It’s the faceless meats that should scare you.
I made hamburgers for dinner last night. Slapped some cheese on them, served them on potato rolls. No big deal. Except it is kind of a big deal, because I stopped eating meat in 2006 and it was my first time preparing and eating burgers since then.
My decision to stop eating meat was a knee jerk reaction, but I grew into reasons for it over several years.
At the time, I had a job on a boat that went out sailing Monday through Friday and spent the weekend at the dock. Friday when we pulled into port, there was a tall stack of white cardboard boxes waiting for us.
Inside the boxes was all of the food we would eat over the next seven days. Giant bags of iceberg lettuce, boxed bananas and frozen blocks of meat. We loaded them onto the boat and lived a constant cycle of fresh foods at the beginning of the week that dwindled to canned applesauce and peanut butter by the end of the week.
One afternoon, the cook asked me to help him make dinner. He instructed me to take an icy 25 pound log of ground beef into the engine room and cut it into smaller pieces so it would defrost more quickly.
I set up the chop saw and watched the spinning blade bite into the mottled pieces of muscle and fat. Flecks of tissue flung across the wall and into my hair and jacket. I grew up on a dairy farm eating meat, so I wasn’t grossed out about the idea of meat, per se. But a feeling of revulsion washed over me as I realized the meat log in my hand was of almost untraceable origin and certainly contained pieces of dozens of different animals.
My childhood was dotted with trips to our local slaughterhouse where my mom and I would wrap packages of meat in white butcher paper and seal them with packing tape. I used my best kindergarten printing skills to write ‘HB’ for hamburger and ‘TB’ for t-bone steaks. The meat of my childhood had been born and raised on the pastures where I played tag and manhunt with my cousins.
Back on the boat, as I carried the flat frozen meat frisbees to the galley, I made the quick but firm decision that I wouldn’t be eating any hamburgers that night.
The following evening, I skipped the chicken and then I spent the next thirteen years solidifying the reasons why I didn’t eat meat.
Sometimes I told myself it was because of the human rights abuses that happen in the modern industrial farm complex and other times I couldn’t stomach the environmental impacts of chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
Sometimes I cared most about about the health impacts of a diet high in saturated fats. Othertimes, I was furious about the government corn subsidies that incentivize feeding high grain diets to animals who evolved to eat grass.
And when those arguments failed, I could always count on being upset about the carbon footprint of shipping animals and meat products in an ever-growing grid across our country.
I swapped out my reasons for not eating meat like a t-shirt, wearing whichever one seemed coolest and on-trend at the time.
Most of the time though, I was low-key about it, politely passing on meat dishes and loading my plate up with beans, bread or overdoing it on cheese and crackers. But not eating meat wasn’t part of my identity. Often, people who had known me for years were shocked when they heard me order a veggie burger or pass on a bacon wrapped scallop.
I don’t know if it’s my aggressive personality or my love of endurance sports, but for some reason, people tend to think of me as a meat-and-potatoes kind of person, not the tofu-and-lentil kind of person.
In the spring of 2018, I started to wonder if they were right. Picking my way through meals and menus without eating meat started to feel like a burden.
At a friend’s cookout, I spontaneously tried a piece of barbecued pork rib.
Then I had some chicken salad at another party.
Two weeks later, I found myself grilling porterhouse steaks for dinner.
Transitioning back to life as a carnivore has put me in a little bit of a tailspin. I used to ignore meat recalls or health warnings about red meat because they didn’t apply to me. I used to buy loads of processed, packaged gooey meat substitutes at the grocery store. I used to cram down carbs at every meal in an effort to stay full.
I do still care about the environment, human rights and unsustainable agriculture. But I’ve reached the conclusion that I can care about these things and still eat a diet that makes me feel good and keeps me healthy.
I’m lucky, because my dad still raises beef cows. He has been delighted to supply me with grass fed, locally raised and tenderly cared for burgers and steaks.
The burgers I cooked last night were from a cow he had been especially fond of. Her name was Corduroy and she loved eating apples from his hand or even off the top of his head. She was sent to the slaughterhouse of my childhood, where she met her quick, painless and purposeful end.
While we were eating the burgers, my eight-year-old daughter asked if they were from Corduroy. When I nodded, my three year old son asked, “But how did they get the meat out of her?”
It is confusing, since my dad has another cow named Corduroy 2 and I expect next year he will have a cow named Corduroy 3.
I don’t like euphemisms, but in this case, I let one slide. My daughter used the language of my dad and explained to Chapman that Corduroy had gone to ‘Freezer Camp’, where they took all of the meat out so people like us could eat it and be healthy.
Some of my coworkers were horrified that I would talk so openly with my kids about eating an animal they had hand fed bundles of hay. But it horrifies me more to think about feeding my kids a constant diet of faceless, nameless meat and meat products.
There’s a trend right now towards more and more meat-like fake meat. The Impossible Burger and and Beyond Meat products promise vegetarians an eating experience that is juicy and bloody — just like real meat!
But just because an animal didn’t die doesn’t mean a food is ethical, healthy and produced in a sustainable way. These fake meat products are highly processed and have a high carbon footprint, making them unhealthy and unsustainable.
And just because a food had a face doesn’t make it unhealthy or unsustainable.
I still feel a little funny about tucking into a plateful of beef. But when I compare my tender little single-ingredient beef tips to the long list of unpronounceable ingredients in my faceless veggie burgers, I feel a little better.
I think I was right to give up the faceless, nameless meat on that boat so many years ago.
And think I’m right now when I eat grass-fed, grass-finished, humanely raised and slaughtered meat now.
Eating meat that I’ve met makes me feel strong and connected. I feel like I’m making a choice that matters. I feel like I’m teaching my kids to feel connected to their foods.
And most of all, I don’t feel hungry anymore.
I like to write about animals. If you like to read about animals, check out the following:
So You Think You Want Backyard Chickens
Before you go and impulse by a handful of irresistibly cute future nuggets, read the following.