Weekend Meditation: The Ambivalent Omnivore

Weekend Meditation: The Ambivalent Omnivore

Dana Velden
Mar 1, 2009

I'll admit it. I like to eat critters but I get a little squeamish when I think about killing, gutting, skinning, hanging and slicing them up. Especially when I think about doing all that myself. So there's a tension here for me because I also think that this makes my relationship with the meat on my plate removed, privileged and not a little hypocritical. Is it OK for me to eat something I'm not willing to kill myself?

It wasn't always this way. When I was a child, I spent summers on my grandfather's farm in northern Wisconsin. There I would blithely catch and clean fish, and help my grandfather with butchering the chickens. I would ride around the farm on the calf he was fattening up, appropriately called Kielbasa, then climb down and eat a piece of the previous year's Kielbasa for dinner. I'm sorry to say, but I don't remember feeling anything but curious: what does the inside of a fish look like? What's a gizzard and do I have one, too? But as an adult, I'm finding this territory a little more complex.

Some people work with this by adamantly eating the whole animal: snout-to-tail eating, it's often called, or everything-but-the-oink. They say it respects and honors the animal by not wasting anything. A worthy sentiment, but truth be told, I've never come home from the butcher's with a lamb's brain or a pig's trotter and tossed it into my frying pan. And I'm not sure, given the choice, I ever will. I would, however, give it a try in a restaurant...maybe.

Last week I discovered some old episodes of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's River Cottage series on the web. The basic premise of the show is that Hugh moves out to the countryside and raises all his food himself. There's a lovely vegetable patch, of course, but he also hunts for game birds, rabbits and deer, fishes in the near-by ocean and rivers, and raises pigs and lambs and cows. And although we spend a lot of time with the butcher after the fact, we're still spared from witnessing what happens at the abattoir. I have to wonder why. What happens there that we're not willing to face, that we're not allowed to see or participate in?

We all know what an easily polarizing subject this is and it's tempting to fly into one camp or the other. But more informing for me, and more interesting, is to stay with the ambivalence, to really examine the questioning without leaping into judgment or reaction. When I do that, I can see that my ambivalence makes sense, that it is appropriate. Animals are indeed fellow living creatures with hearts that beat and a wish to live that's not so different from my own. And, when I eat them, there is pleasure in their taste and texture, my hunger is satisfied and nutritional needs are met. The worst thing I could do is to eat an animal but not enjoy it for all the guilt and hand-wringing.

Economy and the fact that I avoid factory raised meat means I don't eat critters very often these days. So when I do, I try to take a moment to appreciate what is before me and fully recognize that what once was alive, is no longer. There is something holy here, I believe, that asks for my respect and reverence.

And I hope that one day I will come closer to participating in the full cycle of the food that I eat. I know that I cannot really answer my questions by having a lot of ideas and justifications. There is nothing abstract about birth and death and perhaps when confronted straight on with those two truths, I will lose my ambivalence and find my answers simply and clearly in what is happening right there in front of me.

Novella Carpenter, urban farmer, on this very subject

Escape to River Cottage


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