For the first 23 years of my life, I was a carnivore. I ate my dad's "famous" skirt steak with chimichurri, ordered grilled chicken on my salads, and relied on chorizo and egg tacos to save me the morning after a night of drinking.
After college I moved to Portland, Oregon, for graduate school. It was there that I first started to eat a little less meat — not because I fell prey to some sketch straight out of Portlandia, but because there was an abundance of delicious vegetarian food, and I was having a blast trying it all. (Soyrizo tacos are surprisingly good!)
But then one day I stopped eating meat entirely. I did not seek this decision out, though — it essentially came to me by accident. All thanks to one 276-page book.
The Book That Made It Happen
Having read Everything Is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (both fiction by Jonathan Safran Foer), I was so excited when my friend lent me her copy of Eating Animals (by the same author) in the spring of 2011. Part memoir and part investigative journalism, the book recounts Safran Foer's own eating habits and how they reflect the choices he makes about feeding his new son. It explores the environmental and ethical impact of animal farming in the United States, and our rituals and customs around eating meat (like why do we keep dogs as pets, but eat cows?).
But I didn't read the book because I wanted to be converted to a new way of eating. I didn't even really want to be enlightened. I just wanted to enjoy the latest work of one of my favorite authors.
And so, night after night, I'd read in bed next to my (then) boyfriend (now husband), and gasp every now and then. He'd take the bait, asking me what was so appalling, and I'd share an eye-opening passage about animal-slaughtering and meat-packaging practices. I will spare you the details, but there's one section — it involves chicken and the words "fecal soup" — that still haunts me today.
Now, to be fair, I should note that this book isn't all guts and gore. Safran Foer explores the topic of eating animals from every angle, offering the perspectives of a vegetarian rancher and families running smaller farms where animals are treated with care and respect.
But even with this representation of more ethical farms, reading this book made me, for the first time in my life, question the food I absentmindedly purchased and consumed every day. In all my years of eating steak and chicken, I never truly understood the wide-ranging consequences of getting that meat on my plate.
When I finished the book, it seemed like the most logical, natural conclusion for me was to stop eating meat. I didn't hem and haw or agonize over it; I simply just gave it up, cold (faux) turkey. This passage towards the end, in particular, helped seal the deal for me:
"Not making a decision — eating 'like everyone else' — is to make the easiest decision, a decision that is increasingly problematic. Without question, in most places and in most times, to decide one's diet by not deciding — to eat like everyone else — was probably a fine idea. Today, to eat like everyone else is to add another straw to the camel's back. Our straw may not be the backbreaker, but the act will be repeated — every day of our lives, and perhaps every day of the lives of our children and our children's children ... "
My friend (who still eats meat once in a while) jokes that she should've never given me that book, but I don't regret reading it. During the last six years I've tried more vegetables than I thought I was capable of and flexed my creative muscles in the kitchen. And to be honest, I haven't really missed the meat!
I did get a tad overzealous about the book at first, trying to put it in the hands of every friend, coworker, and family member: You have to read this book! I'd proselytize to anyone who'd listen. All those passages read aloud to my husband did not sway him to give up his beloved bacon, but because I do most of the cooking at home, he tends to only eat meat when we're out at restaurants. We make it work.
Once the initial post-reading frenzy wore off and I settled comfortably into my new lifestyle, I realized that it didn't make my choice any more real or validated if I got someone else to follow in my footsteps. I just needed to do my own thing — and that's how it's been ever since.
Buy the book: Eating Animals, $10
Are you a vegetarian? Why did you decide to stop eating meat?