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This blog is 1 part Veggie, 1 part Carnivore. What’s our take on the meat debate?

May 29, 2012

We’re very-left-leaning, urban-dwelling 18-24 women, which means we often travel in vegetarian circles and are frequently party to debates between meat-eaters and veggies. Usually, vegetarians talk ethics and meat-eaters make hippie jokes. So we were intrigued when the NY times came out with its “Tell Us Why It’s Ethical To Eat Meat” contest (the above photo is from their article, and you can read the finalists here: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/25/magazine/tell-us-why-its-ethical-to-eat-meat-a-contest.html). Is it possible to be an ethical meat-eater? We’re one  life-long-(never-even-tried-it)-vegetarian and one former-veggie-turned-voracious-carnivore. But we agree that vegetarians don’t get a monopoly on ethical eating (maybe they’re just in it for the noms!). Do the labels and the cliques limit options for well-intentioned folks who just can’t turn down Montreal Smoked Meat? Here’s our take:

Allie: The Always-Already-Vegetarian.

To put it bluntly: I’m not in it for the animals.”

I was born a vegetarian. This surprises a lot of people, particularly those who do eat meat, and who love exclaiming “so you’ve never EVEN TRIED IT?!”, and it impresses many others – often vegetarians who came to that decision on their own and sometimes regret their early years of eating meat.

I have had a few accidental encounters – one beef samosa, and a chicken stir fry – and once I ate a tiny corner of bacon in exchange for my friend eating oranges for the first time. She had previously been allergic, and while her love of oranges stuck, the salty nibble wasn’t enough to convince me to switch over.

Now, I often forget that I’m a vegetarian, mostly thanks to all the wonderful people around me. My partner switched to vegetarianism, and my friends and family are either vegetarians themselves or so accommodating that it’s easy to forget that they eat differently when I’m not around. I’ve had a pretty easy time of it as a vegetarian, and that experience has very much shaped my view of why I eat the way I do.

To put it bluntly: I’m not in it for the animals. After 24 years of not eating meat, I can’t say that eating animal meat particularly appeals to me as a concept. But given that vegetarianism was handed to me and all I had to do was sustain it, I don’t think I can make too many ethical claims on my position. I am glad I don’t eat meat and I do justify it on the basis that so much shady meat production out there is bad for animals and bad for you. But in reality, I think I’d be just as happy as a once-a-week consumer of ethical meats (a category I do think exists).

I frequently salivate over the idea of a freshly-caught salmon, grilled, with squeezed lemon and dill. I secretly wish my Mini Burgers had been made with sirloin. I’d love to try fish and chips. Yet when it really comes down to it, I just don’t like meat, pretty much like how I don’t like olives even though I’d like to. And in the end, I’d rather not work on it.

Maybe one day, I’ll face a crisis of vegetarianism like my meat-eating counterparts sometimes face with their animal consumption. I’d like to own chickens and I don’t know if it’s really best to keep them as pets when they’re no longer egg producing. But for now, I know that if I was going to start eating meat I’d want to hold up pretty high standards, but I’m already working on eating seasonally and oh, if I could actually eat organic! I’m doing my best trying to manage a position I was born into and I realize that those who eat meat are doing the same thing – whether this means reducing consumption, eating ethical meats or, in the case of a few, switching to vegetarianism or veganism.

In what’s become a very ethically polarized debate about the future of humanity, which cultures ‘get it’, and what’s fair for animals in this power-laden relationship we try to negotiate with them, it’s not expected that you’ll come across a blog run by an ethically-minded meat-eater (she suggested these columns) and a vegetarian by default. We could all do better with food consumption and I very much hope that each of us is trying to make significant changes to what we’ve always done in the kitchen. But I don’t think that our blog stands as a battleground of two distinct lifestyles and I don’t think that vegetarianism is the gold standard for those doing their best to eat well and consume ethically.

Katie: The Once-but-Never-Again- Vegetarian.

 “There’s no virtue in asceticism for its own sake.”

Like most young liberals, I went through a vegetarian phase in highschool. A self-declared “Communist” at the time, I found the politics and radical label appealing. Being a vegetarian was also a way of belonging in a circle of friends defined almost entirely by left-leaning, counter-cultural tendencies (for me, membership also involved pretending to the like The Velvet Underground more than Michael Jackson).

But soon after I started my teenage vegetarian phase, I found that the primary victim was not the cattle industry; it was my mom. The two of us lived by ourselves at the time and my mom was shopping and cooking for both of us. My new lifestyle meant she had to change her lifestyle too. When I finally went back to meat-eating, the phrase I used as a rationale was “I care about my mother more than a chicken.” A cop out? Maybe.

Today I’ve come entirely full circle. I sometimes mockingly over-indulge in meat in front of vegetarian friends. I call my room-mate a hippie for eating organic cereal sprinkled with hemp hearts every morning (if the name fits…). Although my co-blogger Allie is a vegetarian and although we claim to post ‘mostly vegetarian’ food, my recipes have included shrimp, cod, salmon, anchovies, lamb and a great deal of chicken.

It’s safe to say I’ve switched tribes: from self-righteous vegetarian to pseudo-ironic meat-eater.

And yet, I also recognize how counter-productive this clan-ish thinking can be. The investment many vegetarians have in a life-long self-sacrificing vow – and an attendant label – makes for a polarized debate. When they give me that “oh, you’re not vegetarian?” look, I want to eat three pulled pork sandwiches (an admittedly immature response).

If the point is to “make a difference,” then two meat-eaters cutting their meat consumption in half has the same impact as one vegetarian. But the all-or-nothing tone of the debates sometimes repels those interested in limiting their meat consumption. More realistic goals for these folks would be to save meat-eating for special occasions or treats, to choose vegetarian in moments when the meat will make a minimal difference, to choose free-range options, to eat meat only once a day, to eat vegetarian once a week (http://www.meatlessmonday.com/). These are rules I could live by while still maintaining an exciting culinary repertoire, and without ping-ponging from one clan to the next.

There’s no virtue in asceticism for its own sake. Less meat should be valued alongside the life-long vow of no more meat forever. Pseudo-spiritual efforts at ethico-culinary purity should be exchanged for an emphasis on the pragmatic effects of each individual meat choice. Then the actions will start mattering more than labels. You may never eat meat again and thats great for you, but understand that those who don’t identify as ‘vegetarian’ might be navigating the ethical terrain in their own way – a way perhaps less clear-cut but equally thoughtful.

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