Ever since I was fifteen years old and attended my first “meat fabrication” class in culinary school, I’ve been a conflicted vegetarian. It wasn’t the blood, or the immense physical effort it takes to disassemble a dead cow that turned me off to meat, but rather seeing the living conditions the cows lived in before slaughter. And however bad it was for the cows; it was way worse for poultry and pigs. Weeks, sometimes months would pass without me eating a single bite of meat. But then someone would invite me out to a steak house, and I’d have no conflict whatsoever about eating a nice medium rare filet mignon beef steak.
By my twenties, I learned to not obsess one way or the other. If I could avoid eating meat, I would. If I had a “relapse” with a plate of bacon; I’d shake it off and jump back on the meatless bandwagon. I stopped trying to define myself and just tried to eat ethically. As I had learned by experience, calling yourself a vegetarian, and then ordering a steak and then enjoying eating said steak, doesn’t sit well with most people, regardless of their stance on meat consumption.
By my thirties, my periods of vegetarianism would span months. When I did eat meat, it was harvested by hunters on my hobby farm. One venison would last an entire winter. A turkey would last a month. I knew the animals that were hunted and knew that they had a good life. This knowledge made eating them seem holistic instead of barbaric.
Then I got pregnant. I could not consume enough meat. Some meals would consist of three or four different animals. My appetite for meat of all kinds far out paced my desire for anything else. During the 48-hour labor with my son, I ate at least four hamburgers. As I was being brought back to my hospital room after an unplanned c-section, the phone was ringing. It was the kitchen. They hadn’t received my hamburger order yet and were concerned.
After the birth of my son, I didn’t want meat anymore. Or milk. The physical experience of nursing my newborn son was so profound that the thought of a mama cow being separated from her calf so her milk could be stolen, broke my heart. I had unwittingly jumped from occasional flexitarian to almost vegan. I say “almost” because I could still rationalize eggs from my in-law’s farm.
The rule I made for myself was to only eat meat that was offered to me when there was no other option. But I also reasoned that I valued people more than animals, and that if someone went through the effort of preparing meat for me, I should respect that by at least trying it. However, I still very much liked the flavor of meat so if I had a little, I’d likely have a lot. Nevertheless, this rule lasted, with very little effort, for several years.
No meat in the house. Well, unless the hunters gave us a turkey or something because I wasn’t going to waste that. And if my mother-in-law sent us home with some leftovers. And if we entertained because the world isn’t made of vegetarians. As the list grew with exceptions, so did my desire to define myself as a vegetarian.
When our son was ready to start eating solids, I decided to continue with the no meat in the house, unless it was gifted to us. A short while later, we learned my husband and our son were lactose intolerant, which left our whole family leaning towards veganism. But since our son was already underweight, we didn’t dare align ourselves with anything that could limit the food he could physically eat, so we were largely mute on the subject.
The arrival of our daughter did little to upset the status quo of limited meat and no dairy in our household. The few times we bought cheese for her to try, she threw it on the floor with disgust. We found or made alternatives to all the regular junk toddlers eat. Dairy free muffins and cookies. Meatless chicken nuggets. Veggie hamburgers. Even dairy free cheese – which our daughter liked.
One day, our four-year-old son asked where meat came from? He had made the connection that chicken nuggets came from chickens. I smiled and told him that the “chicken nuggets” we eat at home, weren’t made from chickens but from plants. He seemed content with this knowledge, at least for the moment.
From that day forth, every time our son was served a meat alternative, we told him it was not made from an animal. If given the choice, he would pick vegetarian almost exclusively. When we were out and about and meat was on the menu, we told him when it was “real” meat and left the decision for him to make. His vegetarian streak ended the day he discovered culver’s chicken tenders.
Until very recently, chicken tenders from culvers were his most requested food item. We would tell him every time we ordered them that they are made with real chicken. His response was usually something along the lines of “but they are so good”. He is his mother’s son.
This morning on the way to school, our son proclaimed that “no one should eat chicken or any meat at all.” I asked him if that meant he was done eating culvers chicken tenders? His response, “I’m not going to eat at culvers until I’m six years old”, which is over eight months away. Then he repeated his battle cry of people shouldn’t eat meat at all. “No one should ever eat chicken” he proudly proclaimed.
My husband and I, gently reminded our son that we can’t control what other people do and that the best way to feel better about not eating chicken, is to make the decision to not eat chicken. And then don’t eat chicken. Then he repeated a familiar conflict “but chicken tenders taste so good.”
My reflection on this morning’s events has little to do with the decision to eat meat or not and everything to do with having conflicting wants. As both my son’s and my behavior demonstrate, it’s difficult to maintain your ethics when you have conflicting wants. And this doesn’t just apply to chicken tenders.
Most of the world’s unhappiness stems from conflicting wants. I want to save the environment, but I also want a car to drive and hot water in my house. Now that I know that I can drive a car and have hot water, it would be a difficult adjustment to not have them. Of course, I can reduce the amount that I indulge in these comforts, but to omit them completely? That’s asking a lot.
As my son demonstrated by coming to his own conclusion that no one should ever eat meat, while he simultaneously struggles with giving up his beloved chicken tenders indefinitely – but maybe just until age six, is a very literal example of struggle we are all familiar with. The struggle of conflicting wants.
It must be human nature to impress on others what you want for yourself. My son declaring that “no one should eat meat ever” while he struggles himself to not eat meat, shows an unflattering side of humanity. Replace meat with almost any issue that involves a life of any kind, and it quickly becomes clear why politics are so infuriating. We can have anything we want but only if it’s only one thing.
If I want to be rich, I need to make a lot of money. I can do this. Most people have this ability. However, depending on many variables this could look a lot of different ways. Perhaps, I need to sell an organ to make a lot of money. Or work twenty hours a day. Or sell all my belongings. When there is more than one objective, reaching that objective becomes increasingly more difficult. If I want to be rich, and have my own time and belonging, including my organs, I need to learn how to be more agile and compromise. Maybe even redefine my definition of what “rich” is and adjust my goal accordingly.
There is no stunning conclusion to today’s reflection. I have no answers. Today, I am just more keenly aware of my limitations as a human with wants and the importance of continually striving to refine my personal ethics, while simultaneously working to accept myself and others with grace and compassion.