While visiting Houston last month, I dropped by Brazos Bookstore and picked up a copy of Susan Bourette’s Meat: A Love Story, a book that truly made me appreciate my own lack of street cred. Bourette, a Canadian journalist, spent four days undercover in a pork processing plant and, disgusted by punitive working conditions and the sheer gruesomeness of the job, vowed to swear off meat. Her vegetarianism lasted a little over five weeks: despite her commitment to a nutritionally balanced meatless diet, Bourette developed a protein deficiency and (if her personal anecdotes are to be believed) rushed to the nearest diner, shrieking "Give me meat!" Bourette's full return to meat, though, which she chronicles in the book, involved rigorous research: hacking veal at a tony butcher shop in Manhattan, hunting whales with native Inupiat Alaskans, roping cattle on a family Texan ranch, braving carpaccio with New Age raw meat fanatics. Bourette examines the anthropology, economics, and sexual politics of meat. This woman has street cred.
My journey as an omnivore, by comparison to Bourette’s, was breezy, boring and journalistically unsound. Rather than pursuing the hidden truth about meat, I clung to a naïve belief that meat in France was inherently better than its American counterpart. I didn’t visit any abattoirs, make trips to any farms, or kill any animals. I didn’t even taste any offal. I just traipsed from one Parisian restaurant to the next, happily swallowing the delicious meats I found on my plate, so long as their purchase didn’t unduly deplete my bank account.
Despite the fact that I spent my meat-eating phase in an ivory tower, despite the fact that my research was limited to what I put in my mouth and what I read online and in books, I still cannot say that this phase was a mistake or a waste. If nothing else, I have been able to answer one of the questions I had in mind when I started my experiment: Why do people eat meat at all?
I get it now. Meat tastes good; some meat tastes great. (Now that I’ve tried real bacon, soy-based Lightlife Smart Bacon resembles stiff, slightly overripe bologna.) Meat is a central component of countless culinary traditions, one of the ties the binds us to the past. I don’t take that lightly.
But, above all else, eating meat is easy. If anything shocked me about the experience of eating meat after not having done so for more than a decade, it was the readiness with which I came to do it. I started out scared to death, but within a few weeks of my first bite of meat, I was gobbling down any animal flesh I was offered. This is not to say I didn’t still entertain qualms away from the dining room table—I did, and some may say that I went a bit overboard in my hand-wringing. But if a hand-wringer can, after a little practice, down a burger with gusto, how can she judge anyone who’s never felt compelled to go vegetarian?
The epiphany that eating meat is easy may not sound like much of an epiphany at all. And, compared to pros like Bourette, I may not be the best candidate to give advice. But if you'll indulge me, if you'll forgive my callowness and penchant for stating the obvious, I would like to share the very small amount of wisdom I've gained as an omnivorous Tiresias of sorts:
Eating meat is so easy that I wouldn’t be surprised if people assume that it must be difficult not to eat meat. But I've always found vegetarianism easy and enjoyable. And if you've ever had the slightest curiosity about what it's like to go without meat, if you’ve ever felt the merest desire to go vegetarian, I urge you to give it a try.
Maybe you're scared of taking a step out of your dietary comfort zone—I was. Maybe you'll have to endure browbeating from people you once considered your peers—I did. And maybe, like Bourette, you'll find that you just can't live without meat, and there’s no shame in that.
But maybe, like me, you'll find that it's easy and rewarding and thought-provoking to eat differently from how you always have.