A friend from my previous neighborhood called last evening just as I’d put a pot of rice on the stove-top in an admittedly late start to dinner. Turning the heat under the rice very low, I picked up an already-poured glass of wine and moved over to a comfortable chair to talk. The conversation quickly turned to food, perhaps what I was cooking for myself that evening and how I could resume preparing the dish once the rice was done. I have been accused, since living alone, of being able to rattle on into the phone about next-to-nothing to any willing listener. But at some point, I mentioned trying to do without meat these days.
“Why?” my friend asked.
His question was so direct to be off-putting, and I found myself stumbling about with various reasons, some culinary, some health related, some ethical, some political, none very articulate. I brought up the Midwest slaughterhouses being declared essential services so endangered workers must continue working in spite of their location in counties the White House declared coronavirus hot spots. What are we doing?
I needed more time to think. And right on cue, the next morning my New York Times Sunday edition gave me “The End of Meat Is Here” by Jonathan Safran Foer, author of Eating Animals and We Are the Weather. Like me in lockdown with time to consider these things, he writes that the situation “has inspired many Americans to consider just how essential meat is. Is it more essential than the lives of the working poor who labor to produce it? It seems so.”
In recent years, Ed and I both consumed a lot less red meat, not that it kept him from lethal lung cancer or me from heart surgery. We turned more to chicken and fish – and increasingly, to interesting vegetable-based recipes. Our New York daughter has been a vegetarian for years, adding fish to her diet with marriage to a man from Sweden. Both are excellent cooks, as was Ed, particularly in New Jersey where an expansive vegetable garden led to freezers full of meals and a larder filled with home-canned foods. Because our guests increasingly included non-meat-eaters, I began making our large batches of spaghetti sauce without meat so it could be served with anything – and to anyone – from the freezer, as needed.
I used to joke that I could be a vegetarian if it weren’t for bacon. That was over even before I read that now because plant shut-downs due to sick workers “has led to a backlog of animals,” Foer writes, so “some farmers are injecting pregnant sows to cause abortions. Others are forced to euthanize their animals, often by gassing or shooting them.” Foer notes, “It has gotten bad enough that Sen. Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican, has requested the Trump Administration include mental health resources to hog farmers.”
Parts of this Times piece are difficult to read. Years ago, something I learned convinced me to never order veal from a restaurant menu and, if at all possible, not to eat it anywhere. This just reinforced my conviction. Even so, I continued to enjoy an occasional hamburger cooked on an outdoor grill, telling my hosts, “If you only have one cheeseburger a year, it tastes really, really good!” Even though I know about global warming and the effect of greenhouse gases emitted by cows. (“If cows were a country, they would be the third-largest greenhouse gas emitter in the world,” Foer writes.)
And then there’s the matter of pandemics, which the author claims are inevitable as long as we continue to eat meat regularly. While much has been written about wet markets the author points to “factory farms, specifically poultry farms…(as) a more important breeding ground for pandemics.”
The author of this article is not an anti-meat scold. Rather, he acknowledges the importance meat has “in our culture and personal histories in ways that matter too much, from the Thanksgiving turkey to the ballpark hotdog.” In an earlier blog post, I wrote about my Aunt Tine, a life-long vegetarian who married into the Italian-American side of my family. I told her how my cousins and I learned to hate the cruel teasing aimed at her and Uncle Philip during Thanksgiving dinners. In what I viewed as a remarkable display of tolerance, she said, “You have to understand how hard it was for immigrants to this country to have achieved the ability to put meat on the table daily if they wished, not just at a special holiday dinner, and then have one of their sons reject it all.”
I guess. But it’s taken me a long time to get to this place myself: Meat? Don’t need it, thanks just the same.