Saturday, May 17, 2008

A Temporary Omnivore's Manifesto

I chose to conduct an independent research project on vegetarianism in France this semester, and my findings, which I am in the process of trying to draw out to 25 pages, are as follows:  The French aren’t really into vegetarianism.

People ask if it’s difficult to be a vegetarian in France.  It’s not as easy as it is in the States, but it’s certainly not impossible.  My diet may have, at times, consisted of around 30% bread, 30% cheese, and 30% pastry, but I’ve survived. I could, without much hardship, continue avoiding the vast pâté section when I go to Monoprix and continue asking waiters if the chef can do an assiette de légumes, for my remaining two and a half months in Paris. 

If anything’s difficult, it’s the explaining.  The French, much like the boys I knew in elementary school, love asking why I am a vegetarian in order to find out the best ways to torment me about it.  I don’t give them much good ammunition.  “I don’t like the way animals are treated in factory farms,” I say.  “And I’m used to being a vegetarian.”

The truth is, I haven’t felt that it’s an absolute wrong to kill an animal for food since pubescence.  I don’t believe that animals are people, too.  I don’t think that the food chain is obsolete.  I can’t come up with much of an argument against consuming humanely raised meat—it’s just that humanely raised meat is hard to come by, and, given the plethora of unregulated feel-good labels, hard to recognize in the United States. 

In France, though, meat seems to be…well, a different animal.  The French take meat seriously. Their stubborn attachment to tradition, which can be maddening in certain situations, is quite a good thing when it comes to meat.  Tradition means animals raised on farms, not feedlots.  It means meat sold in butcher shops and local markets, not Wal-Marts.  And it means a more intimate appreciation of where meat comes from. The sight of skinless rabbits with bulging, glassy eyes at stands at the farmers’ market is a comfort to me. This is a country that sees the blood and viscera, respects the individuality of the animal, and chooses to eat meat anyway.  This is a country whose way of doing things practically invalidates my explanation for my own vegetarianism.

So, in pursuit of a greater understanding of this country, and a greater understanding of myself,  I’ve decided to start eating meat.  Some.  Just until I go back to the United States.

Frankly, I’m scared to death to be stepping out of my well-worn comfort zone. But, consequences-wise, it’s hard to see how two and a half months of eating meat will make much of a dent on the environment, my health, or the overall welfare of animals.  I haven’t eaten meat for thirteen years.  I was even vegan for a little over a year in high school.  I’ve think I’ve got my karmic stores in order.

I plan to document my experiences in this blog, but I do not wish for this to be an entirely gimmicky project.  I am not Morgan Spurlock, and I don’t particularly want to be supersized.  I am not going to try to eat as many species of animals as possible in the next two and a half months, nor am I going to try to see how high I can push my blood cholesterol levels.  I do not wish to turn my body into a laboratory for some kind of experiment, chemical or psychological or otherwise. I’d like both to retain a little of my own dignity.

Nor do I wish for this to be a food diary of the fatuously enthusiastic “I ate this! Then I ate that!” variety.  Food blogs are not necessarily relevant to anyone aside from the writer, and I am not so narcissistic as to think that what goes in my mouth is in and of itself a fascinating topic.

But food is never just about what goes in your mouth or how it tastes.  There are many questions at hand when you’re a vegetarian about to eat meat for the first time in over a decade:  questions of identity, of health, of politics, of ethics.  And it seems to me that, in order to be able to take a convincing stand on any of these issues that surround food, I ought to be able to see how the omnivorous majority lives. 

So tonight, for the first time, I’m going out to dinner as a non-vegetarian in Paris.  I don’t know what I’ll eat yet.  I don’t know how it’ll make me feel.  But I’ll keep you posted.

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