Not a description of me I would have recognized as a young twenty-something, when I was deep in my multiple years of vegetarianism. I grew up on a pretty unremarkable American diet and it felt pretty exotic when I encountered my high school friend Sarah, who was a vegetarian. My midwestern Step-mother and her recently acquired culinary skills were pretty meat and potatoes in content, without much flair or seasoning, and not eating meat was something I’d not really considered until I met Sarah. She grew up in Europe, child of a military family and just seemed so much more worldly and experienced. It was the early 90s and she was buying books on Amazon, I barely even understood what the internet was, and wouldn’t for a few more years. But the seed was planted. Somewhere around our senior year, late one night after a rock show out of town, we went to an all night diner, probably a Denny’s, and to my astonishment, she ordered chicken strips. Her commitment to vegetarianism was derailing, and I was, even if deep in my consciousness, considering it as a dietary choice. It was a few years later, as a young adult living with my boyfriend at the time, cleaning another bag of cheap chicken parts to make dinner, and the veins, the tendons, the flappy skin, the ugh, I just couldn’t anymore, and it was around 20 that I was finally all in and stopped eating meat. And so this continued for a number of years, pretty solidly until I started doing a lot of travelling around 23 and awkward cultural encounters in Europe and Asia landed meat on my plate despite my best efforts. It also became clear that, unless you’re in a place like India, where vegetarianism is pretty deeply embedded in the culture, vegetarianism is kind of a first world privilege. Figuring it was healthier to eat just a little meat now and then, rather than abstain entirely, then inadvertantly consume it and potentially make myself ill as a result, I opted for the occasional sushi out with friends to keep my body up to the task of digesting it. And so this continued, through the vegetarian boyfriend that enticed me to eat mock meat at an amazing hole in the wall Chinese place on the East side of Santa Barbara to the sushi chef boyfriend who patiently always made sure there was a vegetarian option for me, even when the house was eating meat. A close girlfriend of mine at the time had a brother who was dating a vegan, the only one I knew in the 90s and that was just a level of dietary commitment that was way too obscure for me to wrap my mind around—being healthy as a vegetarian was enough work, and in retrospect, simply not eating meat does not healthy dietary choices make, I knew at least enough that vegan was definitely more work than I was willing to put in. And also, cheese, that’s just a deal breaker. How does one live without cheese?
And then there was a long period of weird inbetween, neither commited vegetarian, nor enthusiastic carnivore, perhaps a decade or so in which I told myself and anyone else who cared, that I ate meat, just tried to keep it to a minimum. I recently grabbed an old t-shirt out of my closet at random and had to laugh—it just about perfectly captures this moment in my life. While in training at the Louisiana Center for the Blind, in November 2006, I visited a friend in San Antonio, Texas over the Thanksgiving holiday. This was definitely a moment where the transition from aspiring vegetarian to hedonistic foodie was at its apex. While a guest in the American South, I was actively looking for opportunities to take in and learn about local and regional food specialties, and it just didn’t seem right to visit Texas without trying some real Texas BBQ. My friend took me to Rudy’s, a chain, I believe, and not necessarily a local hole in the wall, and I was new, so I was happy to defer to the direction of my host, though now that I look back, she was a New Yorker who I met in California and had moved to Texas to be closer to her kids. I will say that the brisket was delicious, and was amused by a Rudy’s t-shirt clearly aimed at enthusiastic carnivores. I thought the irony of a pseudo vegetarian sporting the shirt would be fun and I bought one.This may have been an important first step in embracing my inner Happy Carnivore.
Then I moved in with a family that was pretty solidly carnivore, and my friend, who had years of experience as an athlete, started motivating me to be more mindful of what I ate, from a quantitative perspective—How many calories does a cup of pasta have? Am I getting enough protein? How much fiber am I supposed to eat in a day? How fatty is cheese? Am I losing fat? Gaining muscle weight? How many calories did I burn on the treadmill? Numbers have never really been my thing, and with a long history of inadequate blindness skills and inadequate access to the right technology, my label reading was mostly limited to squinting at the ingredients list looking for offensive or unwanted items in my food, or even just the length of the ingredients list—peanut butter should not have a full paragraph of ingredients. I’ve always been much more interested in words, really.
In a house where meat was an unspoken expectation in meals, I had an experienced buddy to guide me on running the numbers, and technology and my blindness skills had finally brought me into the 21st century, I started paying closer attention to the numbers. Significantly, I started food journaling and tracking every morsel that went into my mouth in the MyFitnessPal app. After experimenting with different ways of eating, like grazing, and trying really hard to get more protein from non-meat sources, I realized, to my horror, that a skinless, boneless chicken breast is kind of a perfect food from a nutritional standpoint.. In order to reach my protein goals for the day, and not go completely off the charts in daily allowances for fat, cholesterol, or calories, a chicken breast was a very smart part of my day, and the aspiring vegetarian in me finally accepted defeat and I began accepting my carnivorous ways. This was also probably about the same time I embraced the joy of bacon in my life.
Moving even beyond the acceptance of meat-eating as an important cultural doorway when travelling, I began to grow as a foodie, delighting in opportunities to try new meaty things, like homemade foie gras and steak tartar at a foodie friend’s house, ox tails, pork belly, and revisiting favorites from travel experiences, like goat and duck. To revel in all the umami goodness and fatty satisfaction.
Save a carrot, eat a cow
By now, vegetarianism was passe, most everyone understood its subcategories—ova-lacto, pescetarian— veganism seemed to be on the rise everywhere, and all kinds of specialized ways of eating were becoming more widespread—raw, gluten-free, dairy-free, Paleo, Keto, and I’ve known at least one Moral Meatatarian. Some of these dietary choices are for serious medical concerns, some are lifestyle choices, sometimes somewhere inbetween. A few years ago, I encountered Whole30, and it totally blew my mind—how are beans or grains bad for you? I learned a little more, and decided to give it a try, eliminating grains, legumes, dairy, sugar, and alcohol from my diet for 30 days, and doing my best to meet the philosophical expectations of this 30 day experiment for one, and eating only animal protein, lots of fruits and vegetables, and healthy fats. The philosophical component was, and still is, the most challenging part, and meal prepping and eating out are much more complicated, as this particular dietary adventure doesn’t really overlap with any of those other popular ways of narrowing your food life and there were moments I failed to prep adequately, had no qualifying food options available, and not eating was the alternative to violating the rules, and that’s just awkward. And you know? Even with a less than perfect implementation, I still laugh at their description of the ideal breakfast—ain’t nobody got time for that—I still felt more energized everyday, like I had clearer focus throughout my day and I still had functional capacity at the end of each work day and the long commute. Random, unexplainable aches and pains, weren’t there, and best of all, I finally figured out that the daily heartburn I was having like clockwork every afternoon was a direct result of the milk I was putting in my coffee every morning, contrary to my belief that putting milk in my coffee was creating a buffer to these kinds of issues with its fat and protein, it was the direct cause of my woes. And the thing I really like best about Whole30 is that its not meant to be an ongoing committment, it’s a tool, you try it, you learn things, you make food choices based on that information moving forward. And being a foodie, the struggle to even lean solidly into those dietary choices is real. My SO loves rice and pasta, and loves to stock up on. Cheap, non-perishable foods. Whole30 doesn’t exactly align with all those other popular dietary accommodations that more and more restaurants are accommodating. So I’m in a constant state of seeking equilibrium between leaning hard into meat, veg and fruit, and healthy fats versus everything else; between eating clean and eating something rather than nothing; feeding my body and feeding my soul.
Now vegan is the new vegetarian. The rise in popularity of plant based eating—it’s better for your health, it’s better for the planet, etc. All these plant based meats available out on the market, available at grocery stores and fast food chains, so close to the real thing, you can hardly tell it’s not meat. For me, it’s the new version of my response when that boyfriend suggested we go to Shanghai for mock meat: “There’s a reason I don’t eat meat,” I told him, raising an eyebrow and looking at him sideways. And now I’ve come full circle: There’s a reason I eat meat. “Plant based meat alternatives are full of inflamatory things that aren’t great for my body, like grains, soy, legumes, and whatever other binders or stabilizers are in there for shelf life or texture or whatever, and then there’s the soy hormone issues—middle-aged woman over here, don’t need added estrogen from my dinner plate, thanks. And is that even a thing? Seems as soon as I saw reports that women entering menopause should avoid soy, I saw just as many reporting the opposite. At the end of the day, there isn’t much difference between plant based meat alternatives and most other processed junk in the grocery store, and if you’re concerned about the impact of meat eating on the environment, take a long, hard look at the environmental impact of the factory farming of the major crops of Big Ag, the wheat, corn, soy, and rice. I’d suggest that it’s factory farming and large scale agriculture generally that deserves our scrutiny, and not just animal agriculture specifically. If plant based meat alternatives are your thing, for whatever reason, follow your bliss, you should absolutely do what’s right for you. As for me, I’m always down to include more plants in my diet—recognizable ones like fruits and vegetables, and what I’d really love to see is a complete overhaul of the factory farm industrial complex so that those of us who find balance in a skinless, boneless chicken breast, or steak, or bacon, can do so knowing that the animal lived a healthy and pleasant life, retired early, was treated with respect and dignity, and arrived at my plate with minimal impact on the environment and those who brought it there. And I’d like to know that any plants, whether produce, legumes, or grains, arrived on my plate in the same manner.
And now I’m hearing more and more conversation around food labels, and it brings me such joy, for while I embrace my inner Happy Carnivore,I think the turning toward thinking about what we eat as fluid choices and not an identity or lifelong commitment is a healthy turn of events.
Continued investigation into the mysteries of my digestive issues is pointing me toward FODMAP, which is just an annoyingly complicated version of Whole30, so how I want to eat to feed my soul versus how I need to eat to feed my body is an evolving matter. It may very well be that some grains, some dairy, or some legumes are perfectly fine for feeding my body, and perhaps even my soul, especially the cheese. Next curiosity: am I willing to incorporate bugs as a more sustainable source of protein that leans into my desire to reduce legumes, grain, and dairy and to perhaps not lean so hard on animal proteins￼? Am I willing to incorporate more, arguably very healthy, organ meats to, quite literally, put my values where my mouth is, and fulfill the promise of respecting animals that land on my plate? I think the short answer is yes. The more complicated version is that a change in knowledge does not equal a change in behavior. Eating bugs in the near future will probably look like playing with cricket flour and leaning into nose to tail eating could range from incorporating more readily available organ meats that I’m currently not consuming, like livers and hearts, and actual tails that are super delicious, ox tails, to maybe a fancy date night at a restaurant that specializes in nose to tail eating.
While the particulars of my diet evolve from day to day and over the course of my life as I live and learn, I find Michael Pollan’s advice to be a useful North Star: eat real food, not too much, mostly plants, with a nod to the loose interpretation that advice may need to be relevant across diverse segments of society.