When I was four years old I accidentally witnessed a pig being slaughtered. I lived in a very rural community where family farming was the norm. My family partook of a rather docile style of farming, namely raspberries and enough laying hens to supply my family of five with eggs. My father’s friend raised pigs, though, and when it came time to “meet their reward” my dad, like any good friend in our community, spent the day helping.
My brother and sister and I were playing in a field several hundred yards away, doing whatever it is that kids do at that age to entertain themselves. It was there that I heard the screams. I could see through the slatted fence boards a pool of blood that had gathered into a shallow puddle. I never actually saw a pig being killed – no pistol to the skull, no machete to the neck. But hearing it was enough and it affected me profoundly.
I chose to eat less meat at the dinner table, instead finishing off my vegetables first and simply picking at the cutlet on my plate – probably much to the delight of my mother who was otherwise occupied shoving broccoli florets down my siblings’ throats. I found it difficult to walk by meat counters at the grocery store, knowing that it was a living being’s flesh neatly carved up and on display like some grotesque art project.
As I got older I could only eat meat if I didn’t think about it. Fried chicken was fried chicken – that is, until I started thinking about the pastel yellow, downy feathered chicks that pecked about our yard. I’d muddle through disassociated terms like “drumstick” and “rump roast” and remember that those were legs and butts and I was gnawing on something’s bones. I’d instantly become nauseous and be unable to finish my meal.
I didn’t want to give up meat entirely; it was delicious. I didn’t eat to live, I lived to eat and meat was a part of my life just as much as any other American’s. The smell of smoky bacon tickling my nostrils on a Saturday morning, chowing down on a pile of buffalo wings on Superbowl Sunday, or a fork-tender pot roast to chase the chill from my bones on a lazy winter evening.
But every time I encountered a vegetarian, the guilt reappeared. It was like my parents coming home after a long weekend and discovering I’d had a party in their house – a buzz kill, but not without cause. Every conversation with a vegetarian would inevitably lead to a discussion of their diet choices. I’d don my pseudo-piety and pretend that I too had the willpower to abstain from the siren call of salami, foie gras, and cheeseburgers. But I didn’t. They’d turn their backs and I’d order another Double-Double from In-N-Out (animal style, please).
Then I read a book. I’ve read many books in my lifetime. I’ve been a proficient reader since kindergarten and can count thousands of tomes on my “already read” list, but this book – this book was different.
I’d wanted to read it for a while, but I was scared. It was like that old Joan Osborne song “What If God Was One of Us” that ponders what God’s face might look like – and if we’d still choose to look upon it if it meant that we then had to believe in the entire Judeo-Christian dogma (not precisely what she sings, but you get my point).
I knew that if I read this book it would take away my excuses. I could no longer shield myself in a three-dollar-per-pound-chicken-breast – coated veil of ignorance. I knew that the meat in our country was no longer a product of the idyllic, pastoral scenes of my childhood. I knew that it was now the product of monstrous factory farms that pollute entire states with their foul run-off and contribute to global climate change more than all fossil fuel emissions combined. I knew that the abuse inflicted upon the animals that feed our fair nation is so vile, so atrocious that it can only be labeled as sadistic and evil. But I didn’t want to give up the convenience of omnivorism. And then I gave up. I read the book.
It’s called Eating Animals and it’s written by Jonathan Safran Foer. It’s not the manifesto on vegetarianism that I expected it to be, filled with you’re-a-bad-person-if-you-eat-meat admonishments, or think-of-the-fluffy-wuffy-animals-doesn’t-it-make-you-sad? pleas, or any other pathos-laden, PETA-driven, ad hominem bullshit arguments.
It appeals to your sense of revulsion. You don’t read this book and then look at a Big Mac and think, “Oh darn, I wish I could have that but I just can’t help thinking about the poor cow that died for it.” You read this book and then look at a Big Mac and think “Holy crap I can’t believe people are eating that. If they knew what had been done to that meat they wouldn’t touch it with gloves on, let alone put it in their mouths.”
I saw my father-in-law eating a factory-farmed steak yesterday and had to leave the room to prevent the abject disgust from spewing out of my mouth like word vomit, forever damaging my relationship with a man who couldn’t care less if his steak had actually been rolled in feces before it was served to him as long it still tasted good (it actually may have been, and it probably doesn’t).
I’m struggling less now. That isn’t to say that I won’t ever eat another piece of meat for the rest of my life – that would be like saying I’ll never, ever smoke another cigarette again in my life after quitting my pack-a-day habit three years ago: sometimes a beer-and-cigarette combo is the perfect way to enjoy a moment.
It just means that instead of plunking down fifteen bucks for a factory farmed Smithfield ham this Easter (a company who may just be giving Monsanto a run for their money in the most-evil-corporation-in-the-universe contest) I’ll be very consciously forking over $50 to Niman Ranch for the knowledge that my consumerism is not only enabling a conscientious family farm to continue operating in the face of corporate giants, but it is also ensuring that the pig from which my ham came lived a healthy, relatively happy life. My guilt isn’t completely gone and I don’t think it ever will be, but at least now I can hold a conversation with a vegetarian that isn’t a complete lie.