Over the past twelve years, eating has been a rather introspective and conscious activity for me. Whether for moral reasons, my personal health, or the health of the environment, I’ve spent a great deal of time thinking and rethinking my food choices. The consumption of meat sits front and center of my internal debate. I was raised very much an omnivore, gave up meat out of a love for animals, wafted back and forth between vegetarian and piscitarian eating for seven years, and then returned to eating meat in preparation for service in the Peace Corps. I now follow a variation of a Paleo lifestyle that has been able to satiate my moral, health, and environmental concerns. I love meat and now eat without guilt, but will it last?
Raised As An Omnivore
I was raised as an omnivore. From a young age, I was always told to eat my vegetables alongside the other items on my plate. I gladly followed my parents’ instruction. I loved eating my vegetables and it was hard not to in our household. My family has always had a garden that produced beautiful and delicious produce, even when we lived in the suburbs. I was lucky to grow up with the gift of fresh, tasty, local vegetables. For the longest time, I thought everyone had gardens like we did and ate as my family did. I was wrong. After my big first day of primary school, what was I dying to tell my mother about? “They served corn from a can at lunch. Corn from a can!” I was disgusted at the little yellow nuggets my school was trying to pass off as corn.
Yet, vegetables were not the primary staple of my diet growing up. I ate anything and everything. I was a very hungry child that later developed into a very hungry man. I was fortunate to live in a home full of food. Our house contained fresh fruits, vegetables, pasta, bread, cookies, chips, cereal, candy, juice, various meats, and more. It seemed as if we had one of every item found at the grocery store, and two or more if there was a coupon.
At one point growing up, our house contained three refrigerators, one standup freezer, and a giant deep freeze; all of these were filled with food. We also had a pantry on the main floor of our house for general everyday use and a pantry in the basement for bulk items. My parents weren’t preparing for a national disaster but rather we ate a lot of food, froze a lot of garden vegetables, and my mom clipped a lot of coupons.
My mom loved to cook but she loved to feed us more. If it was in front of me, I ate it and I had a lot of food in front of me. During freshman year of high school I weighed in at 245lbs. I was 6’2”, so I didn’t look humungous but I was most definitely obese. It was during the second semester of my freshman year of high school when I first became aware of my eating. Food had made me fat and food could make me skinny. I cut most complex carbohydrates from my diet, limited sweets, and removed the once staples of chocolate milk and soda. I loaded up on lots of fruit, veggies, and meat. This new diet combined with intense cardio training for my black belt in karate resulted in a 65lb weight loss in just over seven months. Fat kid no more; now I was skinny.
My Exposure to Factory Farming and Abandonment of Meat
At fifteen years old, I now had an understanding of food’s effect on the body. I, however, was only thinking of how the food on my plate would affect me physically. I wasn’t yet considering where food came, food’s story before my plate. Then one night that all changed. As I was flipping through channels while watching television in my bedroom, I landed on a PBS show that was detailing the startling truth behind factory farming. It took no more than ten minutes of watching egg-laying chickens crammed into battery cages to turn me into a vegetarian. The next morning, I announced the news to my family, “Mom and Dad, I’m no longer going to eat meat. I’m a vegetarian.”
I love animals and always have. As a child, not only was our house full of food but full of pets. Dogs, cats, fish, parakeets, chickens, rabbits, ducks, a potbelly pig, turtles, snakes, and toads are just a few examples of the many animals in the mini zoological garden we were keeping. When we were away from home on vacation, we always went to a zoo or aquarium. I really love animals, and that is why I ended up studying ecology in undergrad, which then gave rise to my being an environmentalist.
That PBS special wasn’t, however, an awaking to the fact that meat came from animals. I already knew this since my father was a hunter. From an early age, each fall my father would bring back a freshly slain deer that he would proceed to butcher in our garage. I loved helping him to dissect the animal and I enjoyed eating the venison even more. When I was old enough, I joined my father in the woods and learned to hunt. I loved spending time with my father, sitting quietly among the trees, and bringing home fresh meat.
Yet, to my carnivorous father’s dislike, I became a vegetarian and abandoned meat across the board. I even probably would have tried to go vegan if we didn’t raise our own egg laying chickens. From fat kid to skinny kid, I was now the kid that brought tofu and veggie burgers to school. Other than my Hindu friend, I was the only vegetarian in my class. She had religious reasons but since I grew up in a conservative town, I was just plain weird.
Confusing College Years
My vegetarian diet followed me to college but it soon turned to a piscitarian diet when I added fish to my plate as I tried to put on muscle. I remained an odd duck though, eating what my friends thought of as bizarre food. I, however, enjoyed being different. My diet was part of my identity that set me apart from others. My diet was one of my interesting facts that allowed me to speak to my love of animals and environmental concern.
Although part of my individuality, I wasn’t 100% adherent to my diet. For several years, I became a drunken meat eater. It almost became a normal occurrence where I would go out to party with my friends and once I had consumed enough alcohol for the night, I thought it was a great idea to have a sober friend drive me and others to White Castle. Once there, I would demolish a mountain of tiny burgers and large chocolate shake. The next morning I’d wake up with a hangover, upset stomach, and the shame of my previous evening’s meat binge.
After a few years of beginning a drunken meat eater though, I calmed down and returned to a steady piscitarian diet. It helped that my girlfriend at the time was a vegetarian. It was also right around this time that I first remember reading about soy consumptions negative effects on testosterone. Uh-oh, I’d been living off soy-based fake meats for nearly five years at this point and trying (and failing) to put on muscle. So, I began to limit but not eliminate soy and add more and more fish to my diet.
Then, if it wasn’t confusing enough, I began to learn more about the fishing industry. The negative environmental effects of concentrated factory fish farming. The large amounts of by-catch associated with the tuna and shrimp I had come to depend on. What in the hell was I supposed to eat? I was trying to do what I thought was right morally, for my health, and the wellbeing of the environment, but as time passed it became more and more confusing.
I Fell In Love With Meat In The Peace Corps
Then I joined the Peace Corps. Many people join the Peace Corps in hopes of finding themselves and figuring out in what direction to point their life. I guess I did too a little, but more so than any grand epiphany, I fell in love with meat. In preparing to head to Burkina Faso for a two-year service in the Peace Corps, I began to add meat back into my diet. I wanted to be sure my stomach was ready handle meat. I didn’t want to end up offending my village’s chief by turning away an offering of good will (this didn’t exactly end up happening, but I did eat lots of weird stuff and fully explore the culinary treasures before me).
In preparation, I started with chicken. Then beef. Then pork. Mmmm, bacon. As a non-meat eater, I became ill at the smell of bacon, but now something had changed. Meat was amazing! I don’t remembered loving meat as a child. Meat was good and all, but I think I enjoyed the sugar-laden sauces I was dipping the meat into rather than the meat itself. Now, I was really screwed when it came to my morals and environmental concerns. I knew so many negative things about the meat industry but I now had growing hunger for it.
Once in my village, my meat eating and meat appreciation grew. Then I realized something: the meat I was eating was as free range as free range could get. My village had no fences. Chickens, goats, sheep, cows, and pigs were either herded or left to move as they. The goat meat that became my lunchtime staple came from a happy animal that lived a great life right up until the end. I could respect that. I could eat without guilt.
Now, as my service comes to an end, I am worried. Am I now bound to living in developing countries that lack factory farming? I hope not, because as much as I love traveling I want to be stateside with my friends and family. What is going to happen to my diet once I’m back home? I know I’ll be able to find local free-range meats and eggs at farmers markets back in the U.S., but will I be able to afford it? Will I be able to keep up this diet that has yielded notable positive changes in my physical appearance and general mood? Will I be able to satisfy my meat craving without compromising my environmental and animal welfare concerns? I hope so.
Eating Meat In America
To be continued…
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