Normally on this blog, I do my best to talk about things I think will be universally interesting or agreeable. This, though, I know will put me in the squarely in the Southern minority. I just watched a docuseries on Netflix (Episode 1 of "Cooked") and it inspired me to come clean about a couple of opinions. So I'll lead by saying:
I'm Mary Catherine ("Hi, Mary Catherine"), and I'm almost a vegetarian.
"Mary Catherine, did you move to Asheville and become a hemp-wearing, vegetarian weirdo?"
Nope. (Well, the weirdo part is questionable, but that's always been the case.)
Let me start at the beginning.
I have never been a huge meat-eater. From an early age, I gravitated toward complex carbs (haaaay mashed potatoes/mac and cheese/biscuits/chips/etc.!) way more often than the protein on a plate.
I think some of this was textural, some conditioned, and some of my own neuroses.
Meat has never been a particularly appealing texture to me. I loved McDonald's cheeseburgers and ground beef - otherwise known as "meat that doesn't resemble meat anymore."
For school lunches, a pretty sugary sandwich was usually featured as as the main event. Jordan likes to rib me that I grew up on "sugar and butter sandwiches," and the truth is not far off. I ate my first sandwich that included meat in high school (thanks, Subway!), and I remember it vividly. Meatball sub. Delicious, in case you were wondering.
My own weirdness came into play when my mom got back from a trip to Israel when I was in elementary school. She described some of the streets they walked being lined with beef and chicken hanging in the street, covered in flies and (sorry to be gross) dripping blood into the gutters. I remember where I was sitting at the table when she said that, and it's strange now to recall that that moment was so significant. That freaked. Me. OUT.
After I heard that story, I remember being at friend's houses whose parents were cooking out, and trying my best to be polite and eat the burgers (because #manners and #theSouth). But with every bite, I was thinking, "I'meatingananimalI'meatingananimalI'meatingananimal," to the point that I'd psych myself out enough that the meal was over. I remember one particularly grueling experience when a friend's precious grandfather served filet mignon cooked rare. I ate every single bite of that steak because I loved and respected this man so deeply. And then I wanted to die.
All this to say, I've always had an interesting relationship with meat.
It's only been since I got Tom Hanks, who I joke ruined my life on this count, that I started to worry about the ethical component of meat-eating.
I didn't grow up with pets, so having this dog has changed my heart completely when it comes to animals and the quality of their lives. Growing up, I didn't wish animals ill-will, of course - but I certainly wasn't terribly worried about their welfare. My aversion to eating meat was for all the reasons I listed above: the gross-out factor. But now, when I think about my dog having anything less than the spoiled rotten life that he has, it breaks my heart. When consider that other animals do live those lives, it's very difficult to sith with for too long without getting emotional.
In America, we consume more meat than most other countries on earth. We've learned, thankfully, to eat a bit less red meat in recent years (I say "thankfully" because of the health risks associated with too much red meat), but we still eat more than most. Think back on your week - how many meals contained a meat component? 5? 10? More? It's not unusual here. We are wired to expect the protein in our meals to come from a meat product.
And that in itself? Not a bad thing! But this is what I want to talk about:
Where our meat comes from is really important.
This is a mantle I've taken up recently and something that I feel pretty passionate about, given my life-ruining dog's hold on my emotional state.
This next paragraph is upsetting, just in case you want to skip it!
The majority of livestock in America is raised in pens or slaughterhouses that have conditions so poor you wouldn't even dispose of your waste there. Cows are often kept in pens that are too small, and corn-fed until they are shot between the eyes to be rendered braindead before they're bled to death. Chickens are overfed to a weight that can break their legs, but they still live (smashed against other chickens) until they're butchered. Pigs are raised in tiny crates and sows forced to breed over and over - the piglets still have an instinct to nurse, so they suck on each other's tails and get infections to the point that their tails are cut off.
It's hard to even write about that. It's certainly hard to think about.
And therein lies the rub: As a culture, we don't like to think about where our meat comes from. We don't like to consider that what's on our plates had a terrible, short life that was full of unpleasantness and suffering.
But why don't we want to stop to consider it? I have a suggestion that might make you mad at me:
It's because we know deep down that if we considered it long enough, we'd be forced to change our choices.
I think that, given the information and the opportunity to think it through, most of us would feel pretty rotten about the idea of tacitly participating in an industry that treats animals so poorly. Nobody thinks to themselves, "YES! Yes, please. Take my money, slaughterhouse. I love how you do business. You guys rock."
But changing our choices takes a lot of extra work that we don't want to do. We'd be forced to reconcile our conscience and our actions, and we don't want to do that.
Let me clear some things up about where I'm coming from:
Do I think we should all be vegetarians, or that vegetarianism is the only way to be a morally sound person? No.
Do I think we should all start to care more about where our meat comes from? Yes.
Do I think that all animals have the same level of intelligence as my dog? No.
Do I think that all life is equally sacred and should be treated as such? Yes.
One of the things that Jordan says often is that we're stewards of this planet, not commanders. We weren't "given dominion" over the Earth to mistreat its creatures. If we want to be meat-eaters, and I certainly don't think there's anything wrong with that, then we have to be responsible about the kinds of meat that we choose to buy: how it was raised, and how it was killed.
For now, I'm not in a period in my life where I want to consume lots of meat. But I know life is seasonal, and I know that if/whenever I do want to eat more meat, I'll only buy it from farms and from folks I can trust. The farmers who say their animals have "one bad day," but otherwise, lead happy lives.
So let's eat meat if we want! But let's invest in a product that was raised on a farm, and came from farmers and butchers who respect and value the animal's quality of life. Or, hunt, kill, and dress the animals yourself! I'm down with that, too. Because the truth is, animals who were lived in natural conditions are just better for you. They taste better. They are healthier. And best of all, those animals were happier.
I think it's the least we can do. Because living things deserve dignity.
And every pig's biggest problem should be that there's a baby goat jumping on its back.
If you're interested in this subject and want to learn more about responsible meat-eating, watch: Forks Over Knives (streaming on Netflix); Food, Inc. (available to rent on Netflix); or episode one, Fire, of "Cooked" (a Netflix original series).