I will never forget the day I explained to my then four-year-old son that steak is really cow. First he cried, then he asked why we don’t eat dogs like our lab Lewis, or at least the lost dogs at the pound. I didn’t have a very good answer for that one. Which really got me thinking.
I get that the whole subject of eating meat is fraught with moral, political, environmental, health and plenty of other complex issues, and I don’t claim to understand all of them. But since Americans eat almost 10 billion animals per year, most of which are raised and slaughtered under inhumane, inefficient and probably unsustainable conditions, it’s definitely an issue worth tackling.
For me, meat has never been big issue. I grew up in the 1970s, and my mom was often on a “health kick,” which meant lots of wheat germ, bulgur and carob. She wore orange corduroys and pored over the pages of The Enchanted Broccoli Forest. I have been a vegetarian more than once, including a several-year stint in the 90s that began when I gave salmonella to a couple of my post-college friends (long story, but I was new to poultry cooking; I know, not the most auspicious start for a foodie!), but never a “strict” one; I’ve always been a bit like my son, who, by the way, sufficiently recovered from his early meat-related trauma enough to declare himself “a vegetarian, except for bacon.”
Even though I love animals, I don’t think meat eating is morally wrong. I am, however, kind of against torture. If you haven’t done so, maybe take a few minutes to educate yourself about the treatment of animals on industrial farms. Last spring, after reading Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer (which is an excellent book but not for the squeamish), I decided to go completely meat-free and gave up meat for Lent. I didn’t miss it at all. Plus, I lost weight and felt great.
Around the same time, my husband, who is a hunter and fisherman, decided to become an “unless I killed it or know who killed it-atarian,” which, as you can imagine, greatly reduces his meat intake. He decided that the only way he could eat an animal is if he knew it had a good life and did not suffer a cruel death. I know that for some non-sporting types, this is difficult to understand, but he has great respect and reverence for the animals and fish he kills.
Because we have consciously reduced the amount of meat we consume, the meat we do eat is generally expensive and difficult to obtain: wild game (I know some of you are making faces right now, but we really do like it; my wild game ragu is a family favorite), wild fish and occasionally humanely raised chickens from the natural grocery store or farmers’ market.
I don’t expect everyone to even think of going the Wallace “hunting and gathering” route, but if we all could eat a few more meat-free meals, ask the butcher about where his meat comes from, or get to know a farmer or two, we could make a significant difference in the life of the planet, our own health (grass-fed beef and wild game are dramatically lower in saturated fat and higher in omega 3s than conventional beef, for example, and many vegetables are surprisingly high in protein), and the lives of millions of animals. It’s a bit more expensive, but since we’re eating so much less of it, we’re appreciating it more and we’re still probably saving money over the pork-chop-on-every-plate crowd.
Some tips for eating less meat:
1. Don’t worry about protein. We Americans are a long way from having any kind of protein deficiency. Plus, if you have a balanced diet, you will get plenty of protein from vegetables, beans, nuts, etc.
2. Think of meat as a condiment or treat as opposed to a main course. Your meals don’t have to revolve around meat at the center.
3. Buy smaller portions. Steaks don’t have to be huge to be satisfying.
5. Take a vegetarian cooking class. You’d be amazed at the options; they go way beyond bulgur.