September 2011

The Accidental Vegetarian

When I want a hot breakfast or when I’m tired of cereal and fruit and yogurt, I eat butter beans. It is easy to open a can, rinse the beans, pop them in the microwave, and then drizzle soy sauce over the steaming bowl. A can-full is enough, a supposed sixteen ounces in content, perhaps a third of which is liquid, which either goes down the drain or into bowls for the dogs to share. The beans taste almost oatmeal-like, these eponymous butter beans – sensually warm on the tongue, creamy in texture, with flavor that is a soft combination of earthy and woodsy.

 

Strange fruit, I often think, this Phaseolus lunatus, the common butter bean.  Some people call it a lima bean, which I did until I met my wife. I told her that I like lima beans, and she bought a couple of cans when she was next at the grocery store.

 

“But these are lima beans,” I said when I saw the can. The illustration showed an oblong-shaped bean the same sickly green color of the walls of a government office. I know the words were on the can, but the thing my people called lima beans were so tan as to be almost white. And soft rather than hard.

 

“Oh,” she said, “you mean butter beans.”

 

Apparently I did. It’s a matter of culture, this labeling of the beans, now raised in varieties based on modern reflections of those grown by Andean Mesoamericans of the first millennium, colonized by the Spanish, and passed into the Anglo-Celt-African culture of the south by those who put hand to plow.

 

I suppose I prefer the Dixie, or Henderson type, but by whatever name, I also know beans are a strange breakfast, especially for someone raised in a house where the common morning meal was two eggs over easy, two strips of bacon, and two slices of white toast with jam or jelly. We had southern roots, but no one liked grits.

 

I once ate a normal breakfast, preferring sausage to bacon, but now I eat butter beans – five grams of protein waiting in every bowlful – because I no longer eat meat.

 

I gave up meat for Lent several years ago.  How many years exactly, I can’t remember.  It’s a point deep enough in the past I can not fix the date exactly, recalling only the why of the decision.

 

That year my wife said, “I think it’ll be chocolate for me again this year. What about you? What are you giving up?”

 

“Meat,” I said, and for no reason, or for reasons lurking somewhere at the edge of a spiritual frontier, a shadowy place then so far unexplored in my life, a quiet place where I might sit and do no harm, move about and leave no trace. I was past fifty years of age. I had eaten chicken, fish from shrimp to shark, snail, lamb, rabbit, alligator, buffalo, hoghead’s cheese and pork rinds, and beef from tongue to ox-tail.

 

I liked certain meats. No steak, or roast, no, but rather meat sauce over spaghetti, or in lasagna. Or ribs. And fish. But not forty kinds of meat – one pound of flesh sacrificed for each of the Lenten holy days. I simply ate meat because I had always eaten meat, because meat provides the least sophisticated means of putting ample protein on the table, because among people who lived off the land — my people — could raise pigs and chicken quickly.

 

And so in shabby imitation of the saints gone before I renounced meat, a thing I liked, accepted, but did not crave. I turned away from its minor pleasures and satisfactions in curiosity rather than in attempt to fast, to cleanse. So much for Lenten sacrifice, that choice, I was to discover after a few days. It cost me nothing. It sparked no yearnings. I quit eating meat, and the only reason I noticed was that I had to make the choice.

 

The folksinger Loudon Wainwright III once wrote about smashing his guitar in a drunken rage. “I bought myself a blonde guitar,” the song ends, “I had it for three days, some junkie stole my blonde guitar, God works in wonderous ways.”

 

And so it is as the years of supposed fasting, of vegetarianism, pass. “God works in wonderous ways,” a decision made at random, a simple offering casually laid down without expectation of significant sacrifice, a test of will without true consequence – to prove to myself that, yes, I am here, and I have control over one small thing. I cannot remember exactly how many years ago I gave up meat. Perhaps ten, and now the fast continues because my abandonment of a meat-based diet did not come soon enough, at least for my taste.

 

“I feel better,” I tell my wife when she asks if I am getting sufficient protein. “I should have quit sooner.”

 

And thus this casual decision – a lifestyle, a preference – I have come to wear with whimsical self-awareness, as if I have deliberately chosen to move toward the borders of normalcy to attract attention. At table as a dinner guest, or when dining out with friends, I sometimes intercept glances as I order. “Gary doesn’t eat meat,” my wife will explain.

 

“Oh, god, I could never do that. I would miss steak too much.”

 

“Why don’t you eat meat?” someone asks.

 

I cannot explain, not then, not amidst knives and folks, beef and pork grilled and roasted, not about what I have come to believe, to understand about what I perceive as my place in this world. Instead I rely on humor. “It’s not really that I’m a vegetarian,” I say. “It’s just that I don’t want to eat anything that had a face.”

 

Humor disguises truth, as we all know, and reveals it, and isolates us from it – all because I began to read, to see, and to think about the idea of meat isolated by  technology from the animal as a living creature. As Emerson tells us, “You have just dined, and however scrupulously the slaughterhouse is concealed in the graceful distance of miles, there is complicity.”

 

I will not embarrass myself by pretending — or praying for — a higher moral consciousness, but I now feel I would stray beyond the borders of my better nature unless I participated in the process of the beast becoming food. I remember this: on a childhood dare, I once visited a slaughterhouse. In France, as it happened to be, in that country where horse meat is table fare. The great beast entered – I remember it as an old Percheron near black in color, worn down by years in the field – and stood patient, nickering slightly at blood stench, before being dispatched into a heap of bones and memory.

And I have been present at the death of unnumbered chickens. Dozens of peeps, almost all clinging to life, arriving boxed on a crisp spring morning, emptied under a heat lamp to scurry toward the day three months later when my father would dispatch them one by one as my brother caught them and my mother set upon the crimson task of cleaning them for the freezer.

 

My father preferred the ax, but if a person is resolute, it’s bloodless to grasp the bird by the head and swing it quickly in circles, but be prepared for the life force to shiver away in our hand.  The ax too is not a pleasant thing, and the hot brassy smell of the sacrifice will linger.  As will the smell of the butchering – a knife, open the chicken from breastbone to anus – avoid slicing open the stomach or the gut – spread the carcass and wash out the body cavity. But first my mother and father shared the task of using boiling water to loosen the  feathers – dip the carcass, and then pull feathers handful by handful, again, and once more. The musty, acidic odor of the wet feathers will mix with the hot brassy smell of the blood.

 

I am far from that now, and most of us in this country are ignorant of that quiet place on the land where we nourished the animals we would kill and eat. Acquainted, yes, and careful, but nevertheless an entirely unsentimental process. My grandparents killed hogs and chickens, mostly, steers providing too much meat to preserve in those days before nearly every home had a freezer. Chickens killed and eaten, one by one; hogs killed, and canned, smoked, or salted.

 

Gandhi, their contemporary, said “To my mind, the life of a lamb is no less precious than that of a human being. I should be unwilling to take the life of a lamb for the sake of the human body.” Mawkish words in the ears of hard-worn country folk, surviving dust storms and depression, with no time for peaceful coexistence with the animals upon which they were utterly dependent. Dogs and horses might work to inspire affection, but chicken, rabbits, and hogs awaited only to become God’s gift to the table.

 

My maternal grandfather, work dwindling in the Great Depression, raised rabbits and chickens in the backyard to put meat on the table. My paternal grandparents, trapped under the Dust Bowl, had room to raise hogs as well as chickens. No ax necessary at hog killing. A quick, hard hammer blow between the eyes, and the hog was hoisted by the heels. Sharp knife, lanced throat. Save the blood. Use everything but the squeal. No refrigeration. Hams go to the smokehouse. Grind the sausage, cook and can it. The backbone, fresh, for dinner.

 

Life from life, blood sacrifice in the powdery soil along the wood fence near the garden.  No pristine carved parcels clad in clear shrink wrap, skinless, boneless.  Bloodless.

 

Could I kill, I might find the heart to eat meat again – beast in a pen, nurtured, understood, sacrificed, or beast hunted from the field, shot dead by arrow or bullet, blood touched to my forehead in ancient ritual. Now, though, away from the farm – away from the necessity of care – I choose not to eat the flesh of animal treated as raw material for a factory: heifers and steers crowded into small pens with access only to water and feed; chicks dumped into great sheds, beaks trimmed to prevent cannibalism, fueled with antibiotics and steroids so that they might reach slaughter more quickly.

 

And so I now choose consciously to continue my life without meat – a contrarian because of some unfocused belief all is not right in the world, in imitation of Isaac Bashevis Singer, “To be a vegetarian is to disagree – to disagree with the course of things today.” But given my history, my personality it would be east to accuse me. Is the thing the deliberate attempt to be different for difference’s sake, to stray from the herd, to renounce flesh as if it mattered, mattered only a little?

 

Today when we’re out with friends at a restaurant or visiting family, and the question comes up – and it still does, even though my small circle of acquaintances should know by now – I say “No, I still don’t eat meat.” With that, the meal proceeds, my quirkiness accepted, even reaching out to the point where I can admit to my friends that I’ve taken to reading labels carefully – vegetable instead of chicken broth in soups, jam instead of jelly to avoid gelatin products, no Worcestershire sauce all tart and acidic with anchovies, no Thai roasted red chili paste flavored with dried shrimp.

 

When someone newly met says “Oh, you’ve given up meat?” I pause for a moment. To say, “Yes,” even though agreement now seems a fraud, or at best less than the whole truth.  “Gave up” implies a sacrifice, and I no longer feel as if I sacrificed anything. A random choice for ritual, not fully reasoned to a rational decision, as if a spiritual offering might be rational — a Lenten offering that meant something, and nothing — has changed the way I perceive the world and my place in it, in the way I strive to articulate clearly without seeming sanctimonious, for my own sake if not yours.

 

And so sometimes I lie to deflect those to whom I care not to explain myself. “I have digestive problems.  The doctor recommended a meatless diet.”

 

With others, I might seek engagement, seek to force myself to define what I want from the choice. “Why?” they ask. “Really, be honest.”

 

“I don’t know, at least not that I can explain entirely,” I might reply. “Something to do with factory farms, certainly, an objection as much personal as environmental.”

 

Let’s simply say it’s decision I stumbled onto after discovering I can live healthily without meat. Does that cheapen it? Does that turn a Lenten non-sacrifice into something like  an odd stew of nostalgia over my loss of connection to one of the fundamental rites of life and the melancholy recognition that living creatures have become raw material in some great industrial process.

 

I ate Spam.  And hotdogs, sausage, thin greasy disks of bologna, jellied masses of liverwurst – each no doubt formed of lips, cheeks, tails and toes of creatures mostly rendered into chops and roasts. I ordered the thin, gray, minced and flattened gruel that passes for hamburgers at fast food restaurants. I ate chicken, turkey, dove, quail, pheasant, cornish hen, and other fowl. I ate swordfish, cod, catfish, bass, shrimp, lobster, trout, and other fish. I even ate snail, turtle, and alligator. Now I miss only Spanish rice, I think, this far along my strange journey. Spanish rice – no doubt a simplified Americanization of the true paella  — a fragrant meld of tomatoes, onions, peppers, meat, and rice. I still think about it, even now years later, when I prepare the meatless version. I sometimes also miss true homemade hamburgers. Sometimes. And fish. But that’s it. Not roasts, steaks, chicken, turkey, or pork chops. Or any other piece of flesh.

 

Now I eat butter beans. And garbanzo beans, red beans, tomatoes, pumpernickel and rye bread, avocados, bananas, grapes, apples, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, fresh spinach, fresh corn, peanut butter, honey, sunflower kernels, assorted nuts, and raisins on a regular basis and assorted other things at random. Strawberries, peaches, blueberries. Yogurt and cottage cheese. Each bite I lift from that list to my mouth can be found within a mile of the place I live, ready to carry home after a quick and easy exchange of money.

 

Thus, thriving as a vegetarian in this civilized place, this quiet, peaceful mecca at the edge of the great prairie where the Commanche and Cheyenne once hunted the buffalo. I turn on the television, and I am transported into the Amazon jungle, there to watch a father show his sons how to catch a tarantula and roast him in the lodge fire coals, and I know that my choice, my personal vegetarianism, my purposeful elimination of meat from my diet, is a conceit of the industrialized world. It is a thing much easier to choose and then embrace wholeheartedly when ample nourishing food is as near as the local health food store, the farmers’ market, or chain supermarket.

 

But I feel better physically, which improvement may simply be a quirk of my singular metabolism – and take a measure of quiet satisfaction that I am not a terminal for the bizarre and somewhat brutal factory assembly line that converts living creatures into meat products, but I will not claim I am right, that I earn some measure more as a citizen of this world than a family gathered around a kettle of chicken and rice in a thatch hut in some far away jungle highlands.

 

Karma being what it is, we act, and we gain or lose. I chose to give up meat, in a sacrifice both studied and casual. And from that decision, I’ve grown quieter, healthier, more clear about my appetites, sharper in my perceptions, stumbling awkwardly “to step in into the stream which leads to nirvana.”