The Animal in the Room


Once, at a dinner buffet on the Las Vegas strip, I ate meat from eight different species of animals — beef, lamb, pork, chicken, duck, turkey, salmon, and shrimp — in a single meal. Another time, in St. Louis, I made a friend wait with me for an hour in the August sun so I could have Crown Candy Kitchen’s Heart-Stopping BLT — an avalanche of bacon inadequately buttressed by a couple of slices of grease-soaked bread and a wimpy leaf of lettuce — for lunch. And, in a classic example of confirmation bias, I readily accepted as truth the fad “Blood Type Diet,” whose recommendation that people of my blood type eat high-protein diets was confirmed perfectly by my body’s food cravings, if not by science.

I may be engaged to a vegetarian, but I usually introduce myself as a carnivore.

But in Xi’an, trying a roujiamo (a local delicacy roughly translated as “meat sandwich”) that happened to be filled with donkey meat, I felt suddenly squeamish. Do I eat donkey? I wondered. Would I eat a horse? Is eating a donkey like eating a horse? I took the tiniest of bites. The meat was flavorful, and the bun was warm and soft and crispy, but I couldn’t bring myself to continue.

A week later, in Beijing, I yelped as I dug into a whole roast chicken we’d bought in a supermarket near our hotel. The chicken was delicious, but I hadn’t expected to find a long neck with a head attached, complete with beak. Whole chickens in American grocery stores don’t come with heads.

I guess that’s just one of the many ways we try not to think about what it means to eat meat. What it means to eat animals.

I’ve been coming to the realization that I can’t honestly claim to be approaching my decisions with mindfulness while continuing to follow my modus operandi of the past three decades when it comes to food: deliberately, automatically, and willfully not thinking about where the meat I eat comes from. I’ve started feeling like a hypocrite when I talk about not wanting to buy cosmetics from companies that test their products on animals, while at the same time ignoring the fact that I eat animals daily, indiscriminately, and with great relish.

This month, I plan to experiment with reducing my consumption of meat. Maybe I won’t eat any mammals, or maybe I won’t eat meat more than once a day, or maybe I won’t eat meat one day each week. Maybe some combination of those, or maybe something else altogether. At the moment, it’s not my intention to become a vegan, or even a vegetarian, and certainly not overnight, but I am committed to becoming more mindful and deliberate about my consumption of meat, and I’m open to following this exploration wherever it leads. I want to see how difficult or easy it will be for me, already an exceedingly picky eater, to find palatable food options that are focused on plants rather than animals. I want to discover how my consumption — and conception — of food changes if I approach eating from outside of a meat-centric perspective.

To be honest, this endeavor feels like it’s been a long time coming. I keep running across vegans on YouTube extolling their plant-based diets when I seek out videos about minimalism. I’ve been noticing my growing reluctance to post pictures of meat on Instagram next to my vegan friend’s photos of rescuing farm animals. Considering that we’re about to get married, it would be nice for me and Lawrence to find more foods that we would enjoy sharing. And, most of all, I want to be healthier, live in a more environmentally-friendly way, and be a better human being.

Health

Health is a major concern for me, especially in light of how much weight I’ve gained and how much fitness I’ve lost since my marathon (two and a half years ago tomorrow!). I still feel comfortable in my own skin, but I’d love to have more energy and more of a sense of physical wellbeing and capability. Over the years, I’ve formed healthy habits in some areas of my diet (drinking almost exclusively water, for example), but I still have many major stumbling blocks (my insatiable sweet tooth, for one). I’m hoping that being more attentive about what I eat and having more plant-based meals will lead to visible improvements in my health. In terms of eating meat in particular, my current understanding is that lean meat and fish, eaten sparingly, are generally considered part of a healthy diet.

Sustainability

I love the beauty of nature, and I want mountains and rivers and trees and elephants to live on into the future. At least in theory, I want to act in ways that are consistent with reducing the environmental impact of my behavior as much as possible; in practice, with my human failings, I probably do this as much as is easy. I recycle (unless that plastic takeout container is too greasy to rinse out); I take public transit (because I happen to live in a city where that’s convenient); I bring reusable bags to the grocery store (but still wind up with enough plastic bags to line my garbage cans). The truth is, I do enough to palliate myself into believing that I behave in environmentally-sound ways, but there is still much more that I could do. I don’t compost; I don’t buy clothing secondhand; I eat animals.

I’m not very well-informed about the subject, but it’s my understanding that humans currently consume meat at a rate that is not sustainable in the long term. That’s why we occasionally see those articles about how insects are the food of the future, right? And I’ve heard that eating meat is inefficient (because more than one pound of feed goes into each pound of meat) and contributes to greenhouse gases (thanks to a combination of deforestation and methane emitted by ruminants). This would seem to suggest that, in terms of eating meat, eliminating beef and lamb from my diet would have the greatest relative environmental benefit.

Ethics

When I was a kid, I had pretty black-and-white views about right and wrong, but one of the best parts of growing up is gaining an appreciation for nuance. At this point, I don’t believe that it’s possible to live in a way that does no harm, only relatively less harm. Still, from a moral standpoint, it’s hard to justify something like eating meat, which isn’t strictly necessary for my survival, and which relies on the deaths and suffering of animals.

But, surely, even without becoming a vegetarian or a vegan, there must be changes I can make in my consumption of meat to reduce the amount of animal suffering that I cause. Would it be better if I only ate meat from animals that were humanely raised on local farms? If I only ate meat from wild game or fish? I read one article arguing that eating beef is more ethical than eating chicken because fewer animal lives are lost for the same amount of meat, but it doesn’t really make sense to me that the most ethical way of eating meat would be to eat very large animals. Does a shrimp feel pain in the same way that a goat does?

Is this the wrong time to confess that I unsympathetically massacre hundreds of fruit flies every summer when they invade my kitchen?

I have a lot to learn and a lot to think about.