“Confessions of a Flesh Eater” or “My Right to Eat Meat”, Part Two

In which the Elegant Bastard speculates, confesses and neither demands nor offers an apology.

 I suppose the first answer to the “Why eat meat?” question – and one of the simplest – would be to acknowledge my status as a living organism requiring protein. However, I hate – and reject – such reductionism.  Referring to meat as protein is like referring to wine as grape juice gone bad, to a Lamborghinis as metal, plastic and rubber powered by fossil by-products, to Notre Dame as a pile of organized masonry with an attitude problem. Besides, I do not eat meat for protein. Protein I can get from slaughtered beans or some seriously tormented and camouflaged version of tofu.

In fact I will admit that meat is not essential to my survival. I could get by without it if I had to. I could also make do without satellites, leather furniture, and Brooks Brothers. But choices and the ability to make them are an important part of what makes life exciting and us human. If necessary I could survive (I suppose) by breathing whatever air is available in Wawa or even Pittsburgh. I just happen to prefer the air in Paris, especially if it’s infused with the aroma of a little bœuf en croûte.

However, the fact that consuming meat is not essential does not mean the action is itself unnatural. Consider our primitive ancestors. They could have just strolled casually along some primeval pathway, thinking great prehistoric thoughts while nibbling a few berries here, some mushrooms  there (the ones that didn’t kill Uncle Urg) and handfuls of various greens just about anywhere . Not only were these foodstuffs available, they were largely non-violent. Whatever person-eating plants may once have flourished, they had long since vanished into extinction. (I’ve seen the cave paintings.)

Yet for some reason our earliest ancestors felt an overwhelming need to hitch up their saggy furs and confront great beasts that came equipped with tusks, claws, talons, teeth, unpleasant smells and other ways of inflicting pain or early death. They did this solely in order to shove large uncooked bits of these animals into their mouths – without the benefit of gravy or artistically arranged side dishes. To me that goes far beyond simple curiousity or some early manifestation of latent colonialism. Deep down inside First Man, something awakened, saw a squirrel run by, drooled involuntarily and immediately started muttering, “Got to get me some of that!” The chase was on.  One does not chase zucchini.

I suppose it is possible that the attraction of meat is in some way symbolic or even atavistic, but I have trouble accepting that. Do I eat meat in order to return to my pioneer roots and to those lives lived four generations ago? Does something in my sinews want to experience again the aching back of the harvest or the tired legs of the hunt?  I do not think so. If true, would I not feel a similar need to darn a few socks or churn some butter or at least read by candlelight? And would I not be more likely to be cleaning a rifle than polishing my sous vide machine?

My grandmother might remember a day when chickens came from eggs, lived in coops and were ready to eat when they achieved a certain weight and the axe leaned sharpened in the barn. Now chickens come from Loblaws, live in styrofoam and are ready to eat when they grow a barcode and are reduced to half price.

Guests at the table speculated that in the “mouth feel” and texture of well prepared meat we encounter a certain sensuality that no fruit or vegetable could ever provide. Our flesh overcomes the flesh of the Other, encountering a succulent and rich resistance that then yields and parts softly as our teeth insist upon penetration. Rich juices or perhaps even a bit of warm blood moistens our lips and sits glistening on our chins. Hands lift bone-in morsels to waiting mouths. Elaborate meals – even vegan feasts (I’m told) – always have a touch of the erotic to them, but surely such pleasant and private carnal fantasies are easier with rib steak than with radishes.

As for the idea that my love of meat is some repressed and shameful form of speciesism, I reject that. I feel no need to declare my superiority by smirking at a grilled pork chop and thinking “Gotcha Pig.”  I have never stood outside a slaughterhouse loudly singing “Hey, He-ey, Good Bye!” Maybe there are those who pull the wings off chickens for reasons other than paying homage to Buffalo or the Super Bowl, but I am not among them. I refuse to step on earthworms, I release house flies and wasps back into the wild and I will occasionally allow the spider its web. My dog does not stoop and scoop; I do.

And yes, I understand that the raising of animals for food requires enormous amounts of land and energy and there are likely more efficient ways of feeding the masses. First, however, I do not “feed”, I dine. Further, if that kind of dedication to efficiency and restraint is to become the rule, then let’s keep in mind that the cotton clothes on our backs, the leather shoes on our feet and the perfect flowers on the dinner table must all go the way of the dinosaur – as must cars, private gardens, most perfumes, single family homes, inexpensive paint, air conditioning and hardwood floors.

Perhaps the “Eat Meat” impulse emerges from my culture or stands as a relic of my Depression era father’s pride. Meat on the table was proof that the man of the house was a person of substance, capable of protecting and providing for his family and his guests. Or maybe it honours my mother’s impressive ability to turn the cheap and the tough into the tender and the tasty. It could also be the on-going accumulation of meal-based rituals: Christmas was turkey, not turnip; Easter was lamb, not lima beans; a university rite de passage was mystery meat, not vague veggies. Yes, birthdays were cake – but only after the hamburgers and the hot dogs!

There is one other reason and I feel it is unanswerable. Simply put, I like meat. Meat tastes good.  It provides me a moment of sensory pleasure, the reward for a day well done or it offers solace for my bruised and bloodied ego when the world has been unkind. And if my love of meat is not even that logical, is nothing more than a careless preference or a semi-conscious habit, so what? I am no monster made only of my appetites, no noisy villain deserving punishment and censure. I am sufficiently green, I am almost always humane (though I do sing in the shower) and I pay my taxes with minimal fuss and only a few curses. I smile at (most) children and will even watch Canadian TV. Most importantly, I allow others their petty foibles without judgment. I am – and this is key – a quiet carnivore. I choose to eat my meat in peace and without guilt. I claim to deserve no more; I will accept no less.

I know that others seek a different path. I say to them, “Munch madly and be happy!” I simply ask that they worship their gods quietly and leave me to mine. If they will not, if it is war they want, then I suppose it is war that we shall have. They will fire frozen peas and brandish carrot sticks. I will respond with chicken balls and sharpened wishbones. They will argue that Einstein’s vegetarianism likely led to the discovery of relativity. I will point out that if Eve had left the damn apple alone and just sent out for a bucket of the Colonel, we’d all still be in paradise.

And we will all end up looking a little silly, no?

Chew on that!

“Confessions of a Flesh Eater” or “My Right to Eat Meat” (Part One)

In which the Elegant Bastard encounters the guest from hell and a question regarding his right to consume whatever fellow creatures fail to escape.

It may be a reflection of my general approach to life, but people have often felt a need to ask me questions. I can recall returning home from a wildly successful track meet in grade three, itemizing my triumphs – I had not run the wrong way even once! – only to have my overly pragmatic mother say, “That’s fine dear, but where are your shoes?” (I told her they were likely with my also absent coat, in retrospect not the best possible answer.) In that same year, the angry parent of the local bully asked me what had compelled me to bite his son’s fingers. (He did not appear to find it necessary to ask why his son’s fingers were often found in places where they could be bitten.)

Some questions were motivated by kindness:  “I see. So someone who loves you actually said you could wear yellow?” (I answered in the affirmative, having not by then fully mastered irony.) Others demonstrated either patience or stoicism: “I am assuming there’s a reason we’re in Moose Jaw?” (There was. Everyone else fell asleep and let me drive. What did they think would happen?) Occasionally, I could feel the presence of a mild antagonism, such as Significant  Other’s recent query concerning exactly what I had hoped to achieve by introducing a third cat in to a residence already equipped with two dogs.

I have myself often taken up the questioning role. “Explain to me again,” I asked my eldest one warm afternoon, “how the simultaneous availability of water and a large red balloon compelled you to search for a window directly above the one vice-principal you already knew was nervous?”  His answer made no real sense but that was not the point. The question, not the answer, matters. It is only via questions that we can understand how it is that we are able to live in a world with smart phones, bubble tea and occasionally soggy vice-principals.

None of this, however, made me any less annoyed when She turned on me her patronizing gaze and oleaginous voice and asked me why I ate meat.

(For purists among you, I will stipulate that however you might wish to define “meat”, I use the term to refer to any formerly living animal that is now 1) dead 2) cooked 3) served and 4) incapable of reversing conditions 1, 2, and 3.) There are further stipulations. Prior to being dead, that which is “meat” does not require me to 1) breed it 2) catch it or 3) contribute in any other way to it’s becoming “meat”. Finally, it should not at any point in the process be an animal capable of turning me into “meat”.

The questioning She had arrived uninvited with an old friend. He explained that she had also arrived uninvited at his home just as he left for my dinner party. I smiled and said she was welcome; he smiled and seemed to breathe a sigh of relief; she smiled and immediately began to demonstrate why all her arrivals were likely uninvited.

It started with the sorrowful and suffering gaze she directed at another guest’s new Gucci shoes. “So beautiful,” she murmured, “but so paradoxical when one thinks of the many poorly shod children in the city.” She apologized immediately, smiling shyly and informing us that she had always been cursed with too deep a sensitivity for those less fortunate than she. A pity, no? Ah well.

Judging Gucci owner’s stare to be indicative of a rapidly impending homicide, I started to open what I knew was the wonderful (and calming) pinot grigio a third guest had generously donated. Our Lady of All Sorrows expressed her sincere wish that so wonderful a wine be organic, for if not it would stimulate one of her incapacitating migraines. Not organic? Ah well.

Then perhaps I had a mineral water, artesian if possible, and bottled in glass, not plastic. She had, you see, the rare ability to smell plastic, a condition that made her life a struggle to be bravely borne. Only plastic? Ah well.

At this point the other guests stampeded to the balcony where they collectively took up smoking.

This allowed me uninterrupted access to her views on a variety of topics. On music. She found the classical genres to be so unfairly Eurocentric. On electric cars. She used only public transit to minimize her carbon footprint. On vacations. She intended to volunteer at Habitat for Humanity and would I like to make a contribution to the cost of her Rwanda trip?

Was she leaving soon?


Ah well.

Through it all she maintained the kind of facial expression that promises she will perform at the very least a virgin birth – or even two – before the end of the evening.

By now desperate to reboot what had been intended as a celebratory evening, I mentioned that the evening’s menu included several guests’ favorites, including prosciutto, scallops and chicken. She then turned to the gentleman she had arrived with, slapped his hand playfully and called him a naughty boy for not mentioning to me that she was vegetarian. Again the suffering smile.  She would just have salad and perhaps a little bread – if I happened to have some that was gluten-free?

It was much later, I think during the chicken course, that she looked around, ensured all eyes were on her, and launched in best torpedo fashion the question she had held in reserve.

“Why do you all feel compelled to eat meat?”

Had she asked why we felt forced to push old folk to the ground or children over a cliff, she would have sounded less judgmental. The unspoken sub-text flashed around the table. “Why, Gluttons, do you tear at innocent flesh, worship your own arrogant species and betray the oneness of Nature?”

“Because I can!” was on the tip of my sinful chicken-loving tongue when I paused. More, I noted that my fellow carnivores had all paused with me. Along with the confit of pork, a question had arrived at the table. It demanded an answer. Why the hell did we eat meat?

I will be back, Dear Reader, when I return from the butcher’s. It isTuesday, the turkey thighs and the beef cheeks are in, and on occasions that momentous, Time waits  for no man.