Saturday, May 1, 2010

The Reluctant Carnivore Diet

** Warning: The Following Blog Contains Hypocrisy, Contradictory Logic, and Downright Flaky Conclusions **

Motivated by our love of animals and by some documentaries depicting the conditions under which many animals are raised for food, my wife and I tried to be vegetarian a number of years ago. We lasted about a week and then had a big, juicy steak.

Intellectually I support the idea of vegetarianism. It seems to me that eating another sentient being for food when we can choose to not to do so (and still survive) just isn't the right thing to do. Other carnivores don't have a choice because they don't have the mental capacity to derive an alternative diet that still supplies the necessary nutritional requirements for survival. We humans do have that capacity and many of us live in circumstances where the abundance of other food would cause no hardship if we were to say, "I know I'm a carnivore, but I choose to exercise my uniquely human intellect not to behave like one."

But tell that to my stomach. I was raised during a time when having meat at every meal, and plenty of it, was considered a healthy diet. My father worked in the meat department of a supermarket, and felt proud of his ability to supply his family with steaks, roasts, and chops (maybe slightly out of date, of course). And in those days beef was prized for its "marbling," or network of fat in the meat, which gave it added flavor and lots of cholesterol. I grew up thinking a meal without meat was just not a proper meal.

And so, despite the intellectual abhorrence of eating meat, I still honestly really, really like it. I find that it's possible to just not think about those pesky little moral or ethical issues as I sink my teeth into that medium rare hunk of cow. Still, it is fair to say that I'm a reluctant carnivore.

Some time ago my wife and I came up with a way to reconcile our inner carnivore with our inner animal lover. We call it the reluctant carnivore diet . Here's how it came about.

We had been snorkeling one day when we came upon a group of 20-30 small squid, all lined up facing us with their tentacles gathered together in a neat point. Something about this formation and the way they behaved was quite endearing. As we swam toward them the formation broke like a chorus line and swung open to allow us to pass through, then slowly closed and all the squid pivoted in place to face us again. We repeated this several times, and it was almost as if we were dancing a ballet with them.

At this point we had never eaten squid, but later that day we saw squid listed on the restaurant menu where we ate dinner. We looked at each other and simultaneously said, "No way!" We had just met these creatures in the wild and we simply couldn't eat them now. I'm sure squid is delicious and we may be missing a wonderful culinary treat, but we have decided that we don't need to eat squid and we can choose not to do so.

The reluctant carnivore diet grew out of this experience, and we have followed it pretty well for quite some time. The principle is simple -- all meat and fish we have eaten in the past is still ok, but if we "meet" a new creature we haven't eaten we choose not to start. We also try to avoid eating new animals we haven't encountered in person, but we have sometimes waffled on this. Besides squid, some other examples on our do-not-eat list include most African game animals, guinea pig, octopus, and some real easy ones -- dogs, cats, squirrels, etc.

We readily admit the philosophical wimpiness of this "personal encounter" principle -- it really doesn't have the moral imperative or logical consistency that underpins true vegetarianism. And we still have to wrestle with the fact that we continue to eat critters that are just as cute and endearing as the ones we now refuse.

But it makes us feel better.


DoctorMcLovin said...

I with you there, brother. "The vegetables are a garnish." (Well, maybe I'm not that bad, but you get the idea.) But intellectually...

RS said...

Yes, the old "mind-body" conflict, right?