Register Monday | October 16 | 2017

My Vegetarian Affair

A lapsed vegetarian fleshes out her reasons for returning to meat

I used to hate it when people asked me why I became a vegetarian. Exchanges would go something like this: “So what’s this nonsense about you not eating meat?” “I don’t think its right to eat living things.” “You eat plants. They’re alive.” “Okay. I eat living things. But nothing with a heart.” “What about artichokes?” “Very funny.” “What would you do if you lived in the high Arctic and all there was to eat was seal?” Sigh. “Yes, I would eat meat to stay alive.” “Well, then.” My friend Karla and I were having lunch the other day. She had formerly been a vegetarian for seven years. I asked the dreaded question. “What made you become one?” “I didn’t want to eat dead bodies anymore,” she replied, chowing down on her steak. “What made you switch back?” “There was this barbeque on the beach,” she grinned, rolling her eyes as she remembered the ecstasy. My own aversion to meat might have started when I was seventeen, preparing my first chicken for stuffing and roasting. I removed the neck and pulled out organs from its cavity, washed and patted it dry as the recipe book suggested, then stuffed the bird and sewed it up. I cupped my palm under the rear end of the bird and held it up to show my roommate. As we looked at that naked chicken, its legs dangling over my hand in a sitting position and its little wings reaching forward, I was startled at how like a baby it looked. Once the chicken was cooked, I thoroughly enjoyed eating it—but a shift of awareness had occurred, nonetheless. This had once been a living body. I was eating flesh. I was raised in a family that not only ate meat, but cut out the middleman. Come hunting season, Dad could usually be found out in the bush. The September that I turned fifteen, I returned from a day of horseback riding to discover a moose hanging upside down from the rafters in the garage. Dad bagged one every fall. This time, however, I realized how like my horse that moose was, with its long legs, hooves, pointed ears and noble face. I went close and touched its coat. It felt like a horse’s coat that hadn’t been brushed in long while. As I ran my hand up the moose’s withers and over the straight, muscular back, I couldn’t see any logical difference between eating this moose and eating my horse. Yet I was willing to eat one but not the other. Was it only that I loved my horse? No, eating a wild horse too was unthinkable. After Dad skinned the moose and cut it into quarters with a hacksaw, he hauled the chunks into the kitchen. With the aid of a butcher’s diagram spread out on the table, I helped transform withers, rump and thighs into roasts, steaks and stew. I was disgusted by the veins, blood, tendons, ligaments—anything that reminded me of a living creature—but it would be ten years before I stopped eating meat. When I finally became a vegetarian, it was only because I met a person I admired for her highly ethical, carefully considered lifestyle. Heather was a grad student working on her thesis in the field of hydrogeology. I envied her commitment to the environment, her political engagement, her natural, wholesome beauty. When she showed me around her kitchen, with its jars of textured grains and colourful lentils, I was swayed more by her earnest passion than by a concern for living creatures. I became a vegetarian because I wanted to be like her. It was an identity decision: I became a vegetarian to please another person. This was the real reason I hated being probed about it. Much as I insisted on my love of animals and opposition to killing, I still wore leather shoes and ate cheese made from rennet. Fact is, I can squint my eyes to slant the truth however it suits me, and so can most people. Certain cultures throughout history, even as recently as the late twentieth century, ate human flesh as a normal part of their diet. As the popular TV show Fear Factordemonstrates, people can be convinced to eat almost anything if money, peer validation or other rewards are attached. Food choices defy reason. In North America, we eat sardines but not goldfish—unless we’re very drunk and someone dares us. We eat cow (and moose) but not horse, because horses are intelligent. We won’t eat dog because dogs are man’s best friend, but we’ll feed horsemeat to a dog. An octopus can unscrew the lid from a jar with food in it, and can even tell a square from a cross, yet we eat octopus. Our mouths water at the prospect of eating lobster, and we happily accept their segmented bodies, exoskeletons, long antennae and confusing array of legs on the plate in front of us, even though lobster are from the same arthropoda phylum as many insects. Leave North America, and food choices really explode—especially in the direction of insects. We think of this as something distinctly un-western—dragonflies in Bali, winged termites in Ghana and South Africa, bee larvae in China, aquatic fly larvae in Japan, grubs in New Guinea and Australia, tarantulas and ants in Latin America. But the ancient founders of our western civilization dined on insects all the time. Pliny writes that Roman aristocrats loved to eat beetle larvae reared on flour and wine. Aristotle describes the optimum time to harvest cicadas: “The larva of the cicada on attaining full size in the ground becomes a nymph; then it tastes best, before the husk is broken. At first the males are better to eat, but after copulation the females, which are then full of white eggs.” Only in recent centuries, as the west became more invested in agriculture, has the view of bugs narrowed from appetizer to destroyer of crops. And there are excellent nutritional reasons to eat insects, says Gene DeFoliart, entomologist and professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin. A beef burger is roughly 18 percent protein and 18 percent fat. Cooked grasshopper contains up to 60 percent protein with just 6 percent fat. Still not convinced? Neither am I. What we put in our mouths is not a matter of logic, but of ego and emotion. After seventeen years of vegetarianism, I recently bought a can of tuna. I was tired of being tired, of popping pills to ward off chronic anaemia. Lifting the lid, I felt a shock when confronted with the strips of pinkish flesh. But my squeamishness didn’t last. The smell emanating from the can recalled a comforting aroma of family dinners long past. I followed a simple recipe, one my mother made when our game supply was low: egg noodles boiled to an al dente gloss, meaty flakes of tuna, two cans of cream of mushroom soup, one cup of frozen peas for colour, potato chip crumbs for a layer of salty crunch: all baked together until the bubbling flavours filled the house with their hearty, appetizing fragrance. A simple dish, but even tuna casserole can taste divine. We will eat what we want to eat.