Mindful Meat-Eating

 

How Can I Love Animals but still Eat Meat?

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Plastic candelabras hang tilted on the brown wall panels, casting a yellow glow onto the oak tables of the Innsville Restaurant. At the horseshoe-shaped bar, a bartender slides a pint across the smooth bar-top, two women clink their wine glasses, and a group of men and women bang their fists on the bar-top and then on each other’s shoulders. Their laughter drowns out the clanking of plates and scraping of steak knives.

I pull my chair forward until the arms hit the edge of the table and grab a dinner roll from the wicker basket.

“What’s on the wine list?” my cousin Nicole asks as she unfolds the laminated menu.

“Just so you ladies know, our special this evening is the fish and chips. The second serving is on the house,” our waitress says. She places two water glasses on the table and runs back to the kitchen.

“Okay, we’re definitely starting with the calamari, and then I think I’ll get the prime rib. What are you thinking, Ness?” Nicole folds her menu and turns to me.

“Hmm….” I scan the entrées. “I’m debating between the fish and chips or the lamb burger.”

“Lamb burger? Wow,” she laughs.

“What?” I lower my menu and scrunch my eyebrows.

“I mean, you just started eating meat again and you’re already going for the cute animals? Nice,” she smirks and shakes her head. “I guess those three years of vegetarianism didn’t mean much to you after all.”

I stare at the glossy menu. The front cover reads “The Innsville Restaurant: Award-Winning Steak and Seafood House.”

“I’m a bad person,” I sigh. I flip to “Soups & Salads.”

 

I was in the third grade when my dad and I first imagined raising a pig to sniff out truffles in the five-acre field behind our house. We knew there was no chance truffles actually grew in the soil of a suburban Burlington public park, but it was fun to imagine owning a pink and black spotted hog and getting rich by selling these rare fungi. After all, my grandparents came over every Saturday of the summer to pick cicoria—dandelion stems—and serve it at Sunday dinner. So, how outrageous would it be to search for edible fungi with the help of a potbelly instead of grandparents? Okay, pretty ridiculous and not at all the same thing as picking weeds, but the idea of raising a domesticated pig intrigued me.

During the twelfth grade, I sat in the local Wendy’s on my lunch break, bit into a burger on a seedless bun—with a slice of not-yet-melted orange cheese, and bacon that had just been taken out of a warming drawer—and watched a metal box truck pull into the fenced-in factory parking lot across the street. Fist-sized holes in the sides of the truck exposed the welled eyes of pink pigs. The factory sign read “Maple Leaf Foods.” God forbid you got stuck at this traffic light on a hot July afternoon—no amount of vent-clip air-fresheners masked the billowing stench of the factory’s fume stacks.

That same year, a handful of my vegan friends participated in protests outside of the factory, with images of blood-soaked pigs and “HONK IF YOU LOVE ANIMALS” inked across neon poster boards.

“I do love animals,” I thought as I pushed the browned chicken thighs around on my plate at dinner that night. “But how can I say I love them if I still eat them?” I plowed the chicken to one side with my fork and picked at the asparagus and mashed potatoes instead. I fed half the chicken thigh to my dog and tossed the other half in the garbage.

During the next few weeks, my throat dried and my stomach flipped as I stared at the meat on my plate. Up until then, I gave little thought to what was actually on my plate. On my way to school, I watched the pig trucks turn off of Highway 403 and searched, behind tinted sunglasses, for the drooping eyes that peeked out of the metal cut-outs. I turned away when I locked eyes with their begging stares.

It was time to decide my next move. I would prove that I loved animals the most.

From that moment, I swore off eating animal products, with the exception of three things: dairy, because I loved cheese, obviously; eggs, because I only ever ordered eggs florentine at the breakfast diner; and fish, because I never really felt much sympathy toward them—maybe because I couldn’t cuddle them.

My vegan friends praised me for my right decision and preached about the benefits of a plant-based diet, but they scoffed when I ordered salmon sushi or alfredo sauce on my pasta. Although I was happy with my cut-backs, they never awarded me with the “Most-Loving of Animals” prize. I never fully adopted the title of vegetarian because I never felt like I truly deserved it, and my supposed community found ways to undercut my attempts to prove the love I had for animals.

At eighteen, I made it through my first year of university and my first year of vegetarianism—pescatarianism, if you want to be politically correct—with ease, because the University of Toronto dining hall chicken always had a questionable grey tint to it, and a slight, lingering smell of rubbing alcohol. One year of perfecting my favorite tofu marinade and testing the exact frying time to mimic the crunch of popcorn chicken; one year of Sunday meals at my Nonna’s house, with my own tomato sauce cooked without scraps of a lamb or cow or whatever meat she had left over from the previous day’s meals; one year of my uncle’s nagging jokes and my eight-year-old cousin’s copy-cat comments shot my way every time they passed the plate of braciole—rolled beef cooked in sauce—under my nose.

I never shared my dietary restrictions with people that didn’t ask. When my family picked a restaurant for dinner, I checked the menu beforehand to make sure I could eat, even if it was just a spinach dip or a platter of cheese nachos. Fish tacos were a bonus when I found them on the menu.

On a June afternoon following my third year of university, my mom came home from her friend Sonja’s house, where they had spent the day sipping mojitos by a granite-lined lap pool. She walked in the kitchen carrying a cardboard basket that peaches come in from the grocery store, except there were no peaches in the basket. She placed the basket on the kitchen counter and unfolded a yellow dish towel.

“Sonja got a chicken coop,” my mom said as she plucked four brown eggs from the basket.

My eyes must’ve been sparkling as I watched her pull the eggs from their cozy bed.

“Don’t even think about it.” Her eyes narrowed as she met mine. “We are not getting chickens.”

When my dad and I joked about raising a truffle pig, I knew that it wouldn’t actually happen. But, my mom grew up with chickens. I figured she’d be more open to the idea of raising chickens over raising a 150-pound hog.

“But why not?” I whined. “Imagine having fresh eggs whenever you wanted!”

“How long do you think a chicken can lay eggs for? They lay them, and then what? Are you just going to throw the chickens away when they can’t lay them any longer?” she asked.

“No… We’d just keep them until they’re old,” I tried.

“If you’re going to raise them for their eggs, you need to consider using the whole animal. That’s what Sonja does. When their chickens stop laying eggs, but are still healthy enough to eat, her husband, Ralph, takes them to their chopping block.”

Sonja raised her chickens just to slaughter them? She must not truly care about them. Or did she? She cared for them daily and kept them in proper conditions, with consideration of the constant changing temperatures of Southern Ontario’s climate. They roamed around a grass-blanketed area, took in the warm sun, and lived free of cramped cages and severed beaks. Was it fair to say she hated them if she raised them with the same level of care she gave to her Shih Tzu, Milly?

I never thought about what would happen after the hens stopped laying eggs. I could keep the chickens for my enjoyment and then get rid of them when they become infertile or let them grow old and sick and die off. I didn’t eat meat, but the idea of not using them for something as vital as feeding people seemed wasteful, especially if my family would continue to get their meat from the grocery store, while owning perfectly healthy chickens who lived cruelty-free lives.

I spent the last two-and-a-half years protesting the consumption of meat because of the inhumane conditions of factory farms. Instead of considering the alternatives to factory farming, like Sonja’s chicken farm, where she raised her chickens free-range and fed them organically, I took the quickest route, and left most meat off of my plate.

But, I guess it wasn’t the idea of eating meat that made me squirm when I put it close to my lips. Instead, it was knowing how the meat that I purchased off the shelves of Costco was not given a chance to live well.

I don’t believe that there is any true way to determine if Sonja loves her animals more than my vegan friends love the animals they don’t even know but still stand on street corners for. I don’t believe that I love animals more than everyone else, but I know that I do love them. I believe that we can all love and appreciate them in our own ways, whether that be raising them, eating them, or just noticing them as a resource that provides us with an extra something. How can we determine who loves animals the most if we all have own definition of love and our own way of showing it?

 

My Guide to Mindful Meat-Eating

If you’re like me, you struggle between wanting to lay in the tall, July grass, petting brown cows and indulging in a greasy Five Guys hamburger. Having just ended my three-year vegetarian stint, I still look down at the chicken on my plate and wonder if I’m a bad person for not doing more for the animals who live and die for my consumption. I wrote this guide as a way to rest my uneasy mind by finding a balance between my love for animals as pets and my love for animals as food. If you too find yourself feeling a little guilty, whether that be for your own reasons or the same as mine, run through these mindful thoughts to see where your heart and stomach lay.

What You’ll Need:

An open mind. Yup, that’s it.

Note: This guide should be seen as just that—a guide. Use these nine general steps as a way to dive deeper into your own unsettled thoughts and personalize the steps to fit your loudest thought or feeling. Skip or leave out any parts that don’t apply to your own experience but be mindful of what you choose to skip. This shouldn’t make you feel worse, but it shouldn’t be the most comfortable thing, either.

 

Steps:

  1. Discover the underlying factor of your discomfort. You must first determine what makes you feel uneasy about your choice to consume meat before you can address it. Note: Some people feel guiltier looking at raw meat rather than cooked meat. Some people feel worse looking at a live animal. Use what you have access to, such as the meat department or butcher’s counter at your grocery store, or a local hobby farm, to discover where your discomfort lies.

  2. Listen to your mind. Do you have strong emotional feelings about the food that you are about to consume? Are they bad or good?

  3. Feel the physical effects on your body. Does your stomach feel unsettled when you eat the meat on your plate?

  4. Consider what meats make you feel certain ways. If certain options feel cleaner, opt for alternative-based dishes or substitutions rather than the popular choice, or whatever is called for in a recipe. Note: Red meat, like steak and roast, still send my stomach into knots when I look at it, especially when the blood pools at the bottom of the plate. My insides feel dirty when I eat it. I don’t know the exact reason why, but it doesn’t make me feel good. So, I substitute it with chicken or tofu. I even opt for a veggie burger over ground beef, when I have the option. Small changes. Nothing is bound in blood, so embrace your options.

  5. Own your uncertainty and do your due diligence. Google is your friend and doesn’t give you the excuse of laziness anymore. Research your options when it comes to alternative sourcing or even alternatives to meat. If you are someone who needs a reason to stop or start eating something, Google has a multitude of opinion forums waiting to feed you.

  6. Acknowledge your food sources. Discover where your meat comes from and consider alternative options. If factory farming strikes a moral chord when thinking about your consumption decisions, consider alternative sourcing such as local, free-range, or pasteurized options when checking the packages at your grocery store.

  7. Recognize your counterparts. Consider the reasons for those who choose to avoid meat all together, as well as those who bleed for meat-based diets simply because meat tastes good. Everybody has their own factors, reasons, and traditions. Be able to recognize why one person’s choice to consume meat or not consume meat is their own. Sometimes, they have opinions you may never have considered, and you might even begin to adopt some of these mentalities.

  8. Do what makes you feel good. At the end of the day, having a beef burger once a month isn’t going to destroy the ozone layer, or wipe out the entire population of cows.

  9. Understand your individual impact on factors that you feel responsible for. Ask yourself if they are reasonable and manageable for one person, and jot down ways to help make your experience of meat consumption less guilt-ridden. Note: Start at home-base. Look through the items in your fridge, scroll through the food pictures on camera-roll, or flip through the recipes in your cookbooks. Write down five meals you regularly enjoy. List your usual protein option under each meal. If you notice a repeat, consider switching out a protein with an alternative option to add variety to your weekly menu.

 

My journey to mindful meat-eating continues to challenge me daily. I still fall into the habit of circling the cheapest protein in the No Frill’s flyer of the week, which may be the fluffy cow pictured on my Instagram feed that same day. But, I slap a red heart across their pink nose when I double-tap, because my living heart swells just as the digital heart does on my screen when I think about owning a cow or chicken of my own someday, regardless of what I choose to consume.

 

Contributor

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Vanessa Giovino

Vanessa Giovino is a writer currently studying at the University of Toronto. She marks up the margins of her current reads in rainbow-colored pen and finds comfort in her color-coordinated bookshelf. Vanessa hopes to move out of the city lights and into the rolling Canadian hills someday, where she'll raise a Highland cow named Daisy and a Pygmy goat named Scout.