Sunday, July 19, 2009

Where does the bread go?

I've been a vegetarian for just over a year, so I'm hardly the voice of experience on the matter. But it is difficult to think of a recent development of my life that has had nearly as much impact to my thoughts or actions. Clearly moving to North Carolina has had some obvious effect on my actions, and my (relatively) recent embrace of atheism has created some profound shifts in my assumptions and thoughts. But going vegetarian has had some extremely deep consequences for me.

I think about food differently, for one thing. Before I made the decision, I thought that I would be unable to give up meat simply because I loved food too much. Not that I eat too much, or even a lot, but I love variety and flavor. I couldn't imagine losing the versatility that meat adds to a meal. And it is true that I have lost access to a significant portion of the menu in most restaurants. Instead of choosing my meal from anywhere, I am relegated to a tiny paragraph that is usually smaller than the appetizer selection. At the same time, I don't feel the least bit hampered when I cook at home. In fact, I feel the ability to be more creative. American dining generally revolves around a centerpiece entree of meat, and the rest of the meal revolves around that. But with meat gone from the equation, it is easier to make a more balanced meal. And yet, I care less about food than I did. It still interests me, I still love to cook and I still love to try new and exotic flavors, but the passion has dimmed in intensity. This is a strange concept to explain, because I don't mean that I just don't care about food, or that I even care less than I did, but food feels less essential, as though eating meat added a touch of desperation. That sounds about right - the desperation has gone.

My move to vegetarianism was not coincidental - it happened as a pretty direct result from my recent love of animals. Anyone who has known me remembers my disinterest in animal life. Not to say that I would swerve my car to run over dogs, but I never really connected with animals. I never thought much of them. It is only in the past few years that I started to care - and I mean really care about animals. It may be irrational, but I draw a very slim line between humans and other animals. I anthropomorphize too much, imagining thoughts or goals, fear or affections from animals when they may well not exist. As a result, I think of fear and suffering as things to be avoided all up and down the food chain. I know that life stands on the shoulders of death, that if the rabbit or deer outruns the wolf, the wolf will starve. The natural world is cruel and uncaring. But it is economical and essential. Humans, on the other hand, are wasteful and capricious. Avoiding suffering should be a guiding principle in every human endeavor. Clearly it is not.

There is a fantastic Calvin and Hobbes cartoon where Calvin shows Hobbes something weird: he puts a slice of bread in the toaster. Toast pops out, and they are amazed, wondering where the bread went. This is like meat with me. I am unable to separate what it was with what it is. When I see meat, I think of an animal. The thought of eating meat actually makes me nauseous.

I am convinced that, in the future, eating meat will be taboo. There is actually no reason for us to eat meat - it is an expensive (and therefore profitable) industry, swallowing up resources that could be put to better use feeding people - the water for all the grain that we feed animals and the grain itself could be more economically used to feed people than the relatively small amount of meat produced. Studies about meat-eating continue to come out linking meat with all sorts of health issues. I don't mean to say that meat is poison, or that meat-eaters are cruel. Eating meat isn't terrible in and of itself - indeed, it's probable that human civilization survived and advanced precisely because we ate meat. But now meat is primarily an expensive habit that is surprisingly easy to kick.

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