Confessions of a Meat-Eating Vegetarian

Sticking my head out to judge the Grind.
Sticking my head out to judge the Grind.

I recently accepted an offer to judge a burger competition, as I do from time to time.  Recently, our food critic, Melissa McCart, asked me a question about the deep, dark secret I usually keep from Clean Plate Charlie readers. "You're a vegetarian," she said. "How are you going to judge burgers?"

Allow me to explain. True, I consider myself a vegetarian. I also consider myself Jewish, though I haven't been inside a temple in 20 years. I have been screwed up by a traumatic childhood.

As a little girl, I remember almost daily trips to the kosher butcher on Seaview Avenue in Brooklyn. The smells of sawdust and blood, the bright red and white of the marbled meats, the giant prehistoric-looking bones made me ill, made me sick, made me upset. Maybe I've always been too aware, choosing to believe in death instead of fairy princesses, but there you have it. I decided to stop eating meat after my grandmother explained to me that, yes (sigh), we kill animals and eat them. Yes, (sigh), the very same animals that you played with at the petting zoo. You can see how my choice indicated miserable failure for my Jewish mother, who thought I would immediately keel over and die if I didn't eat at least a lamb chop or a spare rib (see? It's a "spare" rib) at dinner.

I didn't die, and from time to time, I experimented with various degrees of vegetarianism and omnivorous behavior -- sometimes going vegan, sometimes lacto-ovo. For a while, I allowed myself to eat chicken (but ducks were too cute); then eggs were out. As a food writer, I'll taste steak, chicken, burgers (except foie gras -- that's a level of cruelty I can't condone. And I won't eat lamb. Why? Because I have a toy poodle, and they just look too much alike. Feel free to mock me; I just can't.)

I know the difference between what tastes good and what doesn't, but in

my personal life, I choose not to eat meat. I don't consider this a

conflict of interest at all. To me, it's like this: If I were a dentist,

I wouldn't drill teeth at home. That's best left to the workplace. So I

eat meat "on the job." At home, I eat asparagus.

The other

day, I was asked about my strange, sometimes hypocritical, eating

habits. I, like most people, don't have answers to all the questions.

Someone mentioned a fascinating custom in Morocco where a family brings a

sheep into their home for a week, treat it like a pet, then slaughter

it for a feast. I countered back with an

episode of Taboo I had seen on National Geographic, which had an

African tribe caring for a dog as a pet for an entire year, then killing

the dog and eating him as part of a manhood ceremony.  Hell --

President Obama admitted to eating dog. What's the difference? Why are some

lives revered and others aren't? A question worth pondering and one I

don't have an answer to.

I don't preach, but I have to say I'm

fascinated by how most people don't connect cute animals with what we're

eating. We can watch Charlotte's Web or Babe while

eating a ham sandwich.  As a kid (I told you I was traumatized), my

well-meaning but clueless parents would drive us to Amish country to eat

steak -- with a picturesque view of cows grazing in the field. We would

go to upstate New York -- where deer with black eyes glazed over in a

death stare would be tied to the backs of cars.  Four-H Clubs all over

the country have young children name and raise prize cows, goats,

chickens... and then eat them. 

All over the world, restaurants use happy cartoon chickens or pigs to sell their wares. And Chick-Fil-A

famously depict cows that are so into self-preservation they turn on their

barnyard brethren, holding signs that say "Eat more chikin." Cows, apparently, are aware of the slaughter house but can't spell worth a damn!  Here's a question -- if animals

suddenly spoke and wore clothes like in those ads, would we still eat

them? Do most of us, as a society, not care, or simply choose to put up

convenient blinders? Can't we at least think before we eat?

In conclusion, I'm a meat-eating

vegetarian. Call me a hypocrite, because I am. But at least I can say

that I try. I make an honest attempt at curbing the pain

and suffering of animals. I'm against factory farming. I don't joke that PETA means "people eating

tasty animals." I don't think it's funny to tattoo a dead pig, leaving its flesh inedible because of the ink. Furs freak me out, but not leather, because we at least use the rest of the animal. I don't want to eat something that still has its head on

-- dead eyes staring at me in condemnation. I think about the animal

that gave its life for my meal. And secretly hope that the next food trend

is... beets.

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