When I was 13, my 7th grade science class was assigned to dissect a fetal pig. This made me massively uncomfortable. My teacher told us that we could opt out of doing the dissection and use approved online resources for the project instead if we wrote a convincing essay as to why we didn’t want to do it. I wrote about the fact that human fetuses are used for scientific research, but only with the parents’ consent, and you couldn’t obtain consent from a pig; and besides, we weren’t talking about important scientific research, we were talking about a classroom of seventh-graders (read: little barbarians) who had other resources with which to learn the lesson.
I was able to do the online project. The next philosophical step, in my thirteen-year-old mind, was to say that if I was going to give an animal the same dignity as a human being in this respect, I had to apply it in terms of my food, too. So I stopped eating meat on the basis that I didn’t want anything to die in order for me to live.
That lasted seven years.
During those seven years, I was very unhealthy. Everyone knows by now that vegetarianism ≠ healthy living, and it was my poor choices that led to my general level of unfitness — but there was one problem that, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t solve within the confines of a vegetarian diet: I was very anemic, and iron supplements and green vegetables and lentils didn’t do anything to help my blood count.
That’s just me and my body, of course; the same isn’t true for every vegetarian, but all of that is to frame the context for this situation: One day when I was 20, I was driving my car, listening to Drex in the Morning. Drex was talking to Rick Bayless, renowned chef and founder/owner of a three-restaurant complex that contains Topolobampo, Frontera Grill, and XOCO in Chicago. Bayless was talking about carne asada in the way that only a chef who is intimately familiar with the flavor of meat and the proper way to cook carne asada can talk about it. I was tired, I was having my period, I was hungry and my skin was translucent, and I just thought, “Fuck it, I’m going to eat some meat.”
There was a period of time after that that I went on and off of meat. Once you don’t eat it for seven years, it’s really not that big of a deal to skip it. But I tried the Engine 2 diet (produce, grains, nuts, legumes, and seeds only) and felt like a digestive superstar who couldn’t lift the forty-pound boxes of cake layers she had to lift for her job. I tried veganism for ethical reasons and it wore off quickly.
There are plenty of reasons that people go on vegetarian and now, seemingly, increasingly on vegan diets. There’s animal cruelty on farms, the whole killing-to-live thing, the environmental reasons; some vegans cite scientific research that says that protein overload is bad for you, but paleo practitioners can cite contradictory scientific research right back. It’s really an exhausting argument. Ultimately, I just want to eat.
And the stereotype of ethical vegans as being totally holier-than-thou is often the case. When you’re chowing down on tasty, tasty carne asada, you’re making a choice that ethical vegans believe is morally wrong. They can’t help but judge you, silently if nothing else. But here’s the thing that I’ve found out about myself: While I love animals and want to live in an ecosystem that is friendlier to them, I also don’t have the energy to care that we kill them for food anymore. Put another way, killing animals doesn’t violate my personal, moral code. If I absolutely had to butcher an animal to eat, I would. I’ve seen all the awful videos, I’ve engaged in the argument from both sides, and at this point, there’s nothing in the world you could do to stop me from feeling 100 percent A-OK with the fact that I just had a big whey protein shake and I’m going to make beef stew for dinner tonight.
That’s why there is, in fact, a difference to me between cows and chickens that are kept in pens and cows and chickens that are let to roam, or between animals that are given hormones and animals that aren’t. I would be so happy if as a culture we ate less meat in order to let the animals we eat live with more space. But we’ve been raising animals for food for centuries. Your sense of ethics is a choice; there’s almost nothing that is a absolute, universal definition of “good.”