To meat, or not to meat?

“‘When you kill a beast, say to him in your heart:
By the same power that slays you, I too am slain, and I too shall be consumed.
For the law that delivers you into my hand shall deliver me into a mightier hand.
Your blood and my blood is naught but the sap that feeds the tree of heaven.’ ” –Kahlil Gibran

I recently read this poem in the book,  Animal Vegetable Miracle, by Barbara Kingsolver. It is included in a chapter that tells of “harvest day” at her small Appalachian farm, where  family and friends gather and slaughter several chickens and turkeys they had raised from eggs. A grand affair, executed humanely, and ending in a feast of rotisserie rooster that had “met the day’s dawn by crowing.”

I like roasted chicken. And there’s nothing quite like a  hamburger, fresh off the grill in the middle of summer. But when I think about animals being killed, I usually lose my appetite.

In an essay entitled Food with a Face, journalist Eric Schlosser emphasizes that “The industrialization — and dehumanization — of American animal farming is a relatively new phenomenon: no other country raises and slaughters its food animals as intensively or as brutally as we do.”

Because of such uncomfortable realities, before becoming farmers, Kingsolver and her family swore off factory-raised meat from CAFO‘s (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations). Eating cows that had spent the last half of their lives confined mostly indoors, shoulder to shoulder, knee-deep in their own excrement, and waiting for their daily serving of intestine-destroying grain was simply not an option. But in the US in the mid ’90’s, the family’s decision left them eating a lot of tofu.

Admittedly, the mistreatment of animals is the reason why I get this annoying guilty feeling every time I salivate at the smell of sizzling steak, wafting down the street on the 4th of July. But in my suburban neighborhood, raising my own livestock simply isn’t an option (not even chickens; trust me, I’ve tried). So does that leave me destined for tofu and veggie burgers?

Here’s a hard fact:

If we draw the okay-to-kill line between “animal and “plant,” and thus exclude meat, fowl, and fish from our diet on moral grounds, we still must live with the fact that every sack of flour and every soybean-based block of tofu came from a field where countless winged and furry lives were extinguished in the plowing, cultivating, and harvesting. An estimated 67 million birds die each year from pesticide exposure on US farms… to believe we can live without taking life is delusional. –Kingsolver

Even more than that, many ecosystems require grazing for plant production, and anyway you look at it, managed-grazing is a much more fuel-efficient way of handling slopping, grassy hills. Many seeds need to pass through an animals stomach to germinate, and so the natural circle of animal to vegetable goes on and on. They need each other, and human animals need them both.

But where does all this leave those of us who can’t just pick up and move to Appalachia and raise our own meat? And what if we can’t afford to buy free-range, or grass-finished organic meat?

I wish I had a good answer. I admit that I struggle with this problem  regularly. For now, I play it safe by ordering vegetarian at restaurants, and keep it cheap by eating the deer that my sister accidentally killed with her car last year. (You can’t get more free-range or organic than that.) For Thanksgiving, I cooked up a heritage turkey from a near-by farm ( And I eat a lot of vegetables…

Until Elgin zoning permits chicken coops in back yards, I guess I’ll continue to walk this line. And in on warm August evenings when only a burger will fix my summertime craving, maybe I’ll splurge on Gloria’s Meats (sold at the Elgin Harvest Market in season, and at Heritage Prairie Market in Elburn the rest of the year) and pick up some expensive but guilt-free beef.

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