Monday, February 7, 2011

Meat is Messy

    Meat is messy. That's one of the first lessons of the kitchen I learned from my mom. Meat got its own shopping bag because the reddish juices often seeped out of the plastic wrap. It never shared with the celery, onions or potatoes.
    Meat got its own cutting board and knife, which were to be cleaned promptly in very hot water, while the chicken breast roasted or the tenderloin browned. When we butchered the first time, our fix and mix tupperware bowls overflowed with gizzards and thighs, the cast off yellow claws and innards. One for each. The table was covered with a plastic picnic table cloth.  It took hours just to clean it all up, boil down the necks, cool and freeze all the usable parts.
     Can you tell I have exhaustion just thinking about those days? It's a bit a relief to cook vegetarian, where I can share my knife between the carrots and tomatoes, as long as it doesn't matter if the veggies come out perfectly julienned or simply pared. Yes, the tool makes the difference.
    I don't mind mess. I can yuck it up in the kitchen with the best of them. It's just nice to sail through dinner prep without the extra steps. Bonus: it's cooking without all the killing and dying and stuff.-- Unless you find the the following joke a side-splitter: "I'm not vegetarian because I like animals. I'm vegetarian because I hate vegetables."
    This is an allegory about flesh, and mess, not about meat as murder. I'm writing it because there's either a kitchen contaminated, some messy or careless cooks, or there's a a good stew a boiling with some crazy cooks flailing their knives while whooping it up together. I'm a patient girl. I'll wait to see if someone's gonna get sick, cut or we just sit down together to a bowl of chicken soup.
     On the surface this is a story about being asked why I'm vegetarian, and it's a pilgrim's progress. It's sure to be full of over-the-top slaughter metaphors, though. Even a vegetarian can't resist a little jab now and again: "a little jab-- get it." Clearly I have a burden to drop and river to cross, or die in.

    So meat still gets me into some stews. Signing up for my CSA at the farmer's market this summer, John asked if we'd ever buy his free-range chickens or turkeys. "If we ate meat, I'm sure we would. That's the best kind," I try to answer with something like this since free-range and antibiotic free is all the rage in my milieu. I want to affirm the superiority of this choice, without committing to a delicious hen. "But we don't." I guess I don't need to add that last part, right?  Maybe that's what invites the "You don't? Why not? I mean, do you not eat meat because of the health thing or because of the animal rights thing?" Even my dad emailed me a couple months ago. I guess he was checking in on my reasoning after fifteen years. What? No change. Okay, just checking.  No change.
    My kids get to choose for themselves. My daughter gave up meat at five, to some hilarious kindergarten romps. My son still hacks a load of smoked turkey off grandpa's serving platter at Christmas, eats a bite or two just to prove he's his own man, then deserts the rest for yeast rolls and potatoes, carrots, and veggies.
 Meanwhile, my husband and I used these years to hone our answer. The false dichotomy that my interlocuters employ is a put off. Give me some respect, meaters, even Ponderosa offer more meat on the buffett than I get. This puts me in an awkward position. They dumped some kind of problem onto me and I have to figure it out so I answer without offending them. It's all in how I choose to hear them:
1. Are you one of the ridiculously obsessed with your health people, who don't really know you may be robbing you body of key protein and B-Vitamin nutrients? or
2. Are you one of those off-the-rocker PETA types who worries that animals feel pain and forgets that God gave them to us for our use?
     In the back of my mind, I hear them formulate their rebuttals based upon the two false choices from which I'm permitted to select.

     Stop here. This is where I have to check myself. Early on, I unleashed all sorts of facts on the pounds of grain to pounds of meat ratios. These are horrendous for beef, not to mention the gallons of water usage. I prattled on about number of grams of protein in a steak vs a cube of cheese vs a half a cup of tofu or red beans.  I waxed prosaic about the storage functions of muscle, any muscle, for the varieties of injections that factory farms use to 'beef up' and make flesh safe.  I still get into these, if the conversation draws out. But what I've had to learn is what my audience is seeking to hear, what they want to say next and what really matters about not eating meat.
     As time has passed my reasons are more simple, or complicated. Ultimately, I don't eat it because I'm fine without it. I like my diet without it. I enjoy a wide variety of fruits and veggies that puzzle the cashiers and amuse my friends. Sure I have lots of personal convictions that I get to assuage in teeny-tiny ways by choosing veggies not meat, but I don't turn the tables and ask, "Why do you choose to eat meat? Is it because your indoctrinated by a protein-obsessed culture or because you just don't care to learn about dark side of meat?" Come to think of it, it's a lot like we heterosexuals who ask "Why do you like people of the same gender?" but never ask each other, "Why do you like kissing someone of the other gender?" I'm offended just thinking up these questions. These questions presume so much about another person. What if others eat meat just because they like it, and they do it all the right ways? Are we enemies because I don't eat it?

     On these occasions, I've had to train myself to pause and listen to the heart of the person. Why is he asking me? Does he feel judged because I don't eat meat? Does he misunderstand my motives? Perhaps he believes I will not forgive him for enjoying flesh. It's this assumption that I harbor something within me, or my assumption that he believes I'm putting on false piety that keeps us talking about anti-biotics, free-range, portion control, amino acids and cholesterol. Pretty soon we're just parsing numbers and questioning sources. It's this talking past each other that made "Why can't we all just get along?" the whine of our time.
     Even that we slap against one another, like there's a gospel side and not. I started answering, "Oh, you know, I just don't like having to worry if I gutted the chicken with this knife or that? It cuts down on the constant rinsing with soap and water, which just doesn't a number to my skin."  This works like it works on a toddler, a distraction. It doesn't cut to bone of contention, and since in my membership, there is honest contention, my allegory needs a complication.
    Maybe that was the twist that arose with my father's short facebook message, why do you not eat meat, paired with the usual menu of reasons. Maybe the lesson in this complication is simple- you can't pick your nose in public and you can't pick a facebook fight in private. Two or three messages later, I  thought I'd hemmed and hawed above the offerings to a truer litany of reasons. He wrote back about my teenage daughter, who had sharpened her logic on a captive audience of one nine-year old cousin. He said he was worried about offending members of the family by eating meat. Shortly the thread stopped. I think I had replied about my brother taking offense. I was still sniffing another scent, another reason, why my dad wanted to understand our vegetarianism. I never got it. Facebook silence. I erased that thread of messages about two weeks later, having given up hope that something more might be resolved from it.
     I wonder if I bedded down whatever motivated him to ask again, or if this thread will re-appear, in ages hence. I will find the hunger was never assuaged. I will wonder if he ever forgave me for a thousand presumed sins I may have committed or judgments I implied. The truth is, I don't mind him asking since I should review my motives periodically. He has no idea how long the line of people who'd like to help me review and see a different light is. Yet, asking time and again, has a kind of potential. It can be healthy for relationships. It doesn't have to be an unwashed knife, used to peel the crudites. It could be we get into a good stew. Two people-- one who will go to his grave with smoked lime-vodka salmon on his palette, and one with smoked applewood tofu on hers-- might stop saying 'can't we all get along' and cook up a darn good meal. Oh, in this case, we have.
In my membership, there's a bigger piece of flesh at stake. I suppose that could be true of even minor differences- like to meat or not to meat. Anything can become a reason for conflict, but this one is Eucharistic. It affects the Theotokos Threads Society. Like all conflicts, some people want to frame it as either-or. Others hear the menu and assume they are being forced to consume something they don't even like. In their minds, they suspect there are more recipes and ingredients from which we can work- more nuances and motives than have just been trumpeted. In another day in this kitchen, another two-piece menu might be offered. It's all very dissatisfying and very confusing.  Some will start to bicker and flail their knives, proclaiming, "This kitchen is a mad house, or sick and poisonous." They will come to their wits end and cry "Can't we all just get along?" That's when the last group shines. They know there are just too many cooks... but Thank God, there might be a killer stew to sit down and feast over, when this is all said and done.

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