Sat in the booth of a steak house with my omnivorous traveling companion, as the waiter scratches my salad order onto his pad, my mind leaps back to a Saturday afternoon when I was a kid. The day I decide that the plate before me, a juicy gammon steak dripping with a fried egg yolk, shall be the last meal I ever consume that contains meat. I hear Sarah order a burger. A stray thought flickers: Why am I not ordering one too? Because meat is murder! a voice in my head reminds me. A staunch vegetarian since tucking into that last slice of ham at my grandma’s house, the road trip across the United States in 2009 marked my 15th year without meat. As a result, I missed out on a cavalcade of culinary experiences. I had taken a vow, as a pre-teen, to step off the top of the food chain.
My stance fit the usual checklist proffered by animal rights activists. The likes of Peter Singer, an Australian academic, argue a utilitarian angle; it’s cruel to kill animals for a meal, as it would be cruel to hunt and feast on humans. He along with many other likeminded animal lovers insist that we can survive on sustenance derived of sources merely mineral or vegetable. That’s true, and as a fact, something vegetarians and vegans cling to as proof that their decision transcends altruistic purposes. It’s not just good for the animals — it’s good for people, too.
And yet. There is a rub. Vegetarian and vegan “meat” is chock full of chemicals. Heck, gluten-free foods aren’t that good for you either. Chris Kresser, a health-celebrity author, tries to encourage a healthy attitude toward meat-eating, insisting that people should be careful before switching to a veggie or vegan diet. Nutrition omitted through a selective diet must be sought elsewhere if you’re serious about maintaining optimal health. Dropping the drumstick for a celery stick just won’t suffice.
In December 2011 I stood in Sainsbury’s clutching a vacuum-sealed pack of line-caught Atlantic cod, tears bubbling in my eyes. After suffering through a still-undiagnosed illness several years earlier, I returned to meat as a last resort. And there I was struggling to deal with the unexpected sobfest taking place in aisle three. I was crying as much for myself, for the end of my non-meat-eating identity, as much as I was for the animals I promised I’d let live which would now die. Still, my desire for true, optimal health trumped my desire to suffer to prove a point.
However, if I was going to consume animal flesh, I was going to do it with my morals as intact as possible. Turning my back on Vegenaise and soy curry wasn’t all of a sudden going to amp up my desire for McDonald’s. Organic, grass-fed beef and free-range chicken became my mainstays. This choice to eat animals treated humanely — as opposed to those pumped full of drugs and water in slaughterhouses — is referred to by philosophy professor Jeff McMahon as “benign carnivorism”. You can still nourish your body without painting yourself the villain.
Weekly highlights in my kitchen now include chicken livers with bacon and onion gravy, pork heart mashed into meatloaves, beef stews, chicken cacciatore. A stock pot bubbling away, full of bones and their nutrition-rich marrow, remains a fixture on the stove. To help the transition, and give my tummy a nice environment to digest all this flesh, I glug fermented cod liver oil. Our house is full of homemade kimchi and krauts to aid my digestive tract, help it cope with this influx of flesh.
Living in the Pacific Northwest, where hunting is common, I’ve been introduced to a smorgasbord of meat options. While my dietary habits have yet to evolve in the same manner as Jonathan McGowan, a Brit who cooks only animals that have died accidentally, I’m reaching a point wherein I might not say no to his two-owl curry. I’m talking the stuff which, in terms of their organic status, surpass even the cows allowed to roam and nibble on grass instead of grain. In the past three years our household has been gifted a number of butcher-wrapped parcels, all from friends and acquaintances who venture out into the wild with the purpose of securing a freezer-load of venison, elk, or moose.
Animal rights activists hold that wild animals should be allowed to exist without fear of being slain by humans. Interestingly, most research and articles speculate on trophy hunters whose objective is the thrill of the sport, without paying attention to those who eat their prey, the dominant ethic in hunting. By hunting deer, for example, Americans reduce numbers of an already overpopulated animal. The reason for those high numbers are thought to be the result of humans killing off predators who would have, in turn, killed those very deer. So we’re restoring order, and obviating the need for a factory farm somewhere to grow and ship our protein.
If you wanna get historical about it, Steven Rinella — a devout hunting omnivore — points out the hunting decline in recent human history. The way we live now is vastly different from our ancestors, who were forced to hunt and kill in order to survive.
One of my friends born and raised in Washington grew up in a hunting family. Each season, Jake ventures out with his dad and his dad’s best friend to secure their bounty for the rest of the year. As per state regulations archers are given a longer period to hunt. “I get an extra three weeks with a bow over those who use guns,” he told me. Despite that time cushion there’s no desire to outstay their welcome. Once the deer is down, Jake guts it — that involves a technique he refers to as “pulling the asshole back” — where it falls and he skins it once he’s back home. “This year, that one deer, musta got 70 pounds of meat cut and wrapped,” he says. “Some burger meat, some medallion steaks.” If it weren’t for folks like Jake I’d have never feasted on the glory that is a moose burger:
Or sunk my teeth into a venison patty (which I made from Jake’s 2014 haul):
Likewise, a medallion of elk. The flavors of each outweigh the still divine joy of eating a perfectly cooked beef burger.
Abstaining from meat for so long, you might think that eating Bambi has dented my karma. Or at the very least plagued me with guilt. It’s been the opposite. Whereas before I ignored the processing of wheat, vegan cheese, and veggie meat, I’ve stepped up and become more proactive in all areas on my nutritional map. There’s a new connection to my sustenance, a conscious interest, that didn’t exist before. For Jake, hunting and eating his kill is more than just a passing interest in a new culinary fad. It’s part of his relationship with his dad, deeply connected to his cultural heritage. “I’m so blessed to have this knowledge,” he told me. Skills and lessons passed down from father to son, a reminder of how little most of us really know of our changing relationship with food.
And for me, that change wasn’t just red meat. In three years, a wealth of seafood has entered my home. A cooler packed with the largest wild salmon I’ve ever seen — caught by a good friend who works at the fisheries for the Suquamish Tribe here in Kitsap County — and old plastic cooking vats brimming with saltwater and the craning, fleshy necks of clams. I’ve feasted on Dungeness hours after pulling them from their crab pots; the journey to yank those cages up is the reason for an afternoon on the water, supping beer and talking stories as the sun hunkers down over the Olympics.
That’s something I missed out on all those years as a vegetarian and vegan. Aside from the important one — good health — there’s the camaraderie and ease that comes with being an omnivore. There’s no longer the awkwardness at restaurants when a server expresses an apology because all of their salads contain honey, or the meat-free chili might be sans cow but contains eggs. Social gatherings are less about my diet and more about the occasion itself.
The next time I’m visiting family out in Naples, I’ll join my mother when she spies a roadside cookout with a chalkboard sign that reads “o’pere e o’musso”. Chopped pig foot and cow’s nose, drenched in lemon juice and seasoned with freshly-cracked pepper and sea salt never appealed to me before. Now I’ll happily tuck in.