I am not a person who is prone to recurring dreams, but there is one that I have had a few times a year since I quit eating meat in late 2005. I am in the passenger seat of a moving vehicle, the weather is sunny, and I am eating a chicken leg very slowly. I am happy.
For those of you who did not experiment in college, vegetarianism is horrible. It is more than refusing your grandmother’s meatballs or settling for a Caesar salad at restaurants. If you are among the unlucky—the reluctant vegetarians who still have “the hunger”—it is a constant exercise in self-restraint. Not only must we pass on those foods that are obviously prepared around meat, we must actively assess each meal looking for the bacon (indeed, it has become an accepted fact of American life that bacon is everywhere). Depending on where the vegetarian draws his or her line in the sand regarding animal consumption, this dance can inspire feelings ranging from mild irritation to abject misery, health and environmental benefits be damned.
And the lines we draw in the sand are as varied as they are arbitrary. There are so many species of vegetarian that even well-intentioned taxonomy is futile. For my part, I just don’t eat anything with a mother, as my also-vegetarian brother puts it. By-products are acceptable as long as they are too small to be chewed (lard, broths, gravies, etc.) There is no solid reasoning behind these policies, other than that they are reasonably convenient and I am lazy. Here is how it started: One night my friend Bunk and I were deciding on which sandwiches to have delivered, and we caught a music video called “Wilted Rose” on a public access channel. It’s the Flash-animated tale of a brave little chicken who shuts down a factory farm and frees his fellow captive farm animals. It’s cheesy enough but it struck a chord and we ordered cheese pizza instead. I never looked back—immediately the “big” meats were out, and then seafood the next year. (Bunk was back to meat by the end of the week.)
What I realized after watching that video was that I could no longer deny the basic trade-off of every meaty (read: delicious) meal: an animal must die for the meal to exist. I have raised pets my entire life and have known animals to be capable companions. I have also seen animals of all classes do remarkable things both in person and on television. I am further inclined to believe that killing in general is bad policy, unless absolutely necessary. There is a value judgment being made every time we consume meat, particularly for pet owners: some animals are fit to exist, share our beds, and even enjoy limited protection under the law; while others should be slaughtered en masse. I am not comfortable with accepting responsibility for making that call, so I begrudgingly refuse even the sausage sandwiches I lived on in high school.
I am not convinced that eating meat isn’t a natural, proper, morally-acceptable thing to do. I have been presented with a litany of good reasons by smart folks about why I should come back to the fold. I have likewise been told by the liberal media that being a vegetarian is an Earth-friendly, healthy lifestyle (although I have some reason to doubt this, as I lost a third of my body weight after converting and now struggle to keep it on). I don’t care either way. I take no moral high ground above carnivores--proselytizing about beef would look ridiculous coming from a guy in a leather bomber jacket, anyway. What I think is offensive and dangerous is the compartmentalization of the products from the process. Fishers and farmers and workers at the slaughter certainly understand the link between an act indistinguishable from murder and their Six Dollar Burgers. I don’t think anyone has a place to judge the diet choices of those who have a direct hand in the process. For those of us comfortably removed, however, it is quite easy to allow complacency, habit, and convenience to permit behavior that would be considered unconscionable in only slightly different circumstances. Imagine the horrifying intellectual consistency of addressing our schools’ cafeteria budget shortfalls by utilizing our burgeoning national stray cat problem!
As of this writing, I remain bitter that KFC waited until after I quit eating meat to unleash their Double Down upon the world. Until scientists have the impetus and funding to start cranking out synthetic meat, I will continue in this absurd denial, surviving on whatever the hell imitation products are made out of and resenting life in general as a result.