another video post, and finally I am able to deliver. Thanks to the benefits of having a full-time media staff available at my university, I have a video of a lecture I gave on campus this past week titled “We Meat Again: Activist Writing & Becoming Un-Vegetarian”. The lecture focused on the genesis of the project, the process of writing it, and in particular the blend of the personal and political that made me want to tackle food as a subject for my first book.

It’s quite long, and since I know we don’t all have time to sit and watch a 50 minute lecture, I’ll probably skip a post tomorrow and let everyone have some time to look it over and let me know what you think.

Or, in case you only want to watch bits and pieces, here are some of the things covered.

Up to minute 8: I introduce the project and specifically my desire to write as a form of social action. Through this, I discuss how and why food was the subject I chose to write about.

Between minutes 8-28: I read four short excerpts from the book, and after each, discuss a challenge or technique in constructing a personal political narrative. This is the section to check out if you’re interested in hearing more of the book itself.

Post minute 28: The massive question & answer session! Lots of people had lots of questions and I had a lot of fun trying to answer them all. It was really illuminating for me, since I’m still such a novice in the field of food — and am really only an expert in food writing – to see what people care about, what they need to know more about, and where their interests lie. This Q&A covered everything from my diet and weight, urban gardening, Monsanto State University, the unending process of cutting/rewriting/cutting some more that entails writing a book, and a list of some of the other boycotts I’ve personally enacted.

Anyway, hope you all find something useful and/or enjoyable in here, whether from the writing itself, the personal political writing process or the food and dietary questions. Watch and enjoy and share widely as you like, and feel free to ask any questions you would have wanted to in the comments section, or via email!

How to Stop Being a Vegetarian

5 Sep

Ladies & gentlemen, I have meat back in my life.

After a successful trip 90 miles to the nearest co-op this weekend, along with some great advice from my colleagues for a more local source of grass-fed, chemical-free meat, I will finally be able to happily eat humanely-raised, good-for-me-and-the-planet meat again. A celebratory recipe post will surely follow.

As I mentioned when I first wrote about the drought of sustainable meat in my little town in Kansas, it’s actually not that difficult for me to go without meat for awhile. We all know that my seven years as a vegetarian were not all spent cooking and eating well, but they did successfully help me break myself of the notion that a meal must have meat to be complete.

But I really like meat. I cannot describe to you all how excited I was to put a package of Applegate Natural’s Sunday bacon in my basket at the co-op on Saturday (well, maybe you can understand. See header photo). I also got some new meats to try, including ground turkey and buffalo stew meat (I’ve had both turkey and bison before, just not in those forms). So in honor of the fact that I can eat meat well again, I thought I’d dedicate this week’s “advice” post to an issue that seems to drive a lot of traffic to the site that I’ve never directly addressed:

How do you re-incorporate meat into your diet?

In fact, I’m a bit surprised it’s taken me this long to think about writing on this topic. Two years ago, when I was considering making the transition back into meat-eating, I spent a lot of time looking for advice, even other individual stories, on the internet — and I really didn’t find much at all. So let me share with you all some of the things that did and didn’t work for me. Hopefully this post will answer questions for vegetarians thinking about making the transition, but I think it should also prove useful to anyone who would just like an insight into the issues of health, sourcing and ethics that go into dietary choices.

First, a disclaimer: I am not a health or nutrition expert. The advice in this post is based on my individual experiences ONLY, and anyone with health considerations should consult a physician or nutritionist before switching their diet dramatically.

What should I eat? How will my body react?

We’ve all heard those horror stories of vegans who accidentally swallow a sip of beef broth and vomit for three days straight. We’ve all also probably heard stories of people who spent nearly a decade as a vegan and then downed an entire package pf pepperoni in one sitting without so much as the hiccups. So it can be difficult to know how your body will react to a reintroduction of an unfamiliar food. The approach that worked for me here was to start small,start slow and stay in your comfort zone.

When I visited Africa with my mother in the middle of my time as a vegetarian, I ate a bowl of soup that had been cooked with meat in it — I didn’t eat any actual meat, but I was basically eating goat broth. I was violently ill, in uh, more than one way, for a few days after that.

In contrast, my first meal with meat after seven years was pasta with my Nonna’s red sauce with cut up bits of a chicken breast mixed in and a side of green beans. I was perfectly fine, and didn’t experience even a minor bout of indigestion.

I think the difference between the two meals was that one was almost entirely familiar to my body, while the other was foreign. But it was Adjoa’s (delicious) super-spicy pepe soup that was unfamiliar. Even though I hadn’t eaten chicken in years, the rest of that meal was something I ate often, so my body hardly noticed the addition of a small amount of meat. But  my body very much noticed, and violently reacted to, the hint of meat when in combination with spicy food, unfamiliar ingredients, and days of 120 degree heat.

The lesson here is eat something you are very used to eating. Cook it yourself to ensure that all the ingredients other than meat are familiar to your digestive system. And only eat small amounts of meat to start, gradually building up to whatever you consider “normal.”

How should I prepare my meat?

I have to give a big shout-out here to Scott, the person who actually cooked that first chicken breast for me a few years ago. This is an issue I don’t think most vegetarians consider when they think about going back. But the seven years I spent as a vegetarian were ages 19-26. Which meat that I’d gone from my parent’s house to a college dining hall to a vegetarian — which meant that at age 26, I did not know how to cook meat.

Because with meat there are very real food safety issues, I think it’s a great idea to have a trusted carnivore around to help you out, not just the first time, but the first few times (since different types of meat have different requirements).

If it weren’t for Scott, I wouldn’t know, for example, that you shouldn’t use the same plate or fork to carry the raw meat and the cooked. I wouldn’t know that pink in the center is good for steak but bad for chicken. On a more practical level, I wouldn’t know how truly disgusting meat packaging smells in the garbage after a few days. There’s a lot that I wouldn’t have been prepared for — that I wouldn’t even have thought to look into. I still sometimes send him a picture message asking whether the center of a lamb loin is supposed to be that deep purple of a color, or what it means if the chicken smells like feet.

How long until I can eat normally again?

Even after reading about the dramatically different reactions people can have to a reintroduction of meat, many people want to speed ahead to the time when they can officiallysay they are no longer a vegetarian. They want to get “back to normal,” to stop being the annoying friend who needs to make sure everyone eats out somewhere with vegetarian options, they want to go to Taco Bell again.

I do have an answer to that question, but first I want to take a moment here to say: never lose those standards. Retaining some of the habits of vegetarianism is one of the things that’s made me such a healthy, sustainable omnivore. Do not go back to eating fast food. It’s not good for anyone. Don’t let up on insisting that a restaurant at least offer a few vegetarian options — any place that doesn’t is behind the times, and less likely to offer sustainable, local or organic options. Apply the same principles of health and ethics that you did to vegetarianism to meat-eating again, and above all, don’t just revert to eating meat with every meal.

All that being said, you should take your time in ramping your meat consumption back up from zero to sixty. After my completely innocuous and pleasant experience with the chicken pasta, I was feeling pretty good. I thought sure I’d crossed the threshold and so two days later, at brunch out, I order a quiche with little bits of local, uncured bacon.

Later that day I experienced some… digestive issues. Nothing major, but unusual for a leafy-green eating vegetarian, and I largely attribute that to the bacon. Even though it was a small amount, and a healthy bacon (as opposed to packaged Oscar Meyer), it was unfamiliar to my system, and as a processed meat, a leap from a chicken breast.

I would say for at least a few weeks, eat meat less frequently than you think you “normally” would (only 3-4 times a week, maybe, instead of every other meal) and cook it exclusively at home. That way, the meat is the only unfamiliar ingredient. This is all precautionary, of course, but when it comes to my digestive health, I say better safe than sorry.

How will I feel?

This actually isn’t a question a lot of vegetarians ask — or if they do, they are refering to a physical feeling. But I want to take a minute here to talk about the emotional impact of eating meat again.

I think to make the transition away from vegetarianism, you need to be able to be honest with your feelings and intentions. Don’t just pretend you changed your mind, or that it’s not a big decision. It is, and should be treated as such. Spend some time, whether with yourself, or a friend, talking about why you became a vegetarian in the first place, and what made you think about bringing meat back into your diet. Whether these are issues of ethics, or simply of health or taste preferences, important issues will come up in these discussions that will help direct you towards the kind of meat-eating (the style, the frequency, the sourcing) that you want yours to be.

Before I decided to eat meat again, Scott and I spent an entire Saturday morning talking about all of the issues that were tied, for me, into the notion of meat. Acknowledging that I still objected to a factory farming system helped me decide on the standards I would set for farms I’d source meat from. Debating the role of protein in the development of the modern human  body helped me figure out how often I saw myself eating meat. And being open about the real reasons I wanted to stop being exclusively a vegetarian, what I was eating that simply was not “natural,”  pointed me down the path of selective omnivore, the path that led me here.

And after about three hours of talking, including some of my patented off-the-wall references to primatology, I knew I was ready.

The process of reintroducing meat should be a slow one, should be one of trial and error and the discovery born of that experimentation. Allow yourself the time and space to do it right, and you never know what you will find.

Have you made the transition into or out of vegetarianism? Was it smooth, or rocky? What obstacles did you hit? What advice do you have from others? Leave a comment and share your thoughts.

If you’re thinking about making this transition and have any questions, please feel free to get in touch with me by email: marissa@wemeatagain.com

Stuffed Peppers

15 Aug

I wasn’t sure what to do for a filling vegetarian main dish last night for dinner until I pulled out the plastic container into which I’d placed a half a green pepper, after slicing its other half into rings for a salad last week.

Look at that pretty pepper! Just like a flower. And somehow, seeing the vegetable in this different way hit me – I could make stuffed peppers!

There are several varieties of stuffed pepper. Some are more meat-based, like this one. I remember my mother making bell peppers stuffed with Spanish rice and ground beef when I was a kid – very yummy. Some are more Mediterranean in flavor. And of course, there are Mexican variations like stuffed poblanos.

For some reason, this is never a dish that occurs to me to make — though I always have bell peppers and couscous in the house, and though I very often pair them by chopping bell peppers into couscous. I just always forget about the possibility of inversion.

But I had some shredded Asiago cheese just begging to get melty, so I decided to just make my usual whole wheat couscous with parmesan cheese to stuff into the red bell pepper I ended up using (I wanted this to be my main dish, so I wanted a whole pepper, and saved my inspiration green pepper for another day).

This is actually an incredibly easy dish. You just slice around the stem of the pepper in a wide square, making sure to saw down through the ribs and you ought to be able to tip the pepper upside down and pull the top and seeds out as one piece. Then prepare the filling, stuff, top with your choice of cheese and stick the whole thing (upright in a baking dish for overflow) under the broiler for 5-10 minutes.

I love how versatile a recipe this is. Because bell peppers can so easily take on Italian, Mexican, Indian, Thai, Greek, or almost any other flavors, you could easily transform any grain or salad into a filling for a bell pepper. Israeli couscous with golden raisins and currants? Why not? Feta and artichoke hearts? No problem. There are certainly vegan possibilities with tofu scramble or a quinoa salad, too!

Oh, yeah, this is a messy dish to eat. I usually slice mine down the middle and go to town open-face style. No wrong way to enjoy all that gooey, cheesy goodness!

Maybe you have an oft-ignored dish in your kitchen right now! Check the fridge and think about inverting your ingredients, or mixing it up in unexpected ways, and then report back! Or, leave a comment and share your favorite recipe discoveries with us — even ones you’ve always known were there…

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