notes from a creative writing PhD candidate
In college I had a crush on a long-haired, Birkenstock-wearing guy who let everyone who would listen know he was a proud vegan. This man was attractive to me for many reasons, but one of the main reasons I found myself so compelled by him–and his diet–was his complete passion for everything he did. He didn’t stamp himself with the vegan label to be cool, or unique, or set himself apart. He genuinely felt that his dietary choices would, in a small way, improve himself–and, eventually, little by little, the world. I attempted a vegan lifestyle for about two months during my ga-ga fascination with this man, getting fat on bread and pasta (what else do vegans eat?) and sneaking bites of burgers anytime I went back home for breaks. It didn’t stick.
I’m not sure what happened to my college crush. He eventually graduated, after six years and declaring three majors (Anthropology, Geology, and Public Health) and I heard through the grapevine that he moved to Costa Rica with the World Wide Organization of Organic Farmers, or WWOOF. (Yet further reasons why I fell a little in love with him.) I think about him still, nine years later. I remember his ponytail and his paint-splattered cutoff Carhartts. But what I remember most was his kitchen, and his morals, and his sticky vegan cookbook pages. He inspired me. But at nineteen, I simply wasn’t ready for that kind of lifestyle change.
You’re probably wondering here what my crunchy undergrad crush and Anthony Bourdain could possibly have in common (aside for my eternal pining for both of them).
I woke up this morning and finally finished Jonathan Safran Foer’s book, Eating Animals. (Review of his book to come soon.) I teach an essay of his, “Against Meat,” in my Advanced Composition class, and it sparks really visceral reactions from herbivores and carnivores alike. All semester long my students and I have been discussing and interrogating texts that center around the common theme of food. We watch Food, Inc. We watch clips of Fed Up. We watch Jamie Oliver transform the West Virginia school food program in Food Revolution. Yet every weekend when I sit down to do my grading I’m munching on chicken nuggets or snacking on a Slim Jim or falling asleep at my desk after a steak dinner. Clearly, again, something didn’t stick.
Anthony Bourdain writes about witnessing a Portuguese pig slaughter in his essay “Where Food Comes From,” found in his travel collection A Cook’s Tour. What I love about this piece–and my students agree–is how frightened and awkward Bourdain feels during the killing of the pig. The author refers to the butchers as “assassins,” and makes jokes about how there couldn’t possibly be any vegetarians in Portugal (“I’d said some very unkind things about vegetarians,” he coyly admits). The Portuguese honor and appreciate their pork dinner, using every part of the animal (including the bladder, which is blown up and used as a soccer ball by the children), even singing songs in homage to their meal. There’s a clear juxtaposition between the two-day feast portrayed in his essay and the nightly “dinner” many American families rush through today.
Bourdain wants us to learn where, truly, our food comes from. In the United States the majority of the meat we consume does not come from a small family farm in a village. Killing and consuming animals is not an honored ritual, or a special occasion. Many of us eat meat three times a day, a complete change from the days of rations of the 1940’s (and the much thinner waistlines back then). Bourdain confesses that
“What arrives in my kitchen, however, is not the bleeding, still-warm body of my victim, eyes open, giving me an accusatory look that says, ‘Why me, Tony? Why me?’ I don’t have to see that part. The only evidence of my crimes is the relatively antiseptic boxed or plastic-wrapped appearance of what is inarguably meat.”
We are distant from our food, and this is what authors like Jonathan Safran Foer and Scott Jurek want us to reflect upon. My students found Safran Foer’s vacillation between eating and not eating meat to be annoying and demonstrate a lack of credibility. I find it relatable. Since my botched attempted at going vegan–and making that lifestyle decision really for the wrong reasons–I have been eating meat daily for years without thinking much of it. It’s time for a lifestyle change.
Scott Jurek is a famed ultrarunner who has won Hardrock, Badwater, and Western States–some of the most prestigious and difficult ultras out there. I read his book Eat and Run a year ago and have just started reading it again. He and I have quite a bit in common, it seems, but one thing that touched me was the passing of his beloved mother. My mother also died from cancer, and Jurek mentions that he began to run, in part, because she couldn’t. (So did I.) He’s been vegetarian since 1997 and vegan since ’99, and credits much of his endurance-running success to a plant-based, meat-free diet. Perhaps removing most animal products from my own diet will help in my long distance running endeavors.
I’ve been thinking about these authors and teaching their work for months–some for years–and it’s just now starting to click. I wish I could call up my college crush and ask him for advice, wish I could hear him again ramble on about the evils of factory farming and Wendell Berry and ecological eating. I have three new men in my life now, men who have inspired me to eat more mindfully and to try–not completely eschew, but try–to avoid eating meat for a while. Starting today.