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Happy Meat

July 24, 2011

My two or three readers may have given up on me by now, as I’ve been very inactive as far as blogging goes. Actually, I’ve been swamped by life and mere survival, to put it simply. Then last week I was out of town for 5 days for a wonderful family reunion in South Lake Tahoe, California. (Highly recommended!)

The weather was perfect, the scenery breath-taking; the accommodations were dog-friendly, and the company was wonderful: my parents plus all seven siblings and their spouses or partners and most of their children (my nieces and nephews), about two dozen of us.

The theme of “happy meat” emerged early in the week. My beautiful niece Carolyn, a college student, eagerly told me she had recently read The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan, and she was thrilled to learn that we had brought 5 dozen eggs from our own free-range chickens to share.

Happy hens stop by for a visit

At dinner the first night, with little planning or forethought, I spontaneously invited everyone to breakfast at our suite the next morning. Well, we hadn’t brought much Niman Ranch bacon and sausage so David had to run to the grocery store, and we didn’t have enough plates, utensils or a decent frying pan in our mini kitchen, but my sister Naunie Marie lent her skillet and most of the family made it over for scrambled eggs, bacon, and my homemade kombucha with secondary fruit juice fermentation. (I’ve been meaning to blog about that, but there are plenty of blogs out there with directions.) The eggs were received with thanks and rave reviews, and almost three dozen disappeared. The last morning we took the remaining 2 dozen eggs over to my brother Paul and his wife Wendy’s suite and cooked up the last of the eggs to serve with her blueberry pancakes. More kombucha was consumed and more compliments were accorded to the eggs.

Another food theme for the week was “gluten-free,” and once again I was thankful not to be the only one avoiding bread.

My brother Bruce presided over the barbecue for the first two nights, at which there was a distinction made between “happy meat” and, presumably, unhappy meat. Naunie’s partner Chris had thoughtfully bought three pounds of organic hamburger for those of us who were finicky about that sort of thing. The great thing was that my nieces were the standard-bearers for the happy meat theme. I didn’t have to bring it up; I didn’t even say much about it, so for once I wasn’t the only one who expressed some interest in some nonstandard food. My goal for the week was to relax and enjoy myself, and I didn’t want to be on a food crusade. So it was nice that my nieces did it on their own and helped to make it acceptable to eat differently.

What I would have liked to say was that while I have come full circle through vegetarianism and macrobiotics back to eating meat, I refuse to believe that animals must suffer so I can live. They may die—and indeed there is no life without death—but I don’t want them to suffer for me. I want animals to live out a good life, with plenty of food, a safe and interesting environment, plenty of sun and fresh water, and to fulfill their genetic destiny. Chickens should be able to live as chickens, scratching in the dirt, raking through compost or mulch for bugs or little seeds, and eating grasses, blossoms and worms to their little hearts’ content. I feel good about eating animals that have lived such a fulfilled life.

I don’t have experience raising pigs or cows, but I wish for them and all other species raised by humans to live a comfortable, happy life with plenty of room and opportunity to express their genetic potential, and then to have a humane death, ideally accompanied by prayers of thanks and deep respect from the humans who will consume them. Their flesh nourishes us like no plant ever could, and their manure nourishes the soil life that makes abundant and healthy plant growth possible. The soil-food web is a beautiful, delicate thing that humans should respect and protect. Our survival, and that of countless other species, depends on it.

So no, I don’t think “happy meat” is a silly frivolity or an elitist luxury. I think it’s the way it should be, the way it must be for us to survive. I know there is an argument to be made for economies of scale and how we must cut costs to make food affordable, but how is it that generations past were able to eat real eggs, chicken, and other meats when they weren’t rich? Starving people are less likely to survive to reproduce and to raise their children to the point they can survive, so I don’t believe the myth that life was always “nasty, brutish and short,” that most humans have been hungry most of the time throughout our long evolution. (Which isn’t to say that I’m not happy to be living with modern conveniences and antibiotics.)  If we’re starving we’re not able to reproduce. (Just look at what’s happening with vegans.) Our reproductive systems need the good fats, protein, fat-soluble vitamins and minerals only found or only found in abundance in animal foods.

The era of cheap food has taught us to disrespect food and those who raise it. How much better for us to put a higher value on food—it does cost something to do it right, after all—and to put it  higher in our priorities. What could be more important that nourishing food, except pure water and air?

I missed some fireworks when David, my partner, mischievously brought up organic food, asking my dad, “So, what do you make of this whole organic thing anyway?”

As David related to me afterwords, the room went silent and the girls turned to see someone daring to take on the economist. I’m glad I wasn’t there, actually, as I get too emotional about such topics and the fact that my opinions on (and knowledge of) such subjects tends to get dismissed by my family. So I was happy to let someone else carry the banner for organic, sustainable, humane food. David was able to get in a good point, he said, that while chemical agriculture may get good results initially, it kills the microorganisms in the soil—the very microbes that live in our gut and power our digestion and immune systems—and will eventually kill off the fertility of that soil. And David wisely found points of agreement with my dad and the brother who joined the conversation, then dropped the subject when it was at the point of getting too serious. I heard from my nieces later that they were impressed that David had stuck his neck out there, and another of my nieces had argued with her Grandpa about the subject and had refused to talk to him for a day or two! Exciting times, indeed. I was very happy with the attitudes of the younger generation.

This is a complex, multifaceted subject that a blogpost can hardly do justice to, but here’s a summary of my evolution on this issue—evolution being the pertinent word.

The evidence indicates, to me, that the evolutionary history of homo sapiens and earlier hominids that diverged from other primates a couple of million years ago dictates what the optimal human diet would be. We are not, as vegetarians and vegans like to believe, herbivores by nature. Some primates are primarily herbivores, some are omnivores. Humans certainly are omnivorous, leaning heavily towards carnivore, but not pure carnivore. (A cat is an example of an obligate carnivore.) Compared with, say, gorillas, which may ferment up to 50 pounds of vegetables in their gut each day, we humans are simply not equipped to get our nutrients exclusively from plants. We don’t digest cellulose, for one, the carbohydrate found in abundance in plants, but we do digest quite readily animals that can digest cellulose.

We evolved on an animal-based diet, of that there can be no question from the multifaceted evidence from science. Of course humans ate plants as well: nuts, fruits, seeds, root vegetables, herbs. Remember, the modern varieties of vegetables and fruits hadn’t been developed until agriculture took hold, and their wild ancestors were not so juicy, plump and tender as the varieties found at the modern grocery store. They were available seasonally if at all. The seed heads of grasses eventually became cultivated grains, about 10,000 years ago. (Read Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond for that fascinating story.)

It’s also good to remember that there was never just one, uniform paleo diet, as humans in different climates around the globe ate what there was to be found there. But the switch from hunter-gatherer to nomadic pastoralist to settled, grain-based agriculturalist was a huge change, resulting in declining health and stature, as we know from examination of the remains of early farmers. Why, then, would anyone turn to farming from hunting? The ability to accrue a surplus of food, in good years, and to store it (a major technological achievement and possibly setting in motion the development of written language and arithmetic—to keep track of grain stores) meant that families could stay in one place instead of following migrating animals around. It also allowed for specialization of skills and the development of culture, government and modern societies. Whether that was good or bad is a matter of opinion, but Diamond’s famous essay on the subject, “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race,” is worth pondering.

So, here we are, modern humans, with access to both plant and animal foods at the nearest grocery store or warehouse club. Even if we started out eating animals, aren’t we more enlightened now? Isn’t eating meat something we should have overcome?

I think not. It is hopeless to fight our biological needs. Our large brains and comparatively small guts (and short intestines) should tell us we no longer thrive on the diet of gorillas. Some veg@ns argue that our not terribly fearsome teeth signify our inner herbivores, but humans also evolved a clever brain and dextrous hands with opposable thumbs that use tools.

We can also listen to our better selves and use our big brains to solve the problem of how to raise animals humanely and slaughter them humanely. Life is not a petting zoo, and if cows and pigs weren’t kept for food, they would largely disappear, as they are domesticated creatures not able to survive well in the wild, and who would provide space and food for them if they were not human food? Plus, the wild is fast disappearing, along with unfathomable numbers of wild animal, plant and insect species. There’s no room in this crowded world for cows that won’t be milked and eaten, pigs that won’t become sausage, chickens that won’t be used for eggs and meat.

I raise chickens and am learning to slaughter them as quickly and painlessly as possible, as part of my attempt to take responsibility for eating meat. Some chicken keepers seem to have a naive idea that if they’re only keeping hens for eggs, they’re not participating in animal death. Honey, where do you think the chicks come from? Eggs that have been fertilized by roosters. And where do roosters come from? Fully half of hatching eggs are likely to be roosters, and if they’re not killed at the hatchery as chicks due to lack of demand for males, they’re raised as meat birds, which have a short life indeed, as short as 12 weeks.

Animals deserve our respect and care, but let’s not pretend we can live well without eating them. As a former vegetarian, I can tell you that way of eating was disastrous for me. Some may thrive on it to the extent that they focus on whole, nutrient-dense foods, properly prepared, but though it may take time to wear down one’s nutritional reserves, most people eventually will on a vegetarian diet.

For a far more complete discussion of the ethics of eating animals, please read Lierre Keith’s marvelous work, The Vegetarian Myth. For more on paleolithic diets and nutrition, I highly recommend The Primal Blueprint, by Mark Sisson; The Paleo Solution, by Robb Wolf; Primal Body, Primal Mind, by Nora Gedgaudas; and The Perfect Health Diet, by Paul Jaminet and Shou-Ching Jaminet. The reviews I’ve linked to are from the Weston A. Price Foundation, which should be the starting point for any study of nutrition.

The great physicist Richard Feynman once said, “Reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.” The context was his report on the Challenger space shuttle disaster, and the quotation actually starts with “For a successful technology,” but I’m claiming it for my purposes nonetheless.

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