An Invitation to Meat

A while back, I received a phone call from a friend of mine whose significant other is a vegetarian.  “Can we have dinner and eat a lot of meat?” she asked.  I like nothing better than to be an enabler, and replied, yes, I would love to put together a big meat dinner, just as long as you bring cigarettes.  It’s a you-scratch-my-back kind of arrangement.  This became a surprisingly fulfilling little project.

Partly, I felt duty bound to help because I can see both sides of the meat problem and am sensitive to the hazards it can create for your love life.  Her boyfriend was the type of guy who (and I admire this) actually read an article in a magazine about meat and simply decided to stop eating it.  I was once a vegetarian for five years solidly, eight years if you count falling off the wagon a couple times and getting back on again.  And I had a little experience with the carnivore-herbivore dating dynamic, and so could, if I can borrow the expression, feel their pain.  When I was a vegetarian I dated a meat-eater, who, God bless her, tolerated my too-pure ways for a few years.  And on the other side of the register, I’ve tasted that medicine back, having dated a vegetarian who was not at all comfy with my acquired and very enthusiastic meat habit.  All of these relationships have ended.  Not to say such a relationship could never work, but dietary alienation is at least as effective a source of tension as long-distance.  The meat was definitely a factor.

It’s not like you can enforce a Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy with regards to eating meat within the bounds of a relationship.  Do you eat two smoked meat sandwiches on your lunch break before heading home to your vegetarian girlfriend?  Gobble half a pound of bacon secretly while she’s out of town for the weekend?  Hustle down to the laundry room to get the stains out of your shirt?  There is no Extra-Strength Lady Macbeth brand laundry detergent that will help you.  So you might as well confess.

I’ve watched with fascination over the last several years the development of the nose-to-tail movement, which seems to consist mainly (in its adherents more than its proponents) of liberal-minded meat eaters developing a moral pang and enrolling in a butchery class or shopping “free range” in order to assuage decades of guilt.  The way I used to win arguments with people who’d prod me over why I was a vegetarian was to say: “Listen, if you think you could actually kill an animal yourself after looking it in the eye and then skin it, gut it and cook it, then terrific.  Have fun.”  I was a vegetarian for moral, not health reasons.  The death made me queasy.

The kind of people who consume slabs of red on a white styrofoam tray wrapped in plastic with the same gravity with which they’d peel and eat an orange were never really the people who tended to pursue these arguments with me.  I remember an episode of Get a Life, in which Chris Elliot says to his father, à propos of nothing, idiot grin on his face, “Dad, where does meat come from?”  The father, played by Brian Doyle-Murray, scrunches up his face as if to say, can he be mine?  He’s just too stupid to live.  This is not the kind of person who would interrogate me about meat.  No, it was always nice, middle-class, college-educated types trying to tilt me off the pedestal of righteousness.  The kind of person who thinks seal hunting is the worst crime in history and then goes and eats a bacon cheeseburger, who loves the song Imagine but has never lived outside of a metropolitan area.  For all the wishful thinking and masochism, it will take exactly one trip to anywhere to disabuse this person of the idea that only Westerners treat animals callously.  People may not be eating porterhouses on the Subcontinent or in the South Pacific, but the uses and varieties that people all over the world find for animals would cause even the most nonchalant North American meat eater to stop and gaze in open-mouthed horror.

I am not here to guilt you out on this subject.  I do think that being a vegetarian did me a good turn in that I learned to cook excellent meals with no meat at all, which is a trick I can still pull off.  If your desire for steak and foie gras is really too much for you, make a resolution that you’ll quit for a year.  If anyone asks you, tell them you’re writing one of those stunt memoirs, like not using toilet paper for a year or attending other people’s funerals, so that you can keep a blog on the subject and maybe parlay that into a book deal (it’s been done).  Such a ruse will at least provide necessary cover while you figure yourself out.  Adulthood begins with the acceptance of responsibility, both conceptually and in practice.  Knowing that actions have consequences (what some people call “karma”) is part of what it means to be an adult.  The fact remains, however, that your dog will stop loving you the day you decide to feed it only vegetarian kibble because you’re squeamish about industrial farming.  And rightly so.

The next time you envision a friend who would “never hurt a fly” who nonetheless enjoys a munch of bacon, endorphin coursing through their pleasure centres, you’ve caught yourself in the act of keeping two sets of books.  Pigs are sweet, intelligent, lovely animals, who play no part in your desire to eat them and they also apparently make excellent pets.  The cost of living a double life is high, as evidenced by a striking comment from a man who took one of those butchery courses (enrolment is very pricey!), “Animals do not want to die.  They can feel pain and fear, and, just like us, will struggle to breathe for even one single more second.  If you’re about to run 250 volts through a pig, do not look it in the eyes.  It is not going to absolve you.”

Now that industrial farming and technology have freed us from daily contact with food production, there’s really no excuse left for eating meat at all, except for simple enjoyment of it.  We are no longer subsistence farmers and hunters, not recently anyway.  Even a cookbook like Joy of Cooking kept, until its second edition, recipes for preparing and cooking squirrel or other game you might find wandering through or flying over your yard.  These were normal eating habits just a couple generations ago.    Eating meat may very well be a holdover relic of humanity’s barbarous past, something we could better live without.  But I can think of several other relics we keep around that make absolutely no sense in the face of modernity.  And you, like your dog, have biological urges that will not be satisfied by a technocratic diet.

So what a relief it finally was when I decided to join the human race, with its bloodlust and tulip-mania, by acknowledging its lengthy cultural history of dependence on animals.  I no longer felt like a space alien visiting the Earth in silent judgement.  I took up barbecuing.  Since deciding to end my own vegetarianism, I have noticed that I tend to go for odd or serious cuts of meat, identifiable body parts, innards, brains, etc., to come to grips with what I’m eating, and to take it seriously.

Bone marrow has become almost my favourite food ever, roasting a length of bone in the oven until the marrow is golden and buttery, scooping it on to little toasts and then sprinkling a couple crystals of sea salt on top.  Make a simple salad of Italian parsley, a diced shallot, olive oil and lemon juice, maybe a few capers.  The citrus-on-green cuts the over-the-top richness of the marrow, which is a pleasure bullet straight to the brain.  The garnish is optional, but it grounds you, brings you back from the catatonic state that the marrow by itself induces.  Unimaginably delicious.  That and marinated, slow-roasted pork belly was what was on the menu on the evening of the aforementioned meat party.  The post-meal cigarettes and guilty laughter probably gave my neighbours the wrong idea.

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Marcel Duchamp photographed by Eric Sutherland at Walker Art Center, October 1965