On the stroke of midnight on June 1st,I had achieved a small, but noteworthy milestone: one month without eating meat. How, precisely, did this situation come to pass? Realizing that my girlfriend has done a noble job of trying to understand the things I am interested in (particularly Disney World and 1970s AM pop music), I decided to reciprocate, and attempt to acquaint myself with one field of her expertise: food studies. My first two steps included Michael Pollan’s two volumes, In Defense of Food and the more well-known Omnivore’s Dilemma. I may comment on my initial forays into food studies later, but suffice it to say, I was challenged, for the first time, to consider just what I ate, and where it came from. These two books are not shrill or condemnatory by any stretch of the imagination. Rather, they provoke thought and contemplation, looking at the industrial farm, Big Organic, deliberately small-scale farming operations, and the intricacies of gardening, hunting, and foraging for one’s own. While these books did not make me opposed to eating meat in principle, I did develop some qualms with the present state of the meat industry. In order to keep meat prices low and to feed our insatiable demand, our future meat is often hormoned-up and densely packed in, living lives which are, like an elf with rabies, both brutish and short.
To better understand my girlfriend’s veggie lifestyle and to become more self-conscious of what I ate, I therefore announced that I would make it through the month of May without eating meat. (I did make one, pre-declared exception, the meal my parents hosted at the Kyoto hibachi restaurant in honor of my graduation from the Ph.D. program. While there, I did enjoy some chicken and shrimp with the Japanese noodles and veggies.) I hasten to add that this was not an especially drastic change in lifestyle. Left to my own devices, I don’t set out to include some chicken or steak or fish in every meal. In fact, on some days, I go veggie entirely by accident, and only by 10 pm realize “hey, al-volt, you didn’t eat any meat today.” (Al-Volt is my Hollywood name, a shortening of my internet pseudonym, Alex Voltaire.) Here are some insights I gleaned from my 31 (well, 30.5) days of meat-free living.
- I have gained a small bit of weight. While I do believe that the Atkins diet is largely bunk (a legacy of my Nutrition class I took as an undergraduate where this was a principal point of the course), I do think that, conversely, a proportionally higher percentage of carbs might promote weight gain, even if the overall caloric intake doesn’t change.
- My culinary skills have gotten a badly needed workout. While staying at my parents’ house, I volunteered to cook some veggie meals for them, rather than asking for vegetarian versions of whatever they might be serving for dinner. The best result to come from this is a dish I call Tortellini Marco Polo, a mix of Italian and Chinese influences. More or less, its your standard tortellini with stir-fry vegetables on it- these vegetables can be tailored to your own tastes and availability (or seasonality, as Pollan would want me to acknowledge.) But I have found onions, round circles of carrot, broccoli, and red pepper to be four key components. However, Marco Polo takes a quick jaunt through India by putting a modest amount of tandoori spice into the vegetables, along with some red onion spice, before dousing the whole thing with some orange glaze. The glaze and the red tandoori-stained vegetables give the dish the appearance of a red sauce that I think a pasta dish definitionally requires.
- Even when meat is a part of my diet, I often feel weak around 10:30 am and 2:30 am (the mid-points between breakfast and lunch, and lunch and dinner). I was surprised, then, at how the feelings of weakness did not amplify, and may have gone down a bit.
- I did not save any money. If anything, eating a good, nutritious meal without meat can be marginally more expensive. Seriously, considering how we have to keep feeding and inspecting our food before we eat it, meat is really dirt cheap in the grand scheme of things.
- The experiment gave me a means of feeling closer to my girlfriend in absentia, sharing a common diet across state lines. In a much more superficial, and almost certainly imaginary way, I feel closer to a great number of vegetarians whom I admire: all four Beatles, Gandhi, Weird Al Yankovic, Cesar Chavez, Rabindranath Tagore, and Chrissie Hyde of the Pretenders.
- Most restaurants have perfectly acceptable vegetarian options. As I do my victory lap around my university, pay outstanding debts, and treat people to lunch who have done me great favors, I found that something palatable could be easily found in most restaurants. Between Union Hall’s orzo special, Olive Garden’s capellini pomodoro, and the ubiquitous but nevertheless tasty eggplant parm, every sit-down restaurant had at least one savory veggie option. The problem was what to eat when traveling on the thruway. McDonald’s has salads, yes, but they are generally meaty and proportionally a bad value for the money. Sure, there’s pizza, but Sbarro’s is up there with Enron, New Coke, and the South Sea Bubble as the worst business venture of all time. I had to learn to pack ahead when on the road for long periods of time.
- The only times I felt inclined to cave in were because of social situations, rather than a physiological craving for meat. When visiting H’s grandparents in the Adirondacks, her grandma assumed that shellfish and fish were exceptions to my diet, and served a delicious-looking shrimp cocktail for their standard cocktail hour at 5. I do enjoy shrimp, and I also enjoy validating my hosts and people who go out of their way to serve me good food. I politely declined, and forbore the temptation to eat shrimp, but that was probably the single moment where I wavered most during the entire month. The worst part, in other words, was an inescapable (and probably valid) feeling that I was either insulting or inconveniencing those who fed me at various points during May.
I sit here eating an apple and some cheese ravioli for lunch, willing and able to eat meat now that May is over, but not feeling especially eager to do so. Much of the meat I ate hitherto, was largely habitual, and not born of any deep-seated need or carnal craving. Will this change how I eat in the long term? It very well might. I’m not ready to become a vegetarian, and will never become a vegan, but this may impact my food choices in other, more serpentine ways. As a riposte toward my theologian and philosopher friends who study Situational Ethics, I could see myself adjusting to what I call Situational Vegetarianism. This means I would probably not eat meat when dining alone, but partaking in animal flesh when obliged to do so socially. If I were to be served a pulled-pork sandwich at a picnic, or chicken cordon bleu at a friend’s house, I would happily enjoy the food at hand. But, as the old Kitchen Kabaret show in Epcot said back in the 1980s, “veggie veggie, fruit fruit, are a good bet. You’ll enjoy us at every meal, because we have appeal.”