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Desire of a Carnivore, Soul of a Vegan

January 23, 2014

I’ve never really written about Z.

Really, the beginning of my culinary journey was at the end of high school. Raf and a few of his friends would hold these roving feasts. Usually when someone’s parents were out of town, the gang would descend upon a kitchen a cook up a storm. I’ve written about these feasts in the past. Maybe you remember, it’s how I first started cooking and why my entry point was desserts.

All of the guys involved with this group were obsessives. Z even had this routine for cleaning his ears with Q-tips before listening to metal in order to appreciate the music better. And as opinionated as everyone else was, Z always seemed to be more.

Given the group, that was quite the accomplishment.

Anyhow, at the end of high school, I was coming into my own self. My hair was growing longer and there was some concern that I might be turning into a hippie. Not because I was smoking pot, I wasn’t. But because I started getting interested in environmental causes.

One night Z made a proclamation. Really, it was more of a wager. He was absolutely convinced that I would come back from college a vegetarian. For the rabid carnivores around the feast, the notion of turning away from meat was almost unthinkable.

He lost the bet, but I think he probably saw the seeds of my current predicament.

Z didn’t care a lick about animal suffering back in those days. He may still be oblivious to it. I don’t know. Gourmands aren’t known for their empathy. Take the lovely ortolan, for example. The live bird is blinded, gorged on millet, and then literally drowned in armagnac. Eating this now-illegal treat of French gastronomy is equally ghoulish as the small bird is devoured whole, in one unforgettable bite.

While being vegetarian was unthinkable decades ago, today I could almost see myself going vegan. Because for me, the issue isn’t so much the killing as it is the suffering.

It’s too easy to forget that the eggs on your plate at almost any nice brunch spot in America, are likely to come from chickens kept in massive barns. If they are lucky, they are just live in overcrowded conditions, never seeing the outside, never being able to engage in normal chicken behavior, and never eating anything beyond commercial feed. The unlucky ones live the entirely of their lives in cages, being shit on from the other chickens in the stacks of cages above.

Some of my other favorite foods, like whipped cream, butter, cheese, ice cream, hot chocolate, cappuccino, croissants, custard, pizza, lobster bisque, and more, rely on dairy cows. I know that I am at odds with farmers on what constitutes humane treatment of these animals. Some might say I’m anthropomorphizing them. I want cows to live outdoors most of the year. I want them to eat mostly grass. But somehow these desires escape me when I’m confronted with a delicious looking scoop of ice cream.

Going vegan would help me to remember.

But I’m not convinced that’s the answer. It’s not just because I love meat. I do. Nor is it because our bodies are built to be omnivorous. I believe they are.

Thankfully there are some small crazy farmers out there who are bucking the conventional agriculture trend. They have small managed flocks or herds or whathaveyou. They are giving their animals names. I even recall one cheesemaker who produced a cheese from the milk of just one goat (which bore her name).

These are the people from which I strive to buy my eggs, dairy and meat.

Yes, they are crazy expensive. So, I’ll eat less of them. I’ll cherish every morsel, and I won’t waste a drop. I’ll render the meat fat, I’ll find a use for the scraps, I’ll repurpose the leftovers, and I’ll roast the bones to make a broth.

In the realm of ideals, I would eat like a vegan when out and about, when I didn’t know the provenance of animal-based ingredients. I think these are worthy goals.

In practice, I routinely fall short.

If I have to cook for a large group of people who don’t share this ethos, I’m not going to buy meat from the same source. I’ll still do my best to rise above the mere conventional, likely opting for grass fed lamb instead of pork that may have come from a sow confined to a gestation crate. Although most times I’ll still try and make something vegan or vegetarian if I can get away with it, or a dish where meat is used sparingly as a flavoring agent and not the main ingredient.

And then there’s the bigger issue of eating out. For me the problem isn’t giving up the meat. I’m more than happy to skip the sketchy pepperoni on a pizza and opt for just cheese. But the industrially produced cheese from industrially produced dairy can’t really be avoided. And when I learn of a place that takes pride in making its own pork sausage, I find myself yielding to temptation. Plus I can’t resist regional foods, be they Philadelphia cheesesteaks in the City of Brotherly Love or Shanghaiese XLB made as far afield as Latham.

What can I say? I’m human. I’m flawed. I have my weaknesses and I’m not ready to give them up entirely.

While most restaurants, and even many farmers, haven’t caught up to meet the demands of people like me, I’m encouraged the trend is on the upswing. In the meantime, I’ll be doing the best I can. And keeping my eyes peeled for restaurants (and products) of all stripes with similar sensibilities.

Surely, somewhere Z is snickering. He still isn’t winning the bet though.

One Comment leave one →
  1. January 23, 2014 2:06 pm

    This is pretty much how I feel about things as well. It’s also interesting bringing up these topics in my food-themed writing course at UAlbany, where I try to scratch the surface of some of these issues. I tell my students that just because we’re reading about things like the atrocities of factory farming doesn’t mean I expect them to become vegans, that I love pork belly and good cheese as much as anyone. I just want them to start to think about these issues, hopefully in somewhat complicated ways.

    They mostly don’t really have much to say about things, or don’t care (or don’t want to care), so that’s both somewhat frustrating for me, yet also somewhat illuminating in terms of understanding how many Americans see these issues.

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