About four months ago I decided to stop eating meat. I’d been thinking about the politics of food and feeling ever more uneasy (queasy) about factory farming methods and the cruelty to animals (and workers) that is the corollary of feedlots and a fast food industry that demands massive quantities of cheap meat.
In J M Coetzee’s novella The Lives of Animals, a delectable blend of fiction and philosophical essay, his character-cum-alter ego, Elizabeth Costello is invited to deliver two guest lectures. Costello surprises her college hosts by choosing to discuss not literature (her academic expertise), but what she calls a ‘crime of stupefying proportions’, namely the abuse of animals.
For the last couple of years I’d bought and cooked only free-range meat. Then I stopped ordering meat dishes in cafés and restaurants because I assumed their supplies were mass produced in conditions I preferred not to imagine. As is the majority of meat sold in supermarkets. Now it was time to go the next step and give up meat altogether.
Eating meat in suburban England in the 1960s and 70s was the default. Few questioned its place on the table. Although I do remember that steak was only ever an occasional treat, and the portions were small—tiny by contemporary Australian standards. When I went to London to study for a postgraduate degree I moved into a large communal house on the Islington/Hackney border. The house ideology specified a wholegrain and vegetarian diet. There was a lot of vegetable sludge, and to this day even the word ‘millet’ makes me run a mile, but not everybody in that house was a terrible cook. From the more adept, I discovered that meat was not compulsory; that humous, dahl, börek and lasagne stuffed with peppery watercress were delicious alternatives.
But it was Indian that became my go-to vegetarian (and vegan when required) cuisine, that got me cooking meatless on a regular basis. It remains my all time favourite fare, and is why Wigram Street in Harris Park has become one of my favourite Sydney streets.
Last month I was invited to a dinner party by a neighbour. When I accepted the invitation I mentioned that I didn’t eat meat. A few days beforehand an email announced the menu: paella made with seafood and chicken. I clarified that I didn’t eat any meat. My neighbour had assumed it was red meat I’d stopped eating. And that’s a common—if inconsistent—position. Poultry is OK, beef is not. Yet chickens are mass farmed in equally brutal conditions.
Our relationship to the food we consume colours who we are as a species and as individuals. I’ve cut out meat, but continue to eat fish and some seafood. I try to ensure it is sustainably sourced, but I wonder: Does this put me in the ‘vegetarians who eat chicken’ camp? A group I’ve made fun of in the past. Maybe. Fish are not vegetables, no matter how you twist it. As for seafood, I’ve never been terribly keen on oysters, and after reading a science article about how intelligent octopuses are, I took them off the menu. Took off all cephalopods in fact. Yes, I know it’s irrational, but eating is an emotional thing.
Raising animals for slaughter isn’t just bad for the unfortunate cows, pigs, chooks and lambs. Research reveals the environmental toll. It takes three to fifteen times as much water to produce animal protein as it does plant protein. Tropical forests in Brazil and elsewhere are being destroyed to create more acreage to raise livestock … I could go on, but you get the picture. Food and climate change are inextricably linked.
We tend to talk about food and diet as matters of individual choice, and they are, but political, economic, agri-business and social issues also influence what we chose to consume. More recently we’ve acknowledged that personal inclination is only part of a larger reckoning; popular discourse has moved questions of animal welfare and environmental protection from the hippie fringe to the mainstream stage.
Luckily the life of a pesco-vegetarian is no bed of kale. I’ve always cooked a lot of vegetable, pulse and tofu-based dishes, and now I’m experimenting with old favourites like chilli con carne—minus the carne. My first ‘chilli con verduras’ used crushed cauliflower, but I used far too much of it and as a result the dish tasted—well, altogether too worthy. Back to the chopping board. This time I’m adapting a recipe I found online that is based on the long slow cooking of lentils and beans. (I’m not interested in ersatz meats or manufactured substitutes like Quorn and TVP.)
This is it, my chilli con verduras. Robust, spicy, and if I say so myself, pretty delicious.
For me personally, turning my back on bacon sandwiches wasn’t so much an environmental choice, as an ethical one. I find the operations of the meat industry insupportable. And in the end I couldn’t reconcile the cost of my diet—the suffering and slaughter simply so I could enjoy that bacon sandwich.
In The Life of Animals, Elizabeth Costello suggests that through acts of poetic imagining humans can ‘think their way into’ the nature of animals. Note that she says think your way not eat your way.