Thursday, July 12, 2007

The Ambivalent (Sorta) Vegetarian

Kim of The Lazy Vegan posted about a great essay on July 10th's MSNBC Health, "Ambivalent Vegitarian faces meat of the matter," by Elizabeth DeVita-Raeburn. The author initially became a vegetarian as a weight loss strategy (as someone who lost over 40 pounds by eating lots of pork tenderloin, chicken breast, sirloin steak, and eggs, I'm astonished at how any vegetarian achieves and maintains a svelte figure. But I'm guessing that those are the ones who put the "veg" in vegetarian by actually eating a lot of vegetables). Upon resuming meat-eating years later, she suddenly finds herself feeling guilty about eating the flesh of animals:

Increasingly, when I looked at a piece of beef on my plate, I no longer
the calories I’d have to jog off the next day. I saw something that looked
unnervingly like flesh — flesh not all that different from my own. This
my mind to uncomfortable comparisons. Skinned and butchered, how
different would I look on a plate? How different was this piece of meat from me?

When I ate meat, it wasn't unusual for me to pick up a nice steak and bottle of red wine whenever I was feeling sluggish and lifeless. I remember reading about French doctors prescribing this remedy to patients whenever they needed some pep in their step and that made sense to me. I'd just barely cook the steak, leaving it pretty bloody, pink and red within and charred without, thinking that the bloodier the steak, the more restorative it would be. I never winced. Never really thought about the fact that I was eating dead cow. On the rare occassions that preparing steak or removing the gizzards from a chicken I was about to roast prompted me to get a little, well, grossed-out, I'd quickly put it out of my mind. It's just food. I'm just feeding myself. Get over it. Or, don't get over it. Face what it is. Yes, prepping a dead, plucked, headless chicken for roasting can be a little unseemly. But it will taste so good. And I went on with it. I remember my grandmother butchering and scaling whole fish and thought, a real cook doesn't mind the blood and guts of it. My mother sucked the marrow out of bones before it became haute cuisine. I was used to thinking of eating animals as just something you do. Yes, how admirable to be a vegetarian but who could live like that? I never thought I could. Now I am not eating land animals and I am not buying cheese if it has rennet and I am thinking about when or if I'll eventually give up fish too, a food I didn't even really crave back when I was eating meat. I'm a freaking pescetarian. One of those dumbasses who classifies fish as vegetarian-friendly.

Today I'm feeling rather slow and my old steak and wine remedy as popped into mind. I'm quickly tiring of veggie burgers and salads for lunch. I am craving meat. Much as I abhor what we do to animals to eat their bodies and drink their milk, I still love the way all of that tastes--butter, a steak, fried chicken. I am most definitely on the fence. Disgusted by the fact that the flesh I want has been procured in such horrific ways and yet still able to say it tastes good. And beyond the flavor, I remember meat satisfying me, feeling like a complete meal in my stomach--roast chicken, potatoes or rice, some asparagus or snow peas tossed in olive oil, fresh garlic, salt, pepper, and a splash of soy sauce. That's a meal. Then again, it was one of my favorites--the roast chicken--that made me gag and hand over the meat to the dog when I connected what was on my plate to what happened on a farm in god knows where.

I could be romanticizing meat's powers to satisfy and rejuvenate, like an ex who looks better after a few months or years have passed. Truthfully, I've always had a problem with lunch. I've never been able to quite figure out what to pack for work that will keep me tied over for 6 hours. I pretty much get hungry every 2 to 3 hours, with or without meat. And that's all thanks to dieting, which has shrunk my stomach so that I get full very quickly but then hungry again just as soon. And the steak and wine routine? While tasty, the wine probably made me too sleepy to allow the steak to revitalize my energy levels, if it could even do that at all.

In many ways, my transition into vegetarianism isn't unlike dieting. Lifestyle change? Whatever. I'm concentrated on what I can't eat rather than what I can. Deprivation is a means to an ends and I've done it before. Like a diet, it hasn't been all pleasurable. I had the Cuban Platter at Caravan of Dreams this past weekend with Brian and Sky, and, yes, the grilled bananas were great, rice and beans passable for a non-Cuban joint, and the vegan sour cream-- though I couldn't mistake it for the real thing--it was nice. But those blocks of tofu standing in for what? Pork? Chicken? Nothing? It just didn't do it for me. Something was missing. I grabbed a few bites of Brian's seitan, which was pretty good, a much more accurate meat-substitute but not meat. Sometimes I do wonder if I can pull this off for a lifetime. Food is the one thing I wholeheartedly enjoy (would I need to diet if I didn't?) and yet, it's been the most fraught, complicated, and sometimes painful area of my life.

I remind myself that I don't need to give up meat forever. I won't know how I'll feel about this in 5, 10, 20 years. I mean, I should just wait and see how this Thanksgiving goes. Maybe I'll completely fall off the wagon today or November or 4 years from now, finally buying a pair of leather shoes again while I down a burger. Maybe I'll become a militant vegan, swearing off my beloeved cheese. I don't know yet. I don't feel like a "real" vegetarian (or even pescetarian), completely at peace with what I've decided to eat and not eat. And yet, I don't completely relate to being the meat-eater who doesn't at least pause to think about what passes their lips. I am in limbo, a dietary purgatory. It's not unlike being in a 12-step program. One day at a time. Today, I won't eat meat. We'll deal with the day I'm chasing down a bucket of fried chicken when it comes but for now, it hasn't.

The last paragraph of the essay has a very particular resonance for me:

Of course, I can continue to live a conflicted life, and no one will judge me
but me. But though I crave resolution, so far, I am unable (or unwilling) to
make the sacrifice. What does this say about me? Am I incapable of exercising empathy when it’s inconvenient? Which leaves me
to contemplate a particular irony: It is not other people but animals
who are forcing me to consider the depth and breadth of my humanity.

Every time I pick up a menu.

1 comment:

JennDZ - The Leftover Queen said...

Changing your eating habits are hard, even if it is just to loose weight, but changing eating habits for political or emotional reasons is even harder! So I applaud your introspective look at your change of diet, why you are doing it and where you go from here!