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Food, Identity, Eating Animals: my transitions

I’m in the middle of reading ‘Eating Animals’ by Jonathan Safran Foer. I bought it for my Kindle this week after reading a random blog post that mentioned the title; I think I’d been searching for a recipe on making kefir or some other DIY project that has been filling my ‘free time’ lately [yay for being unemployed].

When I purchased it, after reading the synopsis, I almost knew that this was going to happen: that reading this book was going to become a seminal event in my life. And it has. Without hyperbole, I can say it has literally catapulted me over my decade-long hump of being on the fence about eating animals. The following explanation is lengthy and necessary only for my own comprehension, but because of my previous lack of depth in grappling with this issue [and a lack of recording my thoughts and processes] I feel the need to map out the path that got me to this point in the present. 

* * *

When I was in high school, I played with the idea of being a vegetarian for about a week. It wasn’t on moral grounds, it wasn’t because I didn’t like meat or had any reservations [or real understanding] about where that meat came from and how it came to be in our family’s refrigerator. I just wanted to see if I could ‘do it.’ I must have come across a friend or someone I knew that was vegetarian and became curious enough to toy with the experience, but I honestly don’t remember giving a lot of conscious thought to why I would be doing it. It felt more like a signifier for being different, a way of standing out and feeling powerful, which I think I subconsciously sought frequently during those years.

Then in college, I again tried to give up meat for good, this time for more ethically and environmentally driven reasons, but it didn’t last. I wasn’t journalling at the time, so what I can surmise for the reason is that it was likely a combination of being engaged with a higher number of peers who chose not to eat meat on moral grounds and a first real, honest exposure through coursework to the industrial food system that feeds [if you can call it that] America and much of the world.

I remember that my parents didn’t give me a hard time at home about it, but I also remember not being able to offer a cogent argument answering their questions [curious, not aggressive] as to why I wanted to change my diet in this way. I dreaded the moment when someone would ask me why I had chosen to stop eating meat, because I never felt like I could really own the reasons, perhaps because I hadn’t personally centered on any in a committed way. I understood the moral reasons, but it felt too radical or over-the-top to me at the time; I didn’t see myself as an activist, I was extremely shy and wasn’t the type to staff a table on Red Square handing out pamphlets about animal rights. In short, I felt like a fraud, even if internally these morals made sense to me. So usually, my bumbling answer contained a response about the detriment to the environment, and most importantly, that I felt healthier when I didn’t eat meat all the time [which was true].

Fast forward a few years to the time I started travelling internationally, and I found myself at a point where I noticed that while overseas, I ate considerably less animal products [initially due to concerns over getting sick], I lost weight and had an absence of the digestive issues that normally plagued me at home – if you don’t count traveler’s diarrhea. To be honest, I know that these were not a direct correlation to taking on a more vegetarian diet. Weight loss surely came mostly from how much walking and exploring I was doing on a daily basis, as well as the fact that I was really happy, which I believe has a positive metaphysical result on my digestive and metabolic processes. [Maybe that’s completely false, but it feels right to me]

As for the lack of digestive issues, I also dont think it was necessarily related to an absence of meat in my diet, but I’m not really sure. The bottom line is that for a long while — from the Senior year of high school when I stopped being an athlete through my last real stint at home, when I spent 6 months after college graduation saving up money at my parents’ house — my body was going through an exhausting, frustrating cycle of sometimes feeling ‘normal,’ then accepting only some foods and then being wholly rejective of anything that passed my lips other than water. Meat especially gave me terrible digestion for the next day or two. I believe that the height of this period, while living with my parents after college and trying to figure out my next move, I was stressing myself out to the max. I was depressed, anxiety-ridden, lonely, confused and dismayed at the let down of graduating with no real path laid out. I didn’t know what my purpose in life was, and I felt like a failure for not having things more figured out. I was also healing, slowly, from a long battle with eating disorders and extremely low body image. This translated into near constant stress on my body. I was sure I had hypothyroidism, but the blood tests dispelled that.

Looking back, I see now how much I twisted myself into knots, internally. I began to think that I really should be committed to eating less meat, but for dietary reasons. I also thought at the time that the rest of my diet was fairly healthy, and compared to a lot of consumers it was, but I still ate a lot of processed foods that were ‘low-fat’ or ‘low-cal’ but were NOT REAL FOOD.

I began to understand this latter point a great deal more on the flip side, after I had lived in Colorado for a while, solely on my own. Being on a shoe-string budget for graduate school and cooking for one meant that I had to get creative with what I ate, but it also gave me a lot of freedom to explore what worked for me. For that whole year, I ended up eating mostly salad, fruit, yogurt, oatmeal, rice, canned tuna, fish and the occasional chocolate bar.

Clearly, this was not the most well-balanced diet. Especially when I got down to having only oats and tuna in the cupboard, and I got REALLY creative…

BUT, it helped me to carry out a mostly unintended mega-cleanse of my diet of the previous 20-odd years, eliminating a TON of processed foods that I believe gave my body hell in various ways.

So at this point, I had basically stopped eating meat other than fish. And I connected my better overall health with that absence of meat, whether or not it was accurate. I just went on feeling, and feeling told me that less meat = happier body.

But I still didn’t make any commitments. I ate poultry and red meat on occasion, and even pork on a truly rare occasion [I have always hated pork, but sometimes I tolerated it]. Often, this was when I visited my aunt and uncle for dinner, and it was hard to turn down a home-cooked meal when I mostly lived on salad and oats.

I feel like the first turning point for me must have been meeting Ryan. Again, because I had a major lapse in journaling and recording my thoughts during the past 5 years, I’m not really sure at which point engaging with the idea of eating animals really took hold again, but I know that we discussed it from time to time, and ultimately came to the conclusion that it was ‘the right thing to do’, on a number of levels, to eliminate the majority of animal protein from our diets. The grounds were again largely environmental and health-based, at least in my mind. I think Ryan had delved more into the moral side of the issue when he was younger, but for me, it still didnt feel natural to claim ethics as a foundation for my choices.

Writing that, I have to stop and ask myself: WHY?!

Reading this book has left me frequently shocked, sickened and upset at the way animals are raised, treated and processed into the meat that is sold and consumed in this country [and elsewhere]. But this isn’t the first time I’ve heard of these things happening. I’ve encountered these gory details so many times before. And it was just as sick to me each time, but I never made the resolve to really, honestly, change my conclusions about eating animals. For a couple of years since meeting Ryan, up until just this past week, I’ve called myself a “meat reducer,” and described it to people with a basis on environmental grounds. Again, that part has always made sense to me and has been the easiest to explain, but I see now how much else I’ve been missing. I wasn’t seeing it in a holistic way, despite being so keen to apply this notion to everything else I do and am interested in!

* * *

So why now, instead of back then? It’s hard to comprehend why I was able to ignore the utter inhumanity of this issue for so long.

Maybe it has been selfishness. Maybe I wasn’t ready to hear it, fully. I’ll be honest, I really do enjoy the taste of a good hamburger, of sushi, grilled salmon, and a lot more. Nearly every evening that we’re walking out in the neighborhood, I smell meat cooking on someone’s backyard grill, my mouth waters and I can taste it in my mind.

But after I half-guiltily ate [what is now my last] hamburger about five days ago, I coincidentally picked up this book, and everything that I feel internally about this issue is just different. For whatever reason, it finally clicked and I cannot ignore it anymore.

Now I find it impossible to reconcile this occasional desire for animal meat with the pervasive horrors of routine operation in the modern factory farm industry. I just can’t support it anymore. Even if my ‘vote’ was a once-a-month or once every two months purchase of meat. This will also involve my future purchases of dairy products and eggs. We already started buying local eggs from a man who lives a mile away and lovingly cares for his own flock of chickens, but the milk, butter, cheese and yogurt we consume will also have to be evaluated, and a strategy figured out for where to buy these products, from producers that do not cause suffering to these animals.

It can be exhausting to try to figure out where those suppliers are and how to budget for the extra cost of supporting ‘things done right,’ but it really feels like a relief to have that direction spelled out, concretely.

I don’t know if veganism will eventually work its way into my life. I haven’t even begun to delve into the discussion of animal labor and rights in that respect, and I am acknowledging that if it’s meant to be for me, it will probably take some time. Then again maybe not. For today though, I will stick with the relief [seriously, relief!!] of knowing that I can make a commitment to a lifestyle that makes sense to me, and that makes an impact on a realm of our lives that I care deeply about.

Food is a very emotional, political, touchy issue. Its importance as an element of identity pervades all cultures, it is woven deeply into the fabric of our social interactions, expectations and ‘rules’. We share food as a way of communicating our love and care for one another. We commonly turn to food as comfort, in times of both joy and sadness. Food helps us to remember and to imagine. We prepare and share meals that reflect our histories, tell the stories of our ancestors, of revolution and survival. Our food is our identity. We truly are what we eat. Foer does a fantastic job of illustrating this through the exposition of his/his family’s process of transitioning to vegetarianism.

And choosing to ‘forget’ a part of our identity that is so deeply ingrained such as eating meat, says Foer, is clearly difficult. Culture is not just in us personally, it is in the way we relate to others and the way that they perceive us. Thus it can be a great challenge to stand up for what you believe is right, while trying to avoid causing an offense to others who may hold very dear to their hearts and to their sense of self, that element of identity and culture which you are trying to forget.

But as he explains, this conflict also creates a space for dialogue, where deeper understandings and compassion can be grown, and where healthier, more sustainable ways to pursue the lifestyle you believe in — whether that means eating animals or not — can be sought. Foer’s willingness to speak positively about the small family farmers who are ‘doing it right’, alongside his own choice to be vegetarian, has helped me to realize that I can too adopt this personal choice while also not alienating myself from supporting those whose choices are different but also remain incredibly important to the overall picture [i.e. small farmers who go to great lengths to practice animal husbandry which causes the least amount of suffering possible. Of which there are frighteningly few].

I’m not really sure how to wrap this up [perhaps because the discussion and reflection will continue away from this blog post], but I am positive that this is just the beginning of my transition. I know that it’s not always going to be easy from here on out, even though I’ve only been cooking vegetarian for the last few years and even though I have a partner who fully supports this change to our lifestyles. There are gray areas that make it harder to be resolute. Ryan asked the other night, what will I do if I’m offered meat in Afghanistan? My response then was, well I’ll probably make an exception so that I dont seem rude in what could be a tricky cultural setting. But thinking harder about it today, I’m not so sure. Why can’t I be steadfast in all situations? If I am really committed than I should be open to creating that space for dialogue with everyone, not just those in my own cultural realm with whom I’m more comfortable to voice my difference. Lots to ponder.

One thought on “Food, Identity, Eating Animals: my transitions

  1. i say good for you. in my heart of hearts, i know that becoming a vegetarian would be the best thing for the planet and for my health, but i just can’t push myself to actually do it and stick with it. it’s very challenging and annoying to me that something so engrained in me culturally becomes a necessity to life. but i suppose it’s like any major life adjustment. you have to push yourself and know that it’s not going to be easy. perseverance!

    ps. i bookmarked your blog, so post more please. :)

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