I Quit Being a Vegetarian for a Trip to France

I Quit Being a Vegetarian for a Trip to France

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Dana McMahan
Jul 13, 2018
(Image credit: Daniel Kim Photography/Stocksy)

It started with a tweet. Kate Hill, who ran Kitchen at Camont in Gascony, was taking applicants for a culinary writing residency at her 300-year-old farmhouse retreat in rural southwest France. She wanted someone to come stay in a little blue room, join in Camp Confit, and write their heart out. Sitting in my dim, windowless office where I worked on websites all day, something clicked in my mind. I had to do this.

The only problem was that I was a vegetarian. I'd slashed most meat from my diet after reading The Jungle in high school. This residency required that I had to go learn all about ducks. I had never had duck. I hadn't had meat in eight years. But I'd recently read Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and was questioning why I'd eat tofu flown across the world but not beef from cattle raised on pastures in my own Kentucky home.

So I drafted a most earnest letter to Kate, laying out my yearning for all things French, my recently awoken appetite for real foods, fresh from gardens like those of my grandparents, my desire to write not just on my blog for friends and family, but as a Real Writer.

Somehow, she chose me. But she had a stipulation: I couldn't land in France meat-free for so many years and just start gorging myself on animal fat. I'd need to work my way up to it. I started, naturally, with bacon grease, making the first dish I'd learned to cook: biscuits and gravy. In true Portlandia fashion I got to know the farmer who raised the heritage hogs. Then I had actual bacon, and oh mon Dieu, what had I been thinking these long years? But this was only the amuse bouche: a glorious, gluttonous feast awaited me in France.

Relearning to Eat Meat in France Was Easier than I Thought

When I look back at my blog from those days now it seems a dream — days on end of all the beauty that comes of duck. If I was nervous about eating meat while I was abroad, it doesn't show in my writing. I ate wine braised duck breast, duck fat roasted vegetables, epic cassoulet, grattons (crispy duck skin fried in its own fat), rillette, duck soup, duck confit, duck tongue, duck hearts. I wasn't squeamish about anything; as a former vegetarian meat was meat, and if an animal died for your dinner, why wouldn't you eat all of it? And of course there was foie gras.

We took a little field trip to a nearby foie farm and museum where I feared I'd bear witness to evil. It turned out to be happy ducks wandering the grounds, ambling over for gavage when it was their turn. And after seeing how the ducks were fed, it turned out not to be the torturous practice I'd heard about.

It was also delicious. The unfortunate part about learning to love foie gras in circumstances where we made our own was that it came in great slabs — all I could eat — and I couldn't stop eating it.

Why I Continue to Eat Meat After My Trip to France

After my time at Camont it was on to snowy Paris for an unbridled couple of days of feasting. Oui, monsieur, I want the raw beef, I do. I want the bone marrow, that creamy, primally delicious matter roasted inside the beef bone, scooped out with buttered, grilled baguette slice, sprinkled with flakes of sea salt and topped with crisp parsley. I couldn't get enough. And steak frites, bleu, s'il vous plait. Oh, and soupe à l'oignon, yes, that deeply satisfying bowl of mahogany-hued stock drenched in cheese. Every meal was a revelation. This was life with meat.

I continue to eat meat now that my trip is over. We buy from our favorite farmers at the market or our local whole-animal butcher shop, and prepare it with the same love I experienced in France. Our smashburger-style burgers of dry-aged local beef are last-meal worthy if I say so myself, but they're a once- or twice-a-month splurge — not daily fare.

In fact, I still eat more plants than meat, but the trip to France showed me that if you're going to be an omnivore you can do it in a way that honors the animal. To me that's only buying it from farmers who are transparent about their practices, using everything, and making the meal a special occasion.

Have you ever changed your eating habits while traveling? Let us know in the comments!

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