Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Serve With Fava Beans and a Nice Chianti: The Hannibal Lecterism of Happy Meat

I was originally drawn to her because of the rare quality of her breeding. The moment I saw the young female, I knew that I was the perfect person to be entrusted to see her through to the end.

I had had a young female the year before, a close relative of hers, and her fine heritage took me aback. She spoiled me for life: I couldn’t go back to having those of an inferior caliber again. When it was time that I wanted to have another one, I knew I wanted one of her pedigree once more, but I didn’t want to just be a passive bystander in her death again. Something within me needed a different experience. This time, I had to actively participate in her death, until her last shudder, and follow that through to her complete disassembly. The entirety of the young female would be used very purposefully and with great intention.

She had been born into a life of high standards. Being a rare creature myself, I recognized this in her. There are too many females of interior genetics, ones who are common and low born, and this one was cut from a different cloth. She was special and lovely and she had to be that way in order for me to consider having her as mine. Of course I wanted to see how she lived so I would have a deeper appreciation of how she was to die.

I wanted her parts, the internal organs, her viscera, the blood of her, still fresh and warm. I wanted her tender flesh, cut from her with my trusted instruments and pulled with my own hands. I wanted to understand the elegant, clever design of her before I consumed her, and I wanted to break her down personally. I wanted to find creative uses for every last inch of her so her life wouldn’t have been taken in vain.

Seeing her in out her natural habitat, breathing in the crisp autumn air, I knew that I made the right decision. She wasn't like the others, the poor, pathetic creatures that have been so damaged by poor genetics and circumstances. This one was different. She was a perfect specimen of her variety, a natural female, her pretty cheeks warmed by the sun to a golden peach. This was a young female who had felt gentle breezes blowing through her auburn hair, who had never been mistreated by course, rough hands, who had dined on organic blueberries she’d plucked from a neighbor’s garden with her own graceful hands. I insisted that she live no less of a life before I would take it from her.

That day, I spent an hour getting to know her and she seemed to trust me from the start. I rubbed her shoulders, and I touched her hair, warm from the sun. She was playful, affectionate, spirited. She smiled easily, clearly enjoying this life, and she had no idea of my intentions. This began to make me very uneasy but I told myself that it was better this way, better that her life would end with someone she trusted rather than at a stranger’s hands in an unfamiliar, cold setting. This was much more humane. Breathing deeply to keep my emotions in check, I held her hands in mine. I looked my young female in the eye. I told her that I was grateful for what she was about to give me. I may have even shed a tear. I have consumed countless young females in my lifetime, but being there then was a deeper, richer experience, though one fraught with tension. I wouldn’t have traded it for anything in the world.

In the end, her death was astonishingly quick and easy – two quick bullets - which is fortunate because there was no time to waste.

First I carefully undressed her and then I began collecting my blood. I’d never had this before so it was a priority. I had to make that everything was positioned right to bleed my body properly, otherwise all that good blood would be squandered. It was a struggle propping everything correctly and I questioned whether I was cut out for this work but in the end, I was successful and I am very glad that I had the persistence to see this dream of mine – fresh blood – realized and that I didn’t quit.

That task completed, there was a lot of work ahead of me, which meant scalding, scraping, cutting through fat, muscles, tendons, and tugging out organs. As repulsive as it might sound to an outsider, it was a breathtakingly clean and methodical process, breaking down the body bit by bit and seeing how the organs looked and felt close up: the heart, the kidneys, the bladder, one by one, I observed them with the cool-headed precision of a surgeon and gently placed them in my container. The bright pink lungs in particular, lungs that just a short time ago had breathed in the same cool fall air as I, were especially noteworthy. She did not disappoint.

Separating the intestines from the fat and other tissues meant that with just a good cleaning, I now had sausage casing that I had pulled from a body I chose with my own hands and technical skills. It was hard to not feel prideful pulling out handful after handful of healthy intestine. This makes it all worthwhile, I thought to myself as my organ container continued to fill, steam slowly rising from it. The young female was no longer of this world but all these different parts and pieces would extend her far life beyond her reach as a living being. The incredible responsibility I felt of needing to continue to provide stewardship for the young female even after her death was a profound realization.

After she was fully broken down and stored properly, I felt I owed it to myself and to her to finally enjoy the fruits of my labor. Carving bits of her flesh on my butcher block, I was able to quietly to reflect on our symbiotic relationship: she gave her life to provide nourishment for me and I was able to consume her with true appreciation for her fine quality. We gave this to each other.

In a beloved cast iron skillet that once belonged to my grandmother, I sautéed delicately sliced pieces of her flesh with minced garlic, baby carrots, parsnips and fresh purple basil and thyme from my garden. The scent of her filled the air: rich, savory, mouthwateringly alluring. A splash of her blood to thicken the sauté was an inspired improvisation, I think.

Sitting down to finally enjoy the meal I’d created, I knew that I had made the right choice. She was tender but perfectly substantial, sinewy in certain places but nicely balanced by her delicate texture. Her flavor so effectively captured her essence that at times, it was as if she was still with me, sitting across the table from me, her hair glinting in the candlelight. I toasted her spirit.

In all, it was a beautiful, bittersweet experience. I couldn’t help ruminating on how she slumped back with that first bullet, the look of shock and horror marring her perfect features along with the spray of blood. I thought of how much work it was to collect all the blood, how exhausted I felt, pulling out the intestines but how I had to do right by this young female. She would live on to be my steaks, sausages, burgers and bacon for the year as well as provide bits for stew, gravy, casings and so on. I think she would be proud to know how very well used she would be.

After this experience, I will never again take another’s life and death for granted. When it comes time for me to harvest another young female, I will bring this same intentionality and poignancy. It will be my gift back to those who give me their lives and it is my gift to myself. I will do right by all the future young females who will grace my butcher block. You can count on that.  

If you think that this is extreme, please read this first hand account of the slaughter of a pig by popular Chicago butcher, Rob Levitt. With me just making one simple, easy switch of who the victim is, suddenly it’s evident that the story was written by a psychopath, despite the key details remaining essentially unchanged.

The self-aggrandizement, as well as the perfectly clinical and Hannibal Lecter-esque narrative, were deeply disturbing to me in Rob Levitt’s essay. It is one thing to mindlessly eat animals. It is another thing to romanticize the special flesh you consume, to repeat the narcissistic myths you want to think that eating it says about you. Make no mistake, it is the mindless consumption that is creating the immense death toll of ten billion land animals in the U.S. each year, but it is this arrogant, self-serving mentality of entitlement that is so pervasive among Happy Meat enthusiasts that I find deeply chilling. It is also what has me thinking as a satirist.

If my essay was disturbing to you, that is a good thing. It means you can still feel. Thanks to Nicole from Upton's Naturals, a dedicated vegan protein company, for bringing it to my attention. 

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Creating the Wave

“There is nothing like a dream to create the future. Utopia today, flesh and blood tomorrow.” Victor Hugo

Sometimes it can be nearly impossible to see the big picture because, as advocates for animals, what we are looking at is pretty bleak. Speaking personally, it is never far from my mind how much needless suffering, barbarism and destruction is happening and, with each moment, how much more is to come. Each second, babies are stolen from mothers, innocent beings suffer in confinement, bolts are shot into brains, knives are slashed across necks. The despair from knowing just how easily it could all be prevented if people simply acknowledged the injustice of the violence and decided to give a damn is difficult to mitigate. Those of us who are awake to what is happening feel the senseless pain of it so deeply, and because of this, we are not always aware of its counterpart: the slow-but-steady grassroots shift that is occurring in tandem. Just as stop-motion photography reveals dramatic transformations due to subtle metamorphoses that are imperceptible to the human eye, the vegan movement has been making strides in recent years but we often need a something different – an altered perspective, a fresh lens - in order to notice it.  

I have been vegan since 1995, a time when I would gasp and spontaneously erupt into a happy dance if a café had soymilk. With my nature being much more inclined to enthusiastic outbursts rather than, say, doing the professional poker circuit, I’m sure I startled many a coffee shop patron deeply engrossed in that new Sartre biography but I didn’t care. Even though I have always very much disliked the taste of coffee (the word swill comes to mind), I would hold my nose and suffer through a sip or two just so I could enjoy the novelty of coffee with milk in a café like a normal person. (This is pretty much where my desire to be normal begins and ends.) In 1995, even in a large, multicultural city like Chicago, vegans didn’t have much but it was just beginning to trickle in. The landscape has transformed before my eyes since then.  I wish I had stop-motion photography to illustrate this. In retrospect, we were on the cusp of a sea change that is really still in its infancy. The wave of change has just begun gathering strength, but, have no doubt, it is happening and nothing can stop it.

If 1995 had a vegan pastry mascot, it would be dense, beige, heavy and could best be described as “roughly muffin-esque” but my activist friends and I would still be turning cartwheels in the streets for it. Contrast that with my son’s experience 17 years later. Over the summer, we went to a cute West Coast-based cupcakerie that opened an outpost here. I was struck when my son initially turned up his nose at the pretty red velvets, sniffing, “They only have one vegan flavor?” Despite being one of the most distinctly unreserved children I know  - the spontaneous happy dance gene is inheritable, apparently - you still have to get up pretty early in the morning to impress my born-and-bred herbivore with your vegan culinary creations. This is how much the environment around us has changed. When my son seems a bit too comfortable with the easy-peasy vegan world he was born into sometimes, I make him listen to my equivalent of the old “I used to walk ten miles barefoot in the snow to school” saw, telling him that there was a time not too long ago when vegans couldn’t just walk into any ol’ bakery and expect to find a pastry they could eat.  (“Imagine the hardships your stoic forebears faced.”) And we may not have been barefoot in the snow but our poorly constructed, plastic-y shoes came from catalogues that were archaic even at the time. Except for those who could afford expensive imported shoes from England, we may as well have been barefoot in our porous boots in Chicago in January but we didn’t complain because at least we had vegan shoes finally, for god’s sake, and they weren’t Converse, either.

Of course, the changes are not just better access to higher quality cupcakes and shoes. I am not one who puts much stock in “humane” meat or animal products, but the fact that this is a subject so many people are bringing up in defense of their meat-eating shows something encouraging. While the industry may provide another layer of fantasy and self-denial for omnivores to delude themselves with, the fact that people want to think that they are seeking out “more humane” animal products means that the personal discomfort with the status quo of eating animals is now something people are acknowledging out loud. This is a profound shift. No one was talking about this 17 years ago, certainly not in the widespread way that it is talked about today. Although I think that the happy meat sphere is a serious obstacle to compassionate living that wasn’t there before, the urge to reconcile this internal discomfort actually is cause for hope.

People are still eating ten billion land animals every year in the US alone, though, as if it is our birthright, as if the burgers and nuggets people eat were in fact grown in the patches shown in the old McDonald’s commercials. We may be eating less meat in the United States but international trends show an increased consumption throughout Latin America, Asia and Africa as animal products become less expensive, more accessible and a new generation of children develops an expectation of meat at nearly every meal. We are decimating our oceans, practically dredging them of life. Our addiction to cheap protein is altering this very planet. We have put our habits in the driver’s seat, and they are actively steering us toward a frightening future. Fabulous cupcakes and stylish shoes will not dull the sting of that reality.

The world is changing but not quickly enough. We need to go out and be great examples of being vegan and we’ve got to proudly own it. We are not doing the animals any good, nor are we slowing the ecological destruction of animal agriculture, by silently minding our own business. If speaking out about needless killing and destruction isn’t our collective business, I don’t know what is. We need to become empowered to use our voices, talents and passion for creating the world we want to live in because, quite simply, we are the ones to do it and the world needs us to step forward.

This doesn’t mean shouting. This doesn’t mean shaming. This means being honest, being humble, being inclusive, giving people the tools to make it easier for them and empowering them to make positive changes. On our own front, we should celebrate the small victories (so many great cupcakes!) but expect to keep shouldering on: creating a massive cultural shift of the one we are pioneering is not going to happen through anything but conviction and sheer endurance. This is how waves happen. Keep pushing forward with certainty that the world needs what you are creating and full of gratitude that you have this amazing opportunity to be building something so fundamentally good, kind, just and necessary.

If no one has said this lately, from the bottom of my heart, thank you. Thank you. You are amazing.

Now let’s get back to work. We’re building that wave, bit by bit.