“The Vegetarian’s Guide to Eating Meat” may sound like a contradiction in terms, but in reality, this memoir is a relatable account of one vegetarian’s discovery of ethical eating, sustainable food, and – perhaps surprisingly – omnivorism.
Landrigan begins her story with the less surprising of her dietary conversions: her choice, as a college student, to adopt a vegetarian diet. From a picky child in a food-driven household, Landrigan evolved into a militant vegetarian who believed that her diet was causing less suffering in the world.
Landrigan’s vegetarian menu, however, was hardly the definition of sustainable food. Her diet was made up mainly of convenience foods, and she spent more of her time shopping in the center aisles than around the perimeter of the grocery store. While she was consuming no animal flesh, she also couldn’t say where any of the frozen plant-based meats, tofu, or grains she was eating were coming from.
Landrigan deftly illustrates the slow realization that her diet was not as ethical as she had once believed. Over the course of several relocations throughout the country, Landrigan discovered issues related to ethical and sustainable food access nationwide and began to identify the glaring issues with her own way of eating.
“I’d been willfully naïve, wanting so badly for the ethical life to be cheap and easy and accessible,” she writes. To get back to the ethical way of eating she thought she had adopted by cutting out meat, she had to start from scratch.
She quickly discovered, much to her surprise, that the path toward ethical food was dotted, not with fellow militant vegetarians, but rather with ethical omnivores: farmers raising their own chickens, hunters tracking their own meat. It was from these people that Landrigan got her inspiration to slowly revert back to an omnivorous lifestyle.
“The idea was really, what would it be to eat meat while still following some of the same ethical standards that led me to be a vegetarian,” she explains.
Each of Landrigan’s chapters reads almost like a stand-alone essay: her forays into humane and ethical hunting, butchery, and sourcing local, sustainable food guide the reader to a new realization, not only with regard to Landrigan’s personal experience, but also about the reality of sourcing ethical food in America – and the time, energy, and thought that it requires.
Perhaps the most poignant of these chapters is a visceral essay charting the first day that Landrigan prepares meat. The chapter, which describes breaking down and skinning a chicken, evokes a true understanding of the gravity of each movement and action, exploring what it means for this flesh to become food.
Landrigan expresses her worries that being so close to meat in this context will disgust her: not just prepping it in her own kitchen, but witnessing a slaughter or participating in a hunt. However, each of these experiences teaches her that being close to meat actually increases her appreciation of it.
“I think that I felt that as a vegetarian, I was sort of blinded to the ways in which I was still contributing to suffering,” she says. “For me, deciding to eat meat again was a way of deciding to sort of face head on the reality that any of my dietary choices were going to contribute to suffering, so that I could do my best to be mindful about reducing the amount of harm that I was responsible for.”
The response to the book, one can imagine, has not all been positive. Landrigan notes that while many Internet trolls have attacked her for her opinions and experience, people who know her – even vegetarians and vegans – have been open to the ideas that she explores in the book.
“By and large, ethical vegetarians who read it actually find a lot in it that speaks to them,” she says. “They’re not necessarily convinced to start buying and eating meat themselves, but they are convinced to take a closer look at who’s sourcing and not just make assumptions that a vegetarian diet is automatically more ethical than a diet including meat.”
The book may not convert ethical vegetarians, but it will ask everyone – vegan, vegetarian, and omnivore – to take a close look a their eating choices and decide if they are truly eating ethical, sustainable food.
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