Since we’re in the early planning stages for our first Madroño Ranch bison harvest, I’ve been reflecting on issues of carnivorocity, which my spell-checker tells me isn’t a word. It suggests “carnivorousness” instead. But I prefer my neologism because it retains echoes of the ferocity that undergirds all meat-eating.
I have been a happy meat-eater all my life, with the exception of my senior year in college, when I chose to be a vegetarian for financial and life-style rather than ethical reasons. Although I still eat meat, I’ve grown increasingly troubled by the system that produces most of it in the United States, and no longer eat meat at most restaurants or from supermarkets.
In some ways, I think that vegetarians may be more evolved than meat-eaters. According to Genesis, all creatures—not just humans—were vegetarians in the beginning. God said, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of the earth, and every tree with seed in it for fruit. And to every beast of the earth, and every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food’” (Genesis 1:29–30). Thus modern vegetarians are hearkening back to their Edenic roots, to a human dominion over nature that reflected the aboriginal harmony and mutual respect among species—unless, of course, you happened to be a green plant.
But the story became more complicated, as good stories always do. As punishment for various transgressions, God sent a flood that only Noah and the passengers on his ark survived. In thanksgiving, Noah built an altar to the Lord and made of every clean animal and bird (although this was before the laws differentiating clean from unclean) a burnt offering. When God “smelled the pleasing odor, he said in his heart, ‘I will never again curse the ground because of humankind…’” (Genesis 8:21). From that time on, humans were given animals for food, with the stipulation that they should not eat flesh that still had blood in it.
Complicated? My goodness, yes. Eating meat is God’s concession to the fact that something in the original balance of the world has been thrown out of whack—and that the smell of cooking meat is profoundly satisfying. Those who can resist the lure of barbecue are made of sterner stuff than God! The line between vegetarians and meat-eaters is the line between self-identified utopianists and realists—or between utopianists and people who don’t think about the issue. I tend toward the utopian end of the spectrum. So why do I eat meat?
In his fascinating book The River Cottage Meat Book, British chef and farmer Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall points out that scripture has been used to justify the most heinous acts, including the abuse of animals for human consumption. He finds the “commitment to eliminate the pain and suffering of animals at the hands of humans… to be morally superior to the commitment to ignore it.” But he also finds the pro-vegetarian argument based on the desire to eliminate the pain and suffering of animals unconvincing. Animals inevitably suffer, even without human intervention. He points out that “dying of old age” rarely occurs in nature, and that wild animals are quite likely to end their lives as food for something.
Eating meat is a reminder that we belong to the system over which we exercise dominion. We are not above the law that ordered the universe; we do not lie outside the natural order. Not long ago I took a cooking class from Jesse Griffiths of Dai Due, one that took a chicken “from gallina to pollo,” as our daughter Elizabeth put it. We started with two live roosters, which we were to kill, pluck, and clean. After Jesse showed us how to hold a rooster upside down—which disorients and calms it—he put it headfirst into a lopped-off traffic cone and slit its jugular. The whole business took ten seconds or less per bird and was strangely intimate, giving me an insight into some of the labyrinthine dietary and purity laws in Leviticus. Surely we are meant to eat meat with a profound awareness of the sacrifice that doing so entails. As usual, no one has said it better than Wendell Berry:
that quickened eye and leaf.
May my brain be bright with praise
of what I eat, in the brief blaze
of motion and of thought.
May I be worthy of my meat.
What we’re reading
Heather: George Johnson, Fire in the Mind: Science, Faith, and the Search for Order
Martin: Richard Price, Lush Life