I’m a vegetarian. Lacto-ovo. For almost a quarter century. I also harvest (as it’s so appealingly called these days) meat for my omnivore family. In addition I’ve found it gratifying to teach others how to respectfully take the life of a gentle beast and convert its life into sources of life for others. I don’t find this a conflict at all.
Vegetarianism in all its forms is a luxury of time and situation. In my case, I have never liked to eat meat. When I was a kid, the only way I enjoyed it was if it was marinated and then cooked to well done. I don’t like the taste of fresh milk or eggs – especially healthy, farm eggs. There is just something about my system that doesn’t crave, enjoy, or seem to need meat. But I am fortunate to have access to homegrown fruits and veggies and an amazing spectrum of local products, rice from our region, beans from many places, organic tofu, amazing cheeses, and numerous other foods and supplements that seem to provide all I need. But to practice abstinence from animal products as a superior lifestyle is to disrespect indigenous cultures throughout time, those living in less bountiful societies, and indeed, our own origins as a species.
To believe that vegetarianism is more evolved and more ethical is the ultimate arrogance. It implies that humankind is above and separate from nature – indeed we seem drawn to this paradigm in almost every aspect of how we treat the planet and its systems. When it comes to eating meat, however, humankind can rise to a level that our non-speaking predator animal kin cannot – we have the potential to take the life of another creature for sustenance with respect, honor, and appreciation. It’s the lack of realizing this potential that is the true tragedy.
To blithely shop the supermarket meat department, its refrigerated cases stacked with tidy rows of bright claret steaks; to selectively dine on primarily just the choice parts of the animal – bacon, chicken breasts, lobster tails; to expect flesh to be inexpensive – all of these things support and create high efficiency, large-scale farming, where the animal, the human worker, and the environment pay the price. Meat, of any kind, should be relatively costly and eaten in proportion to what the animal, the workers, and the land can, without undue compromises, provide.
I don’t expect everyone to be able to learn to slaughter and butcher. Even 15 years ago, I harbored a prejudice toward friends who were able to kill their own chickens, it just seemed a bit barbaric. I was raised on a farm by parents who were not from self-sufficient upbringings. But they aspired toward that. In addition to a massive garden, orchards, and a home-scale wheat grinding mill, we also raised animals for milk and meat. But others were paid to kill and process them. It was so hard for my mother, in fact, that she would load me and my sister in the car and take us to town on the day the kill truck came. I took the next step. And my children have a more innate sense of balance regarding life and the food chain than even I do.
In 2003 I told my husband, a happy omnivore, that I wanted to raise a batch of meat chickens. He was uncomfortable with the idea. He was raised on what I call a rural suburb – small lots, dads that worked 9-5 and whose farm skills were topped out by mowing the front lawn. So we made a deal. I’d do the entire processing, serve it up, and if he and our girls could tell me that the meat wasn’t superior, I wouldn’t do it again. You can guess who won – we all did.
The first goat I butchered was named Minerva. She was an adult Nigerian Dwarf doe, but without a good future. Other than being cute, she wasn’t a good milk goat, had an unbalanced personality, and was very noisy. To have given her to a pet home would have likely doomed her to a string of unhappy owners and poor living conditions. I had taken the lives of a few goats before – using a bullet to euthanize them for various sufferings. But I had never processed a larger animal into meat. I printed out instructions from the internet, bought an inexpensive set of butchering tools, and steeled myself.
I made a good portion of the harvest into jerky. I’ll never forget what happened next. I handed a slice to my youngest, an animal lover whose dream was to one day open a cat sanctuary, but who also relished a good steak. She skeptically put a bit in her mouth and chewed. Her eyes widened and she said “Is there anyone else we can off?” The wall had been breached.
It has been my privilege to grow to the point of being able to share these moments with others. Hopefully helping them on their own journeys of returning to balance in the food chain. Life is sacred and so is death. Both must be respected and neither can be avoided. If you aren’t ready for direct involvement with this process, you can still try to honor it. Purchase only “expensive meat” from local farmers who care and are involved with every step of the harvest – even if that means they oversee the animal’s last moments at an FDA approved facility; if you must by from an unknown source, seek out humane certified producers or failing that, organic; don’t eat fast food meat; don’t eat much meat; and finally, try to eat the meat in proportion to what the animal offers, after all there’s much more to a pig than bacon. If you have children, you can guide them toward a level above your own – let them raise an animal, help a farmer harvest meat, learn to cook meat, and above all, never to waste meat.
I sheep farmer friend once taught me the following mantra, and its one omnivores should live by: “Every animal deserves a good life, a good death, a good butcher, and a good chef.” Amen.