Today I ate a tuna fish sandwich. With mayonnaise and some chopped up celery on whole wheat bread. Just like Mom used to make and probably still does, though I wouldn’t know since I have been a vegetarian for over 20 years. Not front-page headline news. Not any great feat of strength, skill, or daring. But as it was the first living animal I have intentionally eaten in over twenty years, I thought it worth a mention.
For the record, this was Tongas tuna, line-caught in Thailand and packed in spring water and sea salt. So it is low in heavy metals and safe to eat no more than twice a month. It comes in the same hockey puck can that it did twenty years ago. The “Chicken of the Sea” of my youth was usually packed in oil, laden with mercury, and served with much more mayonnaise than I used today. So the flavor today was lighter and fishier than I remembered, but still tasty. For twenty years, whenever people asked me what I missed from my pre-vegetarian days, I would truthfully answer “Tuna fish with mayonnaise on a toasted bagel served with a side of Sunday New York Times.”
My catalyst for becoming vegetarian in the first place was a week long stint at the East Wind farm commune in Missouri during college Spring break. A friend of mine (hi Jack!) and I had taken a course in Intentional Community, and decided to devise our own field trip. We had enough money to rent a car for exactly 24 hours, and so we drove in shifts round the clock from Philadelphia. We were motivated by our idealized image of communal life and the thrill of the open road. This trip coincided with the initial graying of my mother’s hair. Coincidently.
Punchy and delirious, we reached the commune at the end of the ten mile dirt road in the middle of a stone field in the Ozarks. The Ozarks is a poor region of Missouri, and looking at the fields full of rocks, it wasn’t hard to see why. The farmers who broke their plows on this land should have waited a few thousand years for the natural prairies and scrub pines and the occasional ice age to improve the organic material in the soil. But they were in a hurry, as were we. It was morning. We had a whole day ahead of us, and being polite young college boys, we found the people in charge (whom we had contacted in advance) and offered our services.
We got a tour of the buildings. They lived in small cabins with bunk beds and lanterns and not much else. A single community building served as kitchen, dining room, library, and town hall. There were acres of fields and their famous nut butter factory. Also there was a single, co-ed bath house which caused me no end of embarrassment. While I was stowing our gear in a cabin, Jack signed us up for our first work jobs. For him, it was several shifts in the nut butter factory. For me, it was days of shoveling manure out of a coop. Not a cooperative. A chicken coop.
I have yet to properly thank Jack for this.
Apparently, this dirty task had never been performed before in the entire history of this chicken coop, and they were just waiting for the right visitor to show up for the job. I was taken to the site and handed a shovel, and if the work was at all disagreeable, I consoled myself with revenge fantasies to be enacted on the ride home at the end of the week. My nose was completely unprepared for the stench, and at first I had to work bent over to avoid banging my head on the ceiling until d ays later when I reached the stony dirt floor and had a foot of clearance overhead.
On my first day, the poultry manager came to check on my work. Looking around he found a chicken too sick to stand. Without comment or ceremony, he grabbed it by the legs, dangled it upside down, pressed its head to the ground with his boot, and pulled. There was no squawk or cry, though of course that would have been impossible with its head clamped down. At first the wings flailed like a whirlygig, and then they slowed to a desultory flapping before stopping altogether.
Perhaps it was my somewhat sheltered suburban upbringing, or perhaps it was the hours spent breathing raw ammonia fumes, but I found this entire drama strikingly pathetic. In comparison to the factory poultry system of our country that treats animals with exquisite cruelty and indifference, this chicken had lived as sheltered a life as I had lived, and it had met a quick and merciful end. Yet I would not have been able to kill it myself, certainly not in what I considered at the time to be such a callous manner. And being the inquisitive, introspective, annoying college student that I was, I then asked myself, “Then why is it OK to let others do it for you?” I don’t recall what became of the bird afterwards, but I spent the rest of the week carefully avoiding chicken at the communal meals.
Of course, if I had the moral integrity that I professed I had, I would have quit eating meat right then. But it wasn’t until graduate school, when I joined a vegetarian housing co-op and I learned how to shop and cook and eat a vegetarian diet that I stopped eating meat. I rarely told people the real reason why. There are plenty of good reasons to not eat meat – environmental, ethical, political, economical, and health to name a few. I knew of all these reasons, but none of them were my reason.
My reason had to do with the act of killing the animal, an act I was too squeamish to perform. My reason was because I was a coward wrapped in personal ethics. My reason was that I was not brave enough to slaughter my own dinner. It is not a reason one can be terribly proud of. If people said to me, “Oh, you’re vegetarian. You must like animals,” I would dissemble, “No, I hate plants.”
This was 1989. Vegetarianism was still a radical idea, and my family responded as you might expect. I did not proselytize, and they felt guilty anyway. It was like having a priest in the family, without the pride. Everyone offered me salad and other rabbit food and apologized for eating meat in my presence. Everyone, that is, except my youngest brother, who went out of his way to wave his hamburgers and pepperoni pizza slices in my face at every possible opportunity. He seemed to take my choice as either a personal affront or an irresistible dare, or perhaps he simply enjoyed tormenting me, a old family tradition I share with my brothers. Certainly, his career in theatre has given him vast experience in the conventional food service industry, and he loves meat, especially bar-be-cue. His opinion was that humans evolved eating meat, therefore it must be good for us. Sound logic – we are an omnivorous species and we have a shorter gut and sharper incisors for a reason – but at the time I only replied “Yes we can eat meat, but we don’t have to.”
Mom, of course, worried I wouldn’t get enough protein (ping! went another hair). But I ate plenty of dairy and eggs, justifying that I could raid a nest or milk a cow without any scruples. I was never in any nutritional danger as far as I knew.
Nor did I stop anyone from eating meat around me. When my best friend from high school visited, we took him to a place in town we knew had excellent steak but also had vegetarian options. During the meal, I asked him how his food was, and he answered with the dry wit he is famous for, “Very good. I can taste the fear.”
Over time, family and friends got used to my diet. When I went home for Thanksgiving and other family reunions, Mom would serve a spinach quiche or eggplant parmesan alongside the beef bourguignon. People stopped treating me differently. Even my younger brother let up and occasionally ate a salad in my presence. We all got older. We got married. We had children. There were simply more important things to think about.
Twenty years passed.
When my Dad went to the hospital for emergency triple-bypass surgery, it was a terrible shock, but not an inordinate surprise. He had smoked for years, and didn’t start exercising regularly until he was nearly 50 years old when he also quit smoking. He survived the surgery, and he was healthier afterwards than he had been in years. After a tense month or two, we let the memory of it fade into the past. Then at the age of thirty-nine, my younger brother went to the emergency room for the exact same emergency triple-bypass surgery. He also survived, but it was less easy to return to our complacent lives.
Mom sat us down and told us the family health history. Her parents, and all her parents’ brothers and sisters, died in their sixties from heart failure, some quite suddenly. My parents and my three brothers all take medication for high cholesterol and/or high blood pressure, including my two older brothers who are not overweight, who do not smoke, who exercise regularly, who do all the things that are supposed to be good for your heart. My cholesterol and blood pressure had always been fine, but I was undeniably in a high risk category.
Everyone in the family took it for granted that through my vegetarian diet, I had dodged the bullet. This was the twenty-first century and what with the NIH findings, the publicity on cholesterol, and finally Mad Cow disease, they had all cut back their meat consumption. But not one of them ever seriously entertained the idea of becoming vegetarian. It was the priest thing again, only with the pride added back in – admiring his reflective, spiritual lifestyle without having any desire to actually live that way. After all, they might die younger than me, but they would die with a smile on their faces, the schmaltz still sheeny on their lips.
I took all this family data to my doctor to get her opinion. We tested my cholesterol and learned that my bad cholesterol was low, but for the first time ever my good cholesterol was also a little lower than it ought to be.
“How much exercise do you get?” she asked.
“For cardiovascular fitness, I walk five feet from my bed to my desk at least twice a day. For strength and conditioning, I lift my toddler off the ground whenever he asks, and as a consequence, my left pectoral muscle is now twice as large as my right.”
“Yes, I noticed.” she answered. “Well, your numbers are not a big deal, but given your family history, I want to treat this aggressively. I’d like your children to still have a father when they grow up. Take an aspirin a day and see me in a few months.”
“Do I have to?”
Daily medication. Feh. I had always dreaded the day when I would have to take some sort of medication every day. Once I started down this slippery slope, there would be no climbing back out of the abyss. But I took those little pink pills every morning with breakfast and they tasted as bitter on my tongue as they did on my fragile self-image. I was getting old. First I started getting back pain. Then I was an uncle at a bar mitzvah. And now this.
But I started to exercise. I made time for it, even at the expense of time with my wife and family, who supported me on this. And in truth, I did feel better. It wasn’t long before I got the time back, because I found I didn’t need to sleep so much. In six months I went back to the doctor.
“OK, doc. How’s my cholesterol?”
“Fine. Everything is back in the normal range.”
“Great. I want to stop taking the aspirin.”
“You really don’t like taking medication, do you?”
“What’s the risk if I do this?”
“Well, as long as your cholesterol and blood pressure remain normal, the risk is low to non-existent. Let’s just keep checking your numbers every year.”
I love Michael Pollan, a writer who specializes in food production in this country. Years ago I had read his “Botany of Desire,” a tongue-in-cheek examination of the hypothesis that certain plants have evolved to take advantage of human desires to get themselves propagated. This book is in four sections, matching a plant to a human desire that it exploits: sweetness = apples, beauty = tulips, control = potatoes, ecstasy = cannabis. The book is full of interesting natural and human history, including the true story of Johnny Apple Seed and a retelling of the Dutch tulip debacle that makes our current housing crisis look like a soap opera. It is one of the few non-fiction books in which I enjoyed every single page. I especially enjoyed his description of his visits to conventional vs. organic potato farmers and his digs at Monsanto.
I got on the organic bandwagon soon after becoming vegetarian, and the only thing I truly hated Bill Clinton for was signing the creation of a watered-down, national organic standard. Before this law passed, there were strong local standards in place all over the country, enforced by private or public organizations, that worked with the unique agricultural issues in each region. Organic food was a growing niche market within the larger food industry that was struggling to create new markets and new demands. After all, you can convince people to replace their TV every year, but there is a limit to how much food a person can eat (though apparently there are companies who are tinkering with that as well, contributing to our obesity epidemic). The food industry wanted “in” on the organic market. In fact, they wanted more than “in.” They wanted all of it. And they succeeded. In one fell swoop of his pen, Bill Clinton delegitimized all the local organic standards replacing them with a weaker, industry-friendly version that allows a national producer to put “ORGANIC” on a product that contains only 95% organic ingredients while a local organic farmer can no longer afford the increased cost of certification.
So when friends recommended Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” I read it cover to cover. And then I read his “In Defense of Food.” And then I read “Real Food” by Nina Planck, and even “Nourishing Traditions” by Sally Fallon. I would recommend all of them, except perhaps the last which has lots of good information but is a bit more rigid and militant for my taste. Pollan is more accessible, but for solid information, Planck is best. All of these books refer to the growing body of research, and more importantly, the growing body of debunked research, that is changing the way people think about food, nutrition, and health.
I won’t soap box or proselytize here. You can read the books if you are interested. What I want to say is that these books convinced me of two things. The first is that, if we accept the premise that my diet is responsible for my heart-healthy outlier status in my family, then it was because I ate organic food as much as possible. The second is that, it did in spite of, rather than because of, being vegetarian.
All those years ago when my brother told me, “We evolved as meat eaters for a reason,” I should have listened more closely. There are any number of nutritional factors, some of which have only recently been discovered and researched, that either aren’t available in plants, or which are not as easily absorbed in the body from plants as opposed to animals.
Now, the fact is, I dodged the bullet on this one too. Because I wasn’t vegan. When people said to me, “You’re vegetarian, you must eat healthy,” I would answer, “Ice cream is vegetarian. Creme brulee is vegetarian.” I ate eggs and dairy, and to be honest, I ate a lot of them, more than the U.S. National Institute of Health thought I should. But I don’t really care anymore what they recommend. Frankly, the Bush administration is not the first administration, by far, to water down or replace scientific advice for political expediency. I diligently read ingredient labels, but I no longer read the Nutritional Information on packages in the grocery store, partly because I no longer think it is useful, and partly I am trying to stop buying the packaged food in the first place.
But as I have learned, or at least as I now choose to believe, I need to supplement my diet with flesh. Perhaps in another twenty years, I will choose to believe otherwise, or will be proven wrong by convincing scientist research. It is somewhat like the movie “Sleeper” in which Woody Allen wakes up in a distant future world only to learn that cigars and booze are extremely healthy. Who knows? But for now, I am fairly confident that I need at least fish in my diet. In my boy scout days, I caught and killed fish, so I don’t feel I would be breaking my ethical code to eat a can of tuna. I am reluctant to consider more than fish, mostly because of how meat is raised and processed in this country. Moral scruples aside, if the abattoirs of this country opened their doors to public inspection, most people would lose their appetite for chicken, pork, and beef. Even with fish, it is difficult to find any without heavy metals, chemicals, or fertilizer run off. And the other nice thing about fish, for someone falling from vegetarian Grace, is that it leaves a lingering odor in your kitchen that, over time, will force you to confront whether you really want to do this. Plus it won’t trayf your kitchen .