The Meat of the Matter: A Question of Sacred Reverence

Photo credit: C. Bertelsen

Meat eating presents modern society with a bit of a dilemma.

How to raise and slaughter large numbers of animals under humane conditions, while keeping the price down and within wallet reach of most consumers?

That’s the major issue, tinged with other, often moralistic, questions.

First, right up front, I am not a vegetarian, and never will be, despite having fumbled with the idea a few times.

My first experience with vegetarianism came about chiefly out of curiosity. The central dining hall (think cafeteria) at my small liberal arts college – inundated with requests for vegetarian offerings – came up with horrendous concoctions like canned pinto beans in tomato sauce. Never known for toothsome gourmet delights even when plopping traditional meat and potatoes on dinner trays, the management scrambled to find any palatable dishes without meat and failed miserably. Hard-cooked eggs and yogurt predominated.

I soon, and quite happily, reverted to the sin of  being a carnivore.

Many years later, I experimented with vegetarianism again: I cooked and ate only a vegetarian/fish diet during Lent. By the end of six weeks, I lost five pounds without even trying, certainly a testimony to one of the positive benefits of such a diet. But, and there is always a but, since at least two sides surround every situation, don’t you know it: I walked around exhausted, too tired to participate easily in many of my normal activities.

Once I started eating meat again, my body perked up, or so it seemed. Since I took a vitamin supplement with iron at the time, I doubted that anemia caused my fatigue.

For this reason, and others too complicated and numerous to delve into here, I am a firm believer in the powerful importance of meat in human diets.

Meat has had such a bad reputation in the food world over the last decade. A stampede toward non-meat-based diets colors most food writing these days. Veganism might work for a lot of people, or even pescetarianism (where vegetarians eat fish as well as plant matter), though I cannot quite fathom the latter, oxymoronism at its best, especially when considering farmed fish.

Fortunately, the work of authors like Bruce Aidells and Michael Symons represents a welcome backlash against the prissy dismissal of a food that people in many parts of the world would dearly love to eat every day and not just at feasts or in small bits scattered throughout rice-based dishes or in sauces. I can’t forget that in much of Paraguay, Haiti, and parts Africa where I lived, I could not always buy meat. Meat was scarce in the the markets for a very simple reason: no one had animals available for slaughter. And when word went out that some meat appeared as if by a miracle in the village market, hanging from a hook in the open air with flies feasting on the choice parts, why, it was time to fly out the door and get down to the market as fast as possible.

Where no religious restrictions on meat-eating exist, most humans crave it. Feasts often center around the ritual slaughter of animals. Age-old dishes and customs attest to the human need and search for animal protein.

Note well that word: Ritual. And, yes, sacrifice.

It’s one thing to look an animal in the face and know that its future includes slaughter. It’s another thing to look at the rows of antiseptically wrapped and packaged meat in any grocery store and remember how life ended for those animals, often raised under harsh conditions.

Where’s the reverence there?

The reality of farming today, with large populations needing food, means industrialized agriculture is here to stay, no matter the number of small organic farming operations run by talented people. Their message reminds us of our fragile tie to the earth and the sacrifice of animal lives. Not that this means anthropomorphizing animals, but just recognizing their gift, their sacrifice.

So the next time you casually toss a package of chicken legs or a steak into your grocery cart, pause for a few moments. Think of what you’ve just done.

Photo credit: C. Bertelsen

© 2012 C. Bertelsen