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Friday, March 19, 2004

An Accidental Vegetarian -- At 38 years of age, I certainly never intended to stop eating meat. Despite my oldest friend having been meat-free for the last five years, and despite an ever-increasing awareness of the casual contempt the meat industry seems to have for the concept of safety (or even simple decency), I never really thought much about the subject.

It was so simple to microwave some bacon to go with my waffles for breakfast; to grab a hamburger on the way home from work, or order a Hawaiian pizza with ham and pineapple from the local pizza shop. It was easy, convenient, and of course, it tasted good.

Looking back, one key "meat moment" about ten years ago that I always harken back to, though, when thinking about human consumption of meat was when my wife Lora first introduced meat into our daughter's diet. After months of eating mashed peas and carrots and other vegetable-based baby foods, my wife spooned a tiny amount of turkey baby food into Kira's mouth -- only for her to spit it out in revulsion, and glare at her mother with a genuine sense of outrage and betrayal. Seeing that primal scene, I began to question just how natural it is for humans to ingest the flesh of other animals. I also reflected on, as I often do, one Thanksgiving radio broadcast when Tom Snyder referred to turkey as "the only meat that actually tastes dead."

I had been forced to eschew some kinds of meat about five years ago, after being diagnosed with diabetes. It became much more important to me to cut the most egregious kinds of animal fat out of my diet, so no more prime rib or bacon -- both are composed primarily of fat and offer little nutritional value by any standard. If we bought hamburger, I lobbied for lean, 90 or 95-percent fat free. My wife did her best to comply with my needs. Instead of regular hot dogs, we got Healthy Choice, all-beef franks that had significantly less fat on the label than regular hot dogs. But our meals were still built primarily around meat. American society is built around meat and meat products in sometimes shocking ways -- for example, I recently learned that one cereal manufacturer refuses to guarantee that any of their cereals are free of meat or meat by-products. So, their popular granola cereal may well be a bowl of morning meaty goodness. Marshmallows are produced with rendered meat by-products, so my favourite kids cereal -- they're magically delicious, to coin a phrase -- isn't vegetarian-friendly. Amazing.

A couple of years ago, I read the book Fast Food Nation (excerpt here) and was startled to learn just how much contempt the fast food industry has for its workers and the poor bastards who end up consuming the mass-produced fat-bombs they serve. Being an adult of at least average intelligence and observational skills, I have always noticed that supposed advances in healthier options in fast food restaurants are mostly marketing maneuvers -- those crisp, green salads usually come with dressing packets with enough fat content for three meals; grilled chicken sandwiches are slathered in mayonaisse -- but I was stunned to learn that one of the key goals of McDonald's is to have a zero learning curve for their workers. They want their shake machines and french-fry fry-pits to be so simple that even an idiot can operate them -- which, of course, will be the end result of their plans. A fitting irony, I suppose, since that's mostly who'll be consuming the product as well.

Over the years I became more and more aware of what a Matrix-like illusion Americans are living under. TV shows and toys from Fisher Price reinforce the idea that the cattle Americans consume spend their lives grazing idyllically
on wholesome grass out in the fields, when the reality for many was that the meat rendering industry created a form of institutionalized cannibalism, feeding cattle, pigs and other animals meant for human consumption to themselves. I learned recently from the book Mad Cow USA that cannibalism results in spongiform encephalopathy, a disease in which holes are created in the brain by rogue proteins called prions. This horifically fatal illness -- which is thought to sometimes take decades to present itself -- is thought to be the cause of Mad Cow Disease, which is communicable to humans as a variant of Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease. You may remember the images of thousands of cattle being burned in Britain to stop the spread of the disease. Science has since learned that prions aren't destroyed by heat, so all burning those cattle accomplished was to release the slow, deadly prions into the air, in the the water, into the environment. Decades from now, it will be horrifying and fascinating to see what the end result of all that cattle-burning turns out to be, and how the government will dissemble and spin the facts, as governments have already been doing for years.

In any event, reading Mad Cow USA (a PDF file of the entire first edition is available here)-- and earlier, Fast Food Nation -- finally resulted in me one day in March of 2004 just becoming revolted to the core by the thought of eating meat. I think the key moment for me was learning that the meat industry was actually feeding cows not only their own relatives, but feed composed partially of chicken shit and feathers, that did it. This is an obscene thing to do to an animal, no matter how the blend is prepared or how palatable they manage to render it. And then, to think that the meat from these animals that consumed chicken shit and feathers is considered suitable for human consumption? Now do you see why it's like waking up from The Matrix for me? For cows, Soylent Green is people.

Going vegetarian was nothing I had planned, but the change in my personality and in my lifestyle was as immediate and startling as a heart attack. The change left me essentially lost at sea in an unfamiliar, alien world where, just half a decade after having to redefine my eating habits to save my body from the ravages of diabetes, I now had to find new sources of nutrition. It was less than two weeks before I began to feel an insistent sense of gnawing in my gut that apparently was caused by a lack of protein. I was aware that I would need to find alternate sources of protein, but am still now struggling to find a new balance and utilize sources that are palatable and healthful.

My vegetarian pal Marshall accompanied me to the supermarket recently and recommended a protein drink, which I tried the next day. Perhaps I need to experiment with proportions and sweeteners (again, the diabetes has to be factored in), but I found it fairly unpleasant and was unable to finish the entire thing. I'm also not a huge fan of nuts, although I bought a jar of peanuts in case I feel that telltale gnawing setting in again. In the meantime, my preferred protein sources so far are meat substitutes like Gardenburgers and Boca Burgers, and eggs, which I generally liked anyway. With eggs, though, come cholesterol and fat, not to mention concerns over the non-organically raised variety, likely to be what is available in most of the restaurants where I live.

Another issue has been my wife's learning curve. From the moment I decided to drop meat from my diet, I was determined that I wouldn't try to evangelize or convince anyone else of the horrors of meat. Despite that, my wife's initial reaction could not have been much more shocked or hurt if I had told her I was gay. Understandable; after all, we'd eaten an awful lot of meat together over the course of our 12-year relationship. She saw my sudden conversion -- what I like to call my "Saul on the road to Damascus moment" -- as something that would turn the lives of our entire family upside-down and inside-out.

To ease the transition, I decided to try to make as many meals as possible -- if she came home from work each afternoon to a hot, delicious meal, it seemed to me that it would make the fact that the meal was meat-free a little more tolerable. The night I made meatless lasagna -- still with cheese (four kinds, in fact) and tomato sauce -- was a success. She refused to try the Smart Dogs, though, so I had to make up two batches of hot dogs. Interestingly -- and gratifyingly -- my kids seem to prefer the soy-based franks to the beef ones. My son and my wife even discovered that they like sauerkraut, which I prepared with the hot dogs. One thing I've quickly learned is that the lack of meat is greatly mitigated by the presence of strong flavours in meatless meals.

The night my wife offered to cook, she decided to make hamburgers for her and whichever of the kids wanted them, and Garden Burgers for me (and again, whoever else wanted them). I was reading in the bedroom when she started preparing the meal, and when I came out to see how things were going I noticed that she was using the same spatula for both batches of burgers. I didn't want to start a fight and tried to gently reinforce that this was more than a little counter-productive to my goal of eliminating as much meat (or contact with meat) from my diet wherever possible (and I do understand that that won't always be possible). She seemed a bit...whatever!...but I don't think she'll do that again, and we managed not to get angry about the obvious difference of opinion over how much it mattered, this thing with the spatula.

I also have had to try to make her sensitive to just how many meat-related products there are in seemingly unlikely places. The last time she went grocery shopping -- the first time she went in with a vegetarian-packed shopping list -- she brought home three cans of "Vegetable Soup." First ingredient? Chicken stock. I ate the Garden Burgers that had been flipped with the same spatula as the hamburgers, but I probably won't eat the "Vegetable" soup. Even I don't understand that one, since the risk of illness or exposure to pathogens is probably many, many times higher when we're talking about exposure to uncooked beef. Maybe it's because I perceive that her feelings would be more hurt with the burgers, which she actually expended some effort in preparing, than with the soup, which will eventually be dumped from the can to the pan before being consumed -- by someone other than me.

So, as I have accidentally stumbled into vegetarianism, it seems like a whole new world. I feel a bit safer, and while that might be an illusion, I do feel a greater sense of control over my health, and more optimism for the future. Tomorrow, Saturday, March 20th, is Meatout 2004, and I urge you to take one day and live meat-free. Have waffles or pancakes and eggs for breakfast. Have a bean and cheese burrito and a salad for lunch. Try those Morningstar Farms Buffalo Wings or the absolutely convincing Boca Burgers for dinner -- they're some of the most convincing meat substitutes I've ever tried, absolutely delicious. Eventually I imagine I'll move on from the need for even substitute meat, but for now it's a great help in making perhaps the most profound transition of my life. From sleepily gnawing on chicken wings and turkey legs to a greater awareness of the genuine danger of mass-produced meat, and of the cruelty that a meat-oriented society delivers not only to the animals it consumes for sustenance, but ultimately to itself.


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