Chicago Tribune (US-IL): Confessions of a carnivore; After 19 years as a vegetarian, nearly anything is fair game
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October 5, 2003 Sunday, CHICAGO FINAL EDITION
Magazine; Pg. 15; ZONE: C
Confessions of a carnivore;
After 19 years as a vegetarian, nearly anything is fair game
By Dan Santow. Dan Santow has written for Metropolitan Home, Cooking Light
and Men's Health magazines.
I 'm sitting on my couch looking at my dog. With his sad, soulful eyes, long
floppy ears, and big paws he's so damn cute I could just eat him up. I mean
that literally. I could eat him up. In the year since I became a carnivore
after being vegetarian, I've eaten cows, pigs, sheep, ducks, deer, chickens,
pigeons, capons, buffaloes, boars, rabbits, turkeys, frogs and ostriches. So
while I don't really want to eat my dog, I'm not against eating a dog. Dogs
are a part of the daily cuisine of millions of people around the
world--dogs, if prepared properly, must taste pretty good.
Even though it's been more than six months since I switched from being a
vegetarian to eating meat, I'm still sometimes surprised at the gusto with
which I attack a hamburger or order a new kind of meat from a menu. After
all, being a vegetarian wasn't just a part of my lifestyle, it was a
significant part of who I was. Male. Jewish. Vegetarian. That was me.
Unlike people for whom vegetarianism is a calling, I kind of fell into it in
that first impressionable year after college. I mentioned to my brother one
night that I was looking for something to read. He suggested a book he'd
recently finished. It was called "Animal Liberation: A New Ethic for Our
Treatment of Animals" by Peter Singer, who is today a professor of bioethics
at Princeton University. It didn't sound promising, but once I started
reading I couldn't put it down. In fact, I defy anyone to read it and
continue to eat meat, at least for a while.
I read it and didn't eat meat for 19 years.
The book is almost 300 pages long in paperback with some really creepy black
and white pictures of various animals--rabbits, pigs, cows and others--being
mishandled and abused. A typical caption is, "Live chickens on their way to
slaughter at the processing plant." I still have my copy--it's dog-eared and
yellowed. I underlined a lot in it too. "If possessing a higher degree of
intelligence does not entitle one human to use another for his own ends," I
underlined on page seven, "how can it entitle humans to exploit nonhumans
for the same purpose?"
You get a lot of attitude when you're vegetarian. "Well, you're wearing
leather!" people would harrumph, thinking they were the first to point out
what they believed to be my deep hypocrisy. I don't, in fact, think it's
hypocritical to not eat meat but wear leather. Life is complicated, people
(including myself) are weak, and I think morality, while a good thing, is an
artificial construct anyhow. "Look," I'd say, "I vote for Democrats, I call
my mother at least once a week, and I don't eat meat. That's what I do. What
do you do?" At least I had discipline.
But oh, did I miss certain foods! Around the Jewish holidays I sorely missed
chopped liver. And chicken soup with matzo balls. I did occasionally have
matzo balls in vegetable broth, but it was never the same as the real stuff.
And besides, real matzo balls, the kind your grandmother makes, are made
with schmaltz, or chicken fat, and without it they're worthless.
I also missed bacon. But only once was I truly tempted. I have a friend who
took me along for a weekend at her friend's summer cottage on a lake in
Wisconsin, the kind of summer cottage that has about 25 rooms, several
boats, Mercedes convertibles insouciantly parked out front, a heliport and a
cook--a very, very good cook. That Sunday morning about 12 of us were around
the table as she brought out French toast, eggs, cakes, and muffins. The
piece de resistance was a huge platter of the most perfectly cooked,
beautiful-looking, ideal-smelling bacon you've ever seen. There weren't
three measly slices a person like you would get in a diner, but as much
bacon as we could eat. Pigs and pigs and pigs worth of bacon. I smelled it.
I stared at it. I did everything but lick my chops like a cartoon wolf. But
I didn't eat it.
Over the years I did, however, eat meat by mistake. Once I ate a pork
wonton, having been told that it was vegetarian. And once I ate an entire
beef taco even though I'd ordered it meatless. I was talking while I was
eating it, excitedly telling some story to my friends without really paying
attention to what the waiter had set down in front of me.
There were times I wished I had been paying even less attention to what I
was given by friends and family with good intentions. A gummy "nut loaf" in
the shape of a turkey drumstick one Thanksgiving. A charcuterie of tofu
"salami," tempeh "kielbasa," wheat gluten "sausage," and seitan "brats" on
another occasion. Lots and lots of eggplant Parmiagiana. I hate eggplant.
My late aunt was probably the most creative in the give-Dan-weird-food
category. About twice a year she'd have my brother and me to her house for
brunch. Inevitably she'd call me about a week before. "Are you still into
vegetarianism?" she'd want to know, as if it was a crazy phase like
Stalinism or sadism that might have passed since she last fed me. Though she
never served anything to the others but regular breakfast fare, all of which
I could eat, she felt she just absolutely had to make me something
special--something especially vegetarian. One time she served me spaghetti
noodles in lemon Jell-o.
You can see why 19 years of this was quite enough. Besides, my heart just
wasn't in it anymore. Peter Singer may be right, but I began to feel that
the good fight could go on without me. I'll leave it to others--like
Aristotle, Descartes, and even Benjamin Franklin, all of whom have written
about animal rights and welfare.
Still, once I made the decision to eat meat again, I didn't immediately chow
down. My friends and family were thrilled (no more special meals for Dan),
but though I'd decided to eat meat, I found it difficult to actually do it.
I thought if I ate my first meal that included meat in front of people I
might actually cry.
So instead, about a month after I began to tell people I was no longer a
vegetarian, and without telling anyone I was going to do it, I sat in my car
with the flashers on in front of a local gourmet takeout shop, used a
plastic fork to spear a chicken breast with a lemon-thyme sauce, and just
I didn't cry, and much to the chagrin of some of my acquaintances, I didn't
get sick, either. Not then, and not the next day when I downed an entire
half-pound of chopped liver by myself. In fact, my transition from
vegetarian to contented meataholic has been without incident, other than I
now have to pay more attention to my cholesterol.
Oddly, some people still shoot me attitude. A few weeks ago I was at a party
when a friend of a friend saw me eating a hamburger for the first time.
"Ohhh," she said in her best "gotcha!" tone, "so you're eating meat now," as
if changing my mind after 19 years proved those years had been a mistake all
along. "I've changed my mind and yes, I'm eating meat, but I haven't changed
at all," I said to her as I prepared to take another bite, "though I have to
admit my dog has been acting funny lately."