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Sunday, April 3, 2011

The End of a Diet.

In the end, bacon was not my kryptonite, as it is for many a vegetarian.


I've decided to go public with a decision of mine that many of those close to me had hoped I would make for several years now: after around eight years as a vegetarian, I have decided to start eating meat again.

The change was not made lightly. There was no tempting waft of delicious smells coming from a kitchen, nor an irresistible stack of tasty protein within reach of an empty stomach. This was a choice I made through careful consideration and consultation. This post is rather lengthy, so if you want to skip any part of it, I've broken it down into the history of my vegetarianism, my decision to change, and my experiences thus far.

Why not steak?
First, a history. 

I became a vegetarian, as far as I can remember, in late Grade 10 (2002). At the time, the switch didn't make a whole lot of sense, but it felt right based on a couple of catalysts. The first major change happened when I was working at Cinnzeo, a cinnamon-bun bakery based out of St. Vital mall food court (now regrettably turned into some sort of salad store). One day a huge man approached the counter. He was gigantic. He had tits that were the size of basketballs. He was an all-around, unpleasant looking man. He ordered a box of six large cinnamon buns to go, and I could see in his eyes that he was going home to eat the entire thing right away (some perspective - each cinnamon bun had over 700 calories). This was a man who was eating enough for more than two people. To me he was the embodiment of waste, and it made me feel compelled to counteract his actions. For some reason, my solution was to stop eating red meat, which I did right away. From that moment on, I would not eat any red meat, but continued to eat chicken, lamb, and fish.

Mmm...
In hindsight, this was a very strange decision, and a pretty arrogant one. I presumed that this was a man guilty of gluttony, and while he likely was, why I thought I needed to act on it by restricting myself I don't know, but it could probably be interpreted as pretty self-righteous. I suppose I thought myself better than this man. Though the catalyst was strange, the logic was somewhat sound, although I couldn't articulate why until much later: cows consume a huge amount of food, and by removing red meat from my diet, I was in theory freeing resources. In a way I was reducing the amount of strain I placed on the global food market, but it was pretty negligible. It was also nowhere near my thought process at the time, and really, that argument has had a pretty minimal impact on my philosophy as a vegetarian.

As an aside: my grandmother was a reluctant collector of cow paraphernalia. Somehow it became tradition that if you weren't sure what gift to get her, go with a cow theme. At some point she had to put a stop to it, because her kitchen was ridiculously bovine-themed.
Sometime next year, I saw Requiem for a Dream. If you haven't seen the movie, it's one of those "Here's what happens when you get too involved with drugs" horror stories, and the end makes you feel terrible. Absolutely terrible. At the end, you want to go take a shower, and volunteer somewhere or something. Just somehow make the world a better place, because the end makes you feel so godawful about the world. Again, I seemed to have a bizarre lapse in judgment, because I decided that the best way for me to help the world would be to stop eating chicken and lamb. I didn't really think more beyond that, but it mostly just felt right to stop eating most meats. From that point on, though I titled myself a vegetarian for convenience's sake, I was in reality a pescatarian, because I still ate fish. This was the diet that would stick for the better part of a decade.


So long, no hard feelings.
It took me a couple of years to really hone in on why I chose the diet I did. It was really a gut thing for awhile: it just felt right to have the diet I did. Maybe it was because I took so long to articulate my diet that I was never terribly vocal about it; most people had been genuinely surprised to find out, several months after meeting me, that I didn't eat meet. I never really saw it as a part of my identity, but rather just a choice of what foods I wanted to eat.

What changed was that I read Fast Food Nation. The book set out pretty clearly the unease with which I approached the meat industry, and while I was certainly not a health nut by any stretch of the imagination, the book gave me an arsenal of explanations for my diet, whenever anyone asked. In the end I could boil it down to this:

1. It's not about the animals. While I sympathize with the terrible conditions many animals face, I've always felt that they are subject to human's will; it's unfortunate, and I'd rather it didn't happen, but in the end we're going to eat them anyways. Their quality of life was never much of a priority. I always found it pretty funny whenever someone would cringe at the thought of a slaughterhouse, or raise their voice in protest about the seal hunt (I'm in strong support of the right to hunt seals), but hesitate when I asked them about the last time they ate a burger. Animals are there for us to eat, though I chose not to, and I never begrudged anyone for eating meat. Hell, as I often pointed out in these discussions, I've owned a brown leather jacket for quite some time.

I looked good.
2. Health. Generally, beef and chicken aren't really that good for you. And though they each had their own health drawbacks, fish, eggs, and cheese were my proteins of choice, and I felt like I could better control my diet by restricting my options.

3. Sustainability. Cows and chicken consume quite a lot of food themselves, which puts a strain on the food supply. Not to mention the crap that goes into the rivers and the atmosphere because of their vast numbers. In the end, the weakness in this argument is that free range meat circumvents this. Good point, which leads me to the next one.

4. Self-control. I tend to binge. I go through periods where I really like certain things, and I consume a lot of them. Theoretically, I could have eaten free range meat, but then I probably would have eaten a lot of McDonalds along with it. I knew myself well enough to know that for my diet to work, I had to cut meat out completely.

So tempting...


The decision to change.


About a year ago, I noted that I was pretty much only a vegetarian by habit, rather than by any personal motive. My original intentions no longer resonated with me. I'd gotten very used to skipping over 90% of the menu and zero in on those items I could eat, and I was comfortable with it. A lot of people thought it unfortunate when I didn't have access to most of the menu, but I actually liked it; it made it a hell of a lot easier. It occurred to me that there was nothing really stopping me from eating meat, but I didn't really care to change my habits. In the end, I increasingly thought that this is not a good enough reason to have a certain diet.

At about the same time, I read the book In Defense of Food.  The book did not exactly espouse vegetarianism, but it did encourage  restraint with certain foods. Its argument could be boiled down thusly: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly Plants." Though much of the book was dedicated to the proposition that we should be eating a balanced diet filled mostly with greens, what I gained most from it was the idea that humans should be eating a variety of natural food. Essentially, eating too much of one type of food is not good for the body and is kind of boring; better to eat a small amount of many things. This was the first push towards meat eating that I felt.

Does this pile of leaves mean I can eat hamburgers?
I spent several weeks considering the idea: should I start eating meat? Unsure of what to do, I started writing a personal manifesto, in which I stated the pros and cons of my current diet versus my desired diet. Unsatisfied, I consulted my fiance, the other illustrious contributor to this blog, who quickly backed out of the debate; she had, for years, encouraged me to quit my vegetarianism (she's Portuguese), and now decided that she shouldn't try to influence my decision (a wise choice - she's awfully smart. Maybe I should marry her). I then consulted my sister, who, as a former vegetarian, offered me several valuable pieces of perspective. Finally, I asked my friend Christine Young, a remarkably intelligent vegetarian, her perspective on her diet. We talked about why we held our respective diets, and it helped my balance out the arguments for and against.



In the end, I decided to change my diet, for three reasons. They are as follows:

1. Individual experience: I believe strongly in the Harm Principle. I try to live my life assuming that, as long as I don't harm others, I should be open to as many physical, emotional, and intellectual experiences as I care to be. I've always felt this, and it has been a guiding principle in my life. Why not entertain any thought? What harm is it? In this sense, preventing myself from eating certain foods was preventing me from fulfilling this concept. By denying myself certain foods, I was denying myself experiences unique in life. Case in point: when Denise and I went to Scotland last Christmas, I had the chance to eat haggis, but did not. How many times in my life will I have the chance to eat haggis in Scotland? I don't want to keep myself from making the most out of any situation.


2. Social experience (among friends): For far too long I've been the douche who fucks up everyone's order. Sometimes this happens when ordering pizza, and someone has to accept that one of the pizzas will have to be bereft of meat on it. For the most part, though, this has to do with appetizers. At some point at the bar, someone will want wings, or nachos with beef, or anything that I can't eat, and I won't be able to participate. While this sounds vain to want to join in with friends in such a small part of the meal, I have grown weary of being the thorn in the side of others, and in missing out in a social exercise.



3. Social experience (among family): This was the deal breaker, the argument that finally convinced me to start eating meat. I've grown tired of coming home to my parents' place and they've made me scallops while everyone else eats steaks. I'm weary of going to Denise's and they've kindly given my barbequed shrimp while everyone else eats beef or chicken. It's not that I'm spoiled, because I always appreciated the efforts that people made to accommodate me, especially the Sousas - they always made sure that I had a delicious alternative to whatever they were eating. Despite the best efforts of my hosts (and I appreciated them every single time), I felt excluded from the meal. There was a group experience happening, and I wasn't part of it. At first, I dismissed this longing as vanity, until I spoke to my sister. She told me that she agreed, this was a big deal: meals are an important way for families to connect, to show cohesiveness; there's a unity in enjoying one meal as a family which is somehow integral to our lives, and it is something that I have felt left out of. This is definitely the most important factor: I want to eat what my family is eating, and share the experience.



Meat thus far.


So I decided that I would no longer be abiding by my vegetarianism. I didn't really have a plan, I guess I thought that I'd just let the meat come to me. I tried to eat some of Denise's battered chicken at a chinese restaurant, but she stopped me - she was determined that my first bite of meat would be bacon. Three or four days after my decision, I bit into a strip of bacon for the first time since puberty. To be honest, I was not terribly impressed, I think in part because I had some negative associations with meat that I was still trying to shake. Regardless, I've spent the last two weeks catching up on what everything tastes like.

Eating meat again is interesting, because I was raised with meat, and in some ways it feels like I never stopped eating it. The tastes bring me back to my youth, and thus far they trigger some memories of what I used to like. Ham, for instance, seems to be a favourite of mine, and I remember that I used to love when my mother bought that really cheap, salty, one grade above SPAM, slices of crap ham from the deli. I would just eat them by the slice, or maybe put it on bread with a thin layer of mustard. Chicken seems to be pretty reliably tasty, and it also makes me remember meals my mother made - in particular chicken with Campbell's Golden Mushroom sauce poured over it, and baked. Mmm. Beef, on the other hand, I'm kind of unimpressed with, though I've been told that it's nigh impossible to get good beef on the island.



The irony of all this is, of course, that I've chosen just about the worst location to start eating meat. There's not a great amount of variety here, the quality is apparently sub par, and I'm surrounded by fruits, veggies, and fish. Never in my life has it been easier to maintain my pescatarian diet. Despite this, I've been feeling a growing pressure within me, a restlessness, and it feels right to start eating meat again.

So there we have it. I now eat meat. I believe that it is now my right to cash in on a few free steaks. Tom Kent, Chris Perry, and Tyler Gilchrist, I expect you guys to put your money where your mouths are, and buy me some tasty meats.

6 comments:

  1. You lost me at "cheap, slaty, one grade above Spam, slices of crap from the deli".... Remembering having to slice and serve that meat at Safeway and sometimes having a finger squish right into the square tube of "meat" is almost enough to turn ME vegetarian. Deli ham under the finger nails.... *shudder*

    But, hell. I'll buy you a steak too!

    ReplyDelete
  2. I totally understand what you mean about feeling like an outsider at meals... although mine is not by choice. Watching my whole family pick up their burger in a beautiful looking bun while I silently cut in to my patty is just not the same.

    Oh, and please don't judge the beef here. It is absolutely disgusting. I have gone most of this year not having beef because it is godawful. If you are going to have beef in Dominica, try the steak at Pagua. It is the best you can get here!!!

    Good luck with your integration back in to eating meat.

    ReplyDelete
  3. You know...I'm sure you expect me to make some vindicated statement, but truthfully your vegetarianism never really bothered me at all - and I love meat.
    Actually, I'm only posting because I want your email addresses....
    Hope things are going well.
    sj
    ps: How is lamb not red meat? ;)

    ReplyDelete
  4. This brings me back to a story my friend told me about his ex and why she didn't eat meat. One day she was driving on the road and in front of her was a truck transporting pigs. She said when they stopped at the light, the pig talked to her and asked her "why do you eat me?" She felt guilty about eating meat ever since and decided to become a vegetarian. Of course she told him this story over dim sum as she was eating into a chinese bun which was filled with pork filling. When he pointed this out, she merely shrugged and said, "hey, the pig is already dead... why waste perfectly good food?"

    ReplyDelete
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