Ruth and Bill. Rhoda. Thanksgiving and Christmas. Chuck.
They’re the link to my complex relationship with meat and sometimes poultry. But there were others.
Bob and Ruth were the names of my best friend from Kindergarten’s parents.
When my own mom and dad decided to move us away from our sweet little green house on a suburban Chicago busy street waaaaay out to a farmstead in the middle of nowhere, Bob and Ruth were the chosen names for the matriarch and patriarch of our muskovy ducks (my younger brother’s responsibility and winner of many 4-H awards).
Rhoda was our first pig. Named after Rhoda Morgenstern. I’ll never forget the day we sent her away. My parents and older brother tried to corral her into our small trailer, but she was a stubborn one. I was supposed to be helping, but I was too busy crying behind the duck house.
Chuck was one of our beef animals. Black angus, I believe. Each year, we raised one beef animal from bottle fed calf up to prime for eating. We’d walk past their stall and they’d give us a lick with their long, rough tongue.
A tongue I’d later see wrapped up in the freezer although I don’t recall ever having that as a meal.
When people came to visit, they’d ask who we were eating.
One of us would casually announce the meat’s name. And we were great at naming. There was Patti and Sir Loin. A couple others that didn’t get actual meat product names I don’t recall. The best hamburgers I’ve ever eaten in my life. Besides Rhoda, there was Bacon and Hambone. Our neighbor worked at a dairy company and would bring home buckets of cottage cheese past their sell-by date which my dad hand fed to the pigs. I think that’s what made them so tasty. Yes. They were tasty at the time. My mom even used the lard for cooking, which grosses me out to think about it now.
There were so many ducks over the years—Ruth and Bill’s offspring. The human Ruth and Bill were Catholic with 6 kids. Anyway… the only other duck name I remember is Lucky. He was the one that survived the fox killing spree. Eventually we ate him so … not so Lucky.
We raised chickens for a while but didn’t name them at all. While adorable as chicks, they were short on personality. Thanksgiving and Christmas were the turkeys my parents raised during their early empty nester years. They’d follow my mom around thinking she was their mother. We proceeded to eat them for Thanksgiving, the other on… Well you know where that goes. As a side note, my two brothers and I each raised a Jersey cow. We drank the rich milk raw. Nothing like it in the world.
Our dinners were beef, duck, pork. Beef. Beef. Pork. Duck. Duck. But never a goose. That was just the way it was.
At home I serve the kind of food I know the story behind. ~Michael Pollan
Over the years, I’ve grown apart from meat products.
I can’t even kill a fly so I don’t like to imagine my food having been slaughtered. I go through phases where even farm-raised, organic blah blah blah makes me squeamish. It’s muscle. We rode on the backs of our beef animals for god’s sake! They licked us and had feelings. Rhoda had personality and free-will. The ducks? They existed to eat bugs and poop. But they meant well.
A few bad experiences helped expedite the break up with meat. I took a bite out of a McDonald’s egg McMuffin in college and was about to take a second bite when I noticed a big fat vein sticking out of the sausage! That is an image I cannot erase.
Friends had us over for dinner a number of years ago and served nasty hamburgers. When you’ve tasted the hamburgers I have in my day, anything else is sub-par. These should not have even been given the name hamburgers. I ate them to be polite, almost gagging the entire time. I may have stuck a couple bites in my napkin. Gross!
I made duck al’orange for my husband when we were first dating. It was dry. He doesn’t like duck. End of story.
I’ve found a way to connect meat with actual body parts in my imagination. Ribs are ribs. That one’s easy. Any other part is muscle. Why do we want to eat muscle? That’s just nasty! If I have to chew too much, that’s really disastrous.
Then my husband and I watched Food Inc. Ironically, we had planned to eat steak for dinner. I couldn’t cut into mine. It took a while, but my family finally caught onto the fact that I didn’t like to eat meat. I’d eat it if they served it (to be polite), but I finally stopped even doing that.
Poultry I can do. No problem. As long as it’s mixed up with something else or super juicy grilled with just the right spice to cover up the mere notion that I’m chewing cooked bird flesh. Fish I eat. Eggs, a no brainer. But they have to be cage free and organic. Scrambled. I’ve got a line on a local farmer for our eggs, but in the meantime we’re going with the Costco organic. I know. Blasphemy.
Someone recently justified meat-eating as such: They’re raised to be our food. They wouldn’t even be alive if it weren’t for us. In other words:
“If God did not intend for us to eat animals, then why did he make them out of meat?” –John Cleese.
So I don’t eat meat. Most of the time. A Halloween or two ago I had pork because I had been drinking beer and the only other food available was candy. Even though, when my friend mentioned he had slow cooked a pork shoulder, I told him most of this story that you have now read. How could one even consider eating ‘shoulder?’ I have to admit, it was melt in my mouth tasty.
Last week, my husband received a couple frozen packages of farm-raised grass fed ground beef as a gift. It thawed thin blood in a bowl in the fridge, which made me gag every time I looked at it. My ecstatic son said, “It’s not blood, Mom.” Well, then what is it? The futile argument eventually dissolved. My son waved the grilled hamburger—otherwise known as mystery body parts—below my nose and I told him to knock it off. During a game of scrabble at the dining room table, I tried not to watch them devour what they said was the best hamburger. I probably ate some greens and nuts but can only recall the vivid tang of cooked meat.
I don’t proclaim to be a vegan, vegetarian, ovarian or whatever else. I cannot be classified—a work in progress intermittent-arian I suppose. A meat flip flopper. My son used to say he eats beef at other people’s homes.
But now that I’ve found a local, organic farm source with grass fed beef and free range chickens, I buy all sorts of meat. Mostly for my meat-eater guys. (I don’t feel it’s right to force the issue. If they want meat, it’s their choice.) Recently, I had my parents over for dinner and, guess what? I made and even ate hamburgers! Grass fed, organic and… tasty. Maybe I’m cycling back around to eating meat.
I could live on nuts, veggies, ice cream, smoothies and dark chocolate. Oh, and popcorn. Sushi if I’m lucky. Which I haven’t been. Although luck can be over-rated.
So to those of you who raise an eyebrow to my eating habits, I hope you understand. And if you don’t, well that’s just going to have to do. I’m me. I love animals. I put bugs outside. I get sad if I accidentally step on an ant or wash a little bug down the drain. “I’m sorry,” I call to it hoping it doesn’t have a family waiting for it to come home with dinner.
Meat and me don’t always get along. That works for me and it’s better for the planet.
Adapted from something I wrote for elephantjournal.com.