To Meat or Not to Meat

What do I know, I'm just a caveman writer.

After my buddy Jeremy and I hung out the other night, he invited me to a late concert.  I said no.  I had a date.  Because Jeremy is a vegetarian, I couldn’t share what that date was.

I rode my bike to the Whole Foods at Bowery and Houston.  I snuck in, hoping no one I knew was there.  I milled around the produce section for a few minutes, trying to lose PETA agents who might be on my trail.  My covert ops were meant to obscure my destination:  the butcher.  My date was with meat.  We hadn’t gone out in over 4 years.

I’ve been a vegetarian off and on for 16 years.  My reason historically has been the environmental toll meat production takes compared to a vegetarian diet.  My last spell started when I was dating a Mahayana Buddhist.  Mahayana’s believe in an elaborate system of reincarnation, with possible rebirths in hell realms, ghost realms, and many other nasty sounding places.  One of the lower realms is the animal realm.  Contrary to the idealized version of animal life many people hold, Mahayana’s believe that animals are in a state of near-constant suffering, forever at the mercy of their needs, lacking consciousness to transcend them.  Where you go in the next life depends on your end-of-life karmic balance; basically a matter of how much negative karma you’ve burned off during your life.

A Bodhisattva is someone who tries to rid himself of negative karma and achieve Buddhahood (or at least higher rebirth).  He achieves this by devoting himself to freeing all living beings from suffering.  Aiding to that suffering means lower rebirth for you.

I decided to go veg to cover my bases.  I didn’t want to risk lower rebirth.  But even if Buddhist beliefs were hogwash, I could see that most livestock live lives of nonstop, abject suffering.  This is particularly true of livestock raised in the industrial-agricultural meat complex, where animals are shot up with growth hormones, steroids and antibiotics, force-fed, stuffed into diseased and shockingly small spaces, and killed in brutal ways.  I wanted no part of it in this lifetime, much less pay for it in the next.

My vegetarianism had been taking momentum lately.  A friend sent me a Youtube video called “Farm to Fridge.”  It’s one of the most horrible things I’ve ever seen [I’ve included it here. If you can watch all of it and not change the way you look at meat and meat products, you need psychiatric help].

It made me take the next logical step:  veganism.  I had been a lacto-ovo vegetarian (egg and dairy), but now I decided I didn’t want any part of that evil system.

Veganism wasn’t going so well.  I was trying, but everything seemed to have some dairy.  At home, I bought margarine instead of butter.  I bought soy cheese and meat substitutes (though I’ve read from vegetarian and carnivore alike about the poor nutritional value of most soy products).  These highly processed foods didn’t seem (or taste) like the right way to eat.

I also had energy problems.  I found myself making plans based on my energy levels.  I figured I was just new to the game.  I’d give it time.  Then a couple things happened.

The first thing was catching wind of a guy named John Durant.  He’s an advocate of the “Paleolithic Diet” (sometimes called “caveman” diet).  The premise behind paleo is simple:  homo sapiens have been around for a few million years.  For most of that time we were hunter-gatherers and our digestive systems evolved accordingly.  It’s only been since the agricultural revolution (roughly 10K years ago), that we’ve consumed domesticated crops like wheat and rice.  Given that this is a small fraction of our biological evolution, our bodies have not evolved to handle this new diet.  Paleo’s preach a diet that resembles hunter-gatherer fare, mostly meat and vegetables.  No processed food, no sugar, no grains or legumes, all of which are byproducts of the industrial and agricultural revolutions.

I knew about this diet years ago, but dismissed it because of its large meat intake.  Even when I ate meat, it seemed excessive.  Intuitively and empirically it always made sense however.  My northern forbears didn’t eat mangoes in January.  And my body hates sugar and starch—it makes me munchy and moody.

The more I looked into it, the more compelling it became.  One part was aesthetic:  the cavemen and women all seemed muscled, lean and smiling (and they clearly weren’t models).  At risk of making a blanket statement, this is not something that can be said of many vegetarians and vegans I know.

Years ago, when I was into eating raw vegan, I attended a raw support group.  Many of the group’s senior members had horrendous teeth, wasted skin or were eerily thin.  They also espoused elaborate programs of making sure their nutritional needs were met, including tons of juicing and colonics (they loved colonics).  While I had some nutritional breakthroughs eating raw, as a lifestyle it seemed unsustainable.

The next thing that happened was I got sick.  Many people get sick all the time, but not me.  I knew it was related to my diet.  I had been eating a lot of starch:  potatoes (fried and baked), bread (much of which was white), and refined sugar from desserts, coffee and, most insidiously, condiments like ketchup and barbecue sauce.  While I didn’t usually consume that much highly refined starch (hence why I didn’t get sick often), whether I was eating lacto-ovo veg or vegan, my diet always had a glut of starch, which makes me bloated and tired even with ancient grains like millet and barley.   My common sense was saying the paleo thing deserved a try.

The first dish was humble pie, as I’ve been a fairly loud-mouthed vegetarian.

There seems something inherently bourgeois about talking about diets.  “Shut up, be thankful you have food,” I think to myself.

But on a day-to-day basis, few things so greatly affect me.  Food pervades every aspect of my life—how and what I eat has emotional, spiritual and political implications.  Do I eat more starch when I’m depressed or am I depressed because I eat more starch?  How do my eating habits affect our planet and its inhabitants?  Would I eat meat if I could see the processes that produce it, bloody carcasses and all?  If the Buddhists are right, am I willing to risk lower rebirth for a sausage link?  These are all questions I’ve grappled with—ones I don’t have clean answers to.  It’s still an open question.

So I am eating meat again.  Here are some reasons and conditions:

  1. I think humans [I] run optimally on low-starch diets that include meat. This statement doesn’t preclude a great vegan diet, but I believe my body runs optimally with meat.  I wish to hell it didn’t.  I will continue to eat predominantly vegetarian (sans grains and legumes) and am still open to making vegetarianism work in the future.
  2. It’s part of a larger movement. I’m not eating meat as an excuse to eat bacon cheeseburgers and fried chicken.  It’s part of a movement away from processed, starchy foods and toward cleaner, simpler foods.
  3. I will only eat “humanely” produced meat and meat products. If you don’t know where your meat and dairy are coming from, you can assume it’s coming from a horrible place. “Free range,” “vegetarian-feed” and “organic” designations are not enough (“pasture fed” is typically the best).  You have to know the provenience or it’s probably shit.  This stipulation also relates to meat’s environmental toll as sustainable and biodynamic farms are less taxing on the environment.  The industrial agricultural meat system is pervasive and fucking revolting. [I’ll include some links below of where I’m going for stuff].  But there’s only so humane meat production can get.  At a certain point, I have to reconcile that animals are being murdered on my behalf.
  4. I will honor the animal that died so I could eat it. I know this is cold-comfort to that dead animal.  But I want to believe the animal’s life was not meaningless.  I have an intention to be free of suffering so I can free all living beings (this is a paraphrase of the Bodhisattva vow which I’ve taken).  For the time being, I’ve decided that eating meat facilitates that better than not eating it.  I hope I’m right.

Sustainable farming organizations (will update soon):

Weston A Price Foundation Allows you to buy direct from farmer with full info about their practices.

Certified Humane designation.  Tells you whether meat is produced in a humane fashion.

Check the comments of this blog post, which have a number of local (NYC) farms that practice sustainable farming.

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