Earlier today, a food-related mix-up that is 100% my fault occurred and I ended up eating meat (chicken) for the first time in five years. I won’t get into the gritty details and yes, while its on all of your minds, I SHOULD have known what was going on and my belief that it was “the best fake meat job I’ve ever eaten” was influenced by equal parts stupidity, idealism and exhaustion. It is what it is.
However, despite being a self-proclaimed vegetarian for five years, I felt myself balancing two conflicting emotions: physical discomfort (my stomach was all like “WHAT THE HELL, MAN?! I THOUGHT WE WERE DONE WITH THIS! I AM NOT PREPARED!) and, perhaps more pressingly, mental relief. Like I had taken a long desired step across an invisible line, even if it was by accident.
For the past year or so my decision to expunge meat from my diet has been called into question. Not by any people in my life (that matter anyway) and certainly not by my family or my fiancé Samantha, who have all been amazingly supportive of the habit. No, this time I was the one doing the questioning. It started with an innocuous attempt at getting to know me better that I’d been asked countless times before: “so what made you want to be a vegetarian?”
Over the last five years there have been many answers to this question, usually depending on who was asking: “I got into it in college when I hung out with Punks a lot and it made sense,” “I like animals,” “do you KNOW how the meat industry functions??”, “there was this cute vegan chick…” and my personal favorite, “BUDDHISM MAAAAANNNNNN!!!”
So my quiver of answers was well stocked with many well worn arrows I could pull out. Except a funny thing happened: when I went to respond I had no answer.
I mumbled my way through some incomprehensible answer (probably about the military industrial complex or Spider-Man, knowing me) and wandered off as quickly as I could.
Why couldn’t I answer? This was ostensibly one of the biggest parts of my identity, and yet I couldn’t even blurt out a well prepared Josh-ism as to why it was. It was then that I realized that I might not even know anymore. Every answer I could formulate was hollow, contrived and seemingly intended to try and prove a point to people I either had no business proving a point to, or who did not care.
Sure, I still did not eat meat, but that fact kind of left me numb. Like a wound that had scabbed over, it was neither here nor there. Whereas once it had been a point of intense pride, when I thought about why I didn’t eat meat, I felt nothing. It had become an automatic habit that, I feared, lacked any meaning.
Sure, some of the prevailing facts surrounding my vegetarianism are still true: I still maintain a deep empathy with the beasts of this earth. I love animals, usually more than I love people, and the thought of eating them does occasionally make me nauseous.
Once, after a few days of contemplating eating meat again, I had a nightmare about a baby goat being slaughtered in a meat grinder and woke up screaming. It put an end to those thoughts, at least temporarily. In University, I had a friend with a pretty poignant logic re: vegatarianism: if you couldn’t see yourself going out and slaughtering an animal to eat for sustenance, you had every right to not eat meat. Given that I could never see myself beating a cow to death for it’s flesh, this made a lot of sense to me. It still does, to a certain extent.
However be that as it may, there were a few caveats to my perfect animal friendly narrative, the first and most pressing in my mind being that I never gave up fish.
When I first became vegetarian, I did it in stages. First giving up red meat, then white, and then finally fish. Except I never made it to that final step for three reasons. First, I can’t live without sushi and while I love a good Sweet Potato Tempura roll, limiting myself to veggie sushi was never going to happen. I could not envision living a happy life refraining from sushi, and I would not commit to a life choice that would actively make me miserable.
Second, my often stereotypically North American Jewish family tried to understand the change, but with a well stocked hive-mind of meat-based recipes, they (being my Mother and Grandmother) struggled to find things they could cook for me.
In my family, patricide would be a more forgivable crime than not cooking for your children and/or not eating your mother’s food.
As long as my mother could still bust out her marinated salmon and my Granny could still ask me how the gefilte fish came out during any given Passover seder, the wolves were held at bay and, more importantly, I maintained a culinary connection to my childhood, albeit one that was not nearly as robust as it had been.
And third, least importantly but still relevant, I kept kosher (AKA ascribing to a moderately traditional Jewish dietary restriction) for 14 years prior to becoming vegetarian and had been conditioned to view fish as “pareve” (not containing meat or dairy). While this logic seemed a little bonkers at this point, it supported my pro-sushi, pro-happy Granny ballot, and so I let it stand. It was also around this time that I was enrolled in a high level Judaic studies class that lead me to a tractate of the Talmud I can’t possibly remember the name of that claimed that people (Jews mostly) needed to keep Kosher in order to differentiate people from wild beasts. We exercise our sentience and our faith by choosing to NOT eat certain things. This sounded about right to me and despite no longer finding meaning in Kashrut, I was able to apply the logic to vegetarianism seamlessly.
And so I became a vegetarian that ate fish, blissfully ignoring the fact that fish are indeed the same living beings that I claimed to love so much. Technically, this made me a pescaterian, a perfectly viable life choice made by many (despite sounding like the name of a venereal disease you get after a wild night in Montreal), but one I could never embrace. The plan was to give up fish and be a “real” vegetarian. Giving up and calling myself a pescaterian did not fit the narrative at all, even if thats exactly what I was doing. I began to feel like a hypocrite, and it weighed on my mind like a brick on a piece of wet toilet paper.
On top of all this, I ended up distancing myself from the punk scene (but not, by any means, the music), that vegan girl turned out to be an awful person, I could never calm down enough to properly meditate in an even remotely buddhist fashion, I realized that me eating veggie burgers wouldn’t in any way provide a better life for the billions of animals that die to feed us each year, and I came to the obvious conclusion that live life based on logic that implied that people that ate whatever they wanted to (including my whole family, most of my friends and my future wife) were wild animals made me look and feel like the biggest asshole ever.
In an effort to seem significant and do something “important”, I began to worry that all I was doing was padding my own ego or, worse, feeding an unjustified superiority complex.
I am not a person that is okay living a life without meaning. Either I believe in what I do, or I stop doing it. However in this case, I couldn’t admit that I had backed myself into a corner, because if I did that then I would need to DO something about it. I was content to live inside of this “will I, won’t I” feedback loop until a better option presented itself.
It turns out that that better option just may have turned out to be chicken teriyaki that in the wrong light looked a lot like tofu stir-fry. Once I realized my mistake (brought to painful light by my somersaulting stomach), it felt like I could finally give up at least some of the pretense. It felt like an opportunity to re-evaluate a few things.
After the latest in a long line of deep conversations with my good friend and spiritual advisor Rabbi (To Be) Jonah Rank, I determined that I would go on what I’ll be calling my Meat Sabbatical.
For an as yet undetermined amount of time, I’ll be consciously reintroducing meat into my diet in an effort to determine if any of my prior vegetarian convictions still applied in my life…or if they didn’t.
Now, the indisputable fact remains that I do not really miss meat. Sure I do crave a good burger or piece of chicken schnitzel from time to time, but after five years of amazing tofu recipes, bean burritos and Morningstar Farms delicacies, I don’t really crave meat and, on the very few occasions that I do, a meat substitute has almost always been good enough.
(In short, I won’t be “epic meal timing” anything any time soon…but I’m not ruling it out either.)
This trial is not inherently about eating meat again. It’s about living life as honestly and genuinely as I possibly can. It’s about meaning what I say, feeling it 100% and not trying to force significance where it doesn’t need to be. If that means indulging in a steak from time to time (after honoring the most likely poor animal that had to die in order for it to happen), so be it.
Let’s see where this goes.