I am a carnivore. I mean, I come from Tennessee with a grandmother who made pork chops, sausage, and bacon just about every day. And don’t get me started on barbecue. Ground beef was super-affordable, so I’m pretty sure it was in just about every dinner my mom made for us growing up. And it’s tasty. I consider a good meal one that has some kind of delicious protein in it seasoned just right, seared on the outside, and juicy on the inside. But even I recognize that one should not eat the way my grandparents did, so I have made conscious efforts, at times, to eat healthier. I even thought I was doing pretty good by eliminating most of the red meat from my life, sticking to chicken almost all the time and occasionally some turkey.
But every now and then, my wife will say, out of nowhere, “I think I want to be a vegetarian.” It terrifies carnivore me. She has good reasons for it. For one, she is an avid animal lover – she can’t think of any animal with any less compassion than she feels for our beloved dogs. And, to the detriment of animals, she thinks that Americans eat too much meat. Americans annually eat over 55 pounds of beef alone. In addition, the Pew Research Center reports that meat consumption is on the rise at a faster pace than any time in the last 40 years, and only about 3% of Americans follow a vegetarian diet. So, she’s right: we probably eat too much meat. That means that more animals are being raised just for slaughter, and that is tough to think about even if you adopt the posture that God put animals here for us to eat.
My wife also believes that consuming meat regularly may have consequences beyond cholesterol levels and fat in the bloodstream in the form of hormones – synthetic estrogens and synthetic testosterone for example. There is some evidence that this hidden hormone consumption contributes to weight gain and even some types of cancer, though it is unclear just how much you’d have to consume to empirically prove this link. It is true that ranchers and farmers use hormones to create fatter, meatier animals. It is a common, accepted practice to inject hormones into young livestock so that they gain weight. For the farmer, it’s a simple calculation: bigger animals produce more meat, and more meat is more money. Hormones also help dairy cows produce more milk. It’s hard to fault the farmer here if we are thinking of small family farmers – they have a tough go of it and I understand they need to do whatever they need to do to keep the farm going. But we’re also talking about huge meat companies who aren’t exactly struggling given the overall rise in meat consumption. They are really cashing in.
And this doesn’t even account for the environmental impact of our meat thirst. The meat machine in this country is a major energy and resource consumer.
It’s a lot to think about. It seems that there are real ethical, health, and environmental issues that go into the decision to meat or not to meat. So this week, we embarked on a little experiment: A Week Without Meat.
First of all, it took some planning. Not a lot, but it did take some planning. I have been scarred by tofu and soy encounters gone wrong, and I was pretty nervous about whether or not things would taste good. Dinners at our home usually revolve around some kind of meat. Lunches usually involve lunchmeat of some kind. Breakfast occasionally involves bacon or sausage. So we did have to make a plan and shop a bit differently to execute it. I am the cook around here, so I searched for some recipes that involved
greens and grains and other options like beans and sweet potatoes. We swapped lunchmeat for a vegetarian burger. I ate out once during the week, but my kind friend accounted for this experiment and chose an organic market for our lunch date. We kept breakfast pretty simple, choosing cereal or oatmeal most days, but today I did allow myself a nice egg. My biggest fear was that we wouldn’t feel full or satisfied all five days.
I am happy to say that we really enjoyed the food this week. There was even something kind of easy about not fussing with cooking meat every night. This was the first week back to classes for me, normally a bit more stressful than usual, and simple vegetarian meals were not really that daunting to prepare. We haven’t had anything that we didn’t completely savor. Peanut butter and jelly is a great
sandwich. Grilled cheese feels like an event. Grains are friends. Salad is salad, but salad is so versatile that it never has to be boring. Beans and rice are shape-shifters – I really tasted tacos when I ate them. In all, it was kind of a revelation. I thought I might feel more energetic, but I have also had a head cold this week, so that is not really possible to say.
My overall takeaway is that we probably won’t be full-time vegetarians. But you never say never, right? If my wife ever gets to the point where she wants to “go veg” full-time and for real, I will take that plunge. For now, I do think that we will be much more vegetarian than we have been. Our wonderful friends have contributed all sorts of recipe ideas, so we have lots of things to try. I sort of like to think of our new approach to food as mindful eating – being thoughtful about how much meat we eat and making conscious choices to try more meat alternatives. There is the feeling that one or two people can’t change the world, and that is probably true. I once had a student say in class (while we were talking about climate change) that climate change has been going on for so long and will continue long after we’re gone, and that since we are here for such a short time, it doesn’t do any good for us to try to do anything about it. Imagine if we all thought that way about the world. True, if the May family eats less meat, it might not save many of the animals or save much energy. But given our love of animals and the environment, my wife and I feel good about making choices that we feel are ethical and finding a way to live our values. I am also happy to be able to say to anyone else that might be considering cutting back or cutting out meat from their diet that it is a total myth that there is nothing good to eat when you’re a vegetarian. Everything we ate this week was flavorful and satisfying – and hormone-free.
I’m still a carnivore. But I’m a conscious carnivore, evolving herbivore now. That might not change the world, but it still feels like progress.
© Ryna May 2017