{reflections} Social Meat Eating

I was raised by a Czech mother who was a fabulous cook.  Her repertoire included pancake soup, dumplings with goulash, pork roast so tender it melted in your mouth, Weiner schnitzel, thin beef rouladen stuffed with pickles and mustard.  Almost every dinner we ate for my entire childhood, with the exception of creamed spinach and mashed potatoes, had high quality, home-cooked meat in it, often bought from the local German butcher since American supermarkets did not have the cuts she wanted.  Sometimes when my father wasn’t home, we had fish sticks with ketchup, but that was really an aberration.   We were old-fashioned carnivores of the bourgeois Eastern European variety.

At the age of 18 I spent a summer in Europe, including a three-week stint with friends in Germany.  At one point the father of the house was turning 50.  Germans take major birthdays very seriously: many of the guests arrive carrying birthday cakes.  The birthday girl or boy is expected to put on a large and varied buffet with beer, schnapps and wine to enhance the experience.  In preparation for the party, at which roughly 150 people were expected, I had to make a trip to the butcher shop with my sister.  They told us, “Tell the butcher you are there to pick up the leg.”  I assumed that I misunderstood them, my German is ok but not perfect and I often get the context slightly wrong. We arrived at the shop and, sure enough, there was a cow’s leg neatly wrapped in butcher paper, tied with a convenient string carrying-handle at the top of the thigh.  It was much longer and heavier than my leg; cows are big.  We had to carry it with our arms raised so that it wouldn’t drag on the ground.  I don’t remember which of us carried it, but I do remember it repeatedly bumped against my leg as we walked.  By the end of the short trip home we had both become vegetarians.  Dismembered body parts just did not seem all that attractive as food items.

Luisa receiving chickens as gifts during her giant German birthday party. This is not normal.

I remained a vegetarian for more than six years, my sister is still a vegetarian.  But foreign travel ruined my resolve to stay away from meat.  At the age of 24, I went to Nicaragua to work on a graduate research project.   The people I stayed with made me the Nicaraguan national dish; nacatamales.  These may be my least favorite food:  masa laced with lard, with a lump of fatty pork in the middle, wrapped in banana leaves and boiled for around three hours.   I took a bite and thought I would vomit.  But instead, with all eyes watching me, I smiled and ate it.  “Delicioso,” I lied. It was the first meat-like thing I had eaten since Germany.

I can’t imagine insulting people from another culture by not eating the food they prepare for me.  If I went to China and someone put a plate of spiced dog in front of me, I am sure I would eat it.  My father once went home with his interpreter in Turkey; they picked the sheep’s eye out of the stew for him to eat as their honored guest.  He ate it, trying not to look down.  They gave him the second sheep’s eye when he finished the first.

At home I am a participant in my family’s non-vegetarian dinners.  We make chicken, we make fish.  I would rather not make either, but I love my family so I eat with them and cook the things they want to eat.  If I go to someone’s house and they make meat for me, I eat it.  Eating is social.

My husband's infamous deboned "Tampon Chicken"

There are many good reasons to be vegetarian.  For me, the most convincing is that a vegetarian diet is less resource intensive than a meat-based diet.  Every time you convert energy by going a step up the food chain, you lose 90% of the energy in the food.  That means it takes around 10 times as much farmland to raise cows to eat as it does to raise plants to eat.  The farmland you save is the wild land you let lie for the birds and beasts and bacterial masses to do their thing. It is forest not cut down for pasture in the Amazon.  It is seas left unfished.

That said, I won’t say no if you hand me a bacon wrapped scallop because to do so puts you in a position of discomfort.  Being loving and non-judgmental toward people is more important to me than being pure or right or defiling the temple of my body.  I am by nature neither loving nor non-judgmental, so this is something I have to work at. While I have trouble with the wholesale slaughter of sentient beings, I prioritize my concerns.  At least at this point in my life, I pick people first.

My mother was originally quite distressed when my sister and I became vegetarians.  She didn’t know what to feed us.  Never mind that she always had delicious and plentiful side dishes to go with her meat-a-thons, she wanted to give us main dishes so that we wouldn’t starve to death in front of her eyes.  After I stopped being a declared vegetarian,  I was able to go home and eat her goulash.  It gave her great pleasure. And it was fabulous.

Eye of the Miner with a side of Potato Pancakes

I don’t have a recipe for this post.  But I will describe the weirdest meat dish I have eaten in a foreign country in the last few years. I went to a restaurant in Banska Stiavnica, Slovakia last May.  We decided to order something local, so I ordered a dish called “Eye of the Miner.” It turned out to be a breaded, pan fried, boneless pork cutlet in a mild horseradish sauce, topped with a canned peach half and sweetened whip cream.  You’ll have to invent the recipe yourself.  I don’t think I would order it again, unless the only alternative was a nacatamale.


20 Comments Add yours

  1. Christine says:

    Dianna, I love this post. The past few years I’ve been eating less meat and more vegetables, trying to understand my role in the food system. (For the record, I think less meat and more veggies is always a good idea!) I’m not quite a vegetarian, for the same reasons you aren’t quite one either. If there is a choice to have a meatless dish, I tend to go for it but if someone has lovingly prepared me a dish with meat I’ll eat it with gratitude. Awhile back I read an article on being a “practical vegetarian” and for now, at this time in my life, this is what I tend to identify closest with (article is at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/gopi-kallayil/the-practical-vegetarian_b_715172.html). Of course, this isn’t to say that I don’t sometimes crave a good deli sub with freshly sliced turkey or a chicken wing here and there…

    1. Dianna says:

      thanks for the article! I think if I lived alone I would go all vegetarian, but hopefully I will never live alone and won’t have to test that.

  2. I have no doubt that this isn’t a popular position among most vegetarians and vegans, but I do wish that more people who are not into eating meat or dairy were a little more cool about the whole thing and not immediately outraged that there is a chicken being served alongside a slew of veggie dishes. Your approach is even nicer than I’d ever expect or even hope for any vegetarian or vegan friends to be but it is nice that you don’t have an all or nothing approach to it.

    1. Dianna says:

      Thank you. I am very happy to go along with the ride for vegans and vegetarians and would be pleased if my husband made the leap, but I don’t think it is going to happen. Also I kept chickens for a long time and everything in nature, foxes, weasels, skunks, raccoons, cats, dogs, stoats, hawks, ate them, so I sort of got over it.

  3. corrina says:

    i understand that many people have complex and emotional relationships with food, but most human interaction involves give and take. i don’t see how turning down a meal for personal reasons is more heinous than offering people food you know doesn’t fall within their food boundaries. I don’t begrudge anyone their personal food choices, however. In particular, I don’t think turning down food that doesn’t fall within your moral code makes a person non-loving or judgmental. I feel like that was implied, and it kinda rubs me the wrong way. And, I’m saying that as a former, not current, veg.

    And as a side to one of the comments, I eat meat now, but I was veg/vegan for some time. My expectations of what people offered me were very low. And, I received far more flack being veg in meat-centric communities (Can I tell you how fun it is to be a veg navy wife?) than the entire time I was a meat-eater in a small community with a high concentration of vegans.

    (I hope this reads with a tone of friendly disagreement and not animosity.)

    1. Dianna says:

      I guess for me it was foreign cultures. I have far less problem having this conversation with my fellow Americans than I did in Nicaragua, or even Germany. Although Germany has become very vegetarian friendly in the last few years.

    2. Christine says:

      Good point @Corrina! I completely agree with trying to serve people what they are able/prefer to eat. And if I served something that my guest wasn’t comfortable eating, I would not be offended if they politely declined. In fact, I hope they would feel comfortable enough to tell me so that I could avoid doing it again in the future! I’d also hope to be a gracious enough hostess that I would check first for any dietary restrictions or preferences.

      I also understand that personal food choices aren’t always as flexible as mine are right now. So in cases where a vegetarian or vegan feels a strong moral responsibility to abstain from animal products, I wouldn’t expect them to compromise their personal beliefs by eating meat. There was a lengthy discussion along these lines over at The Kitchn but I can’t find the link right now. Anyway, I love this dialogue!

      1. Dianna says:

        I always ask people what they like/prefer to eat. And if people ask me, I tell them my preferences. I would also not expect a vegetarian to eat meat, and mostly go vegetarian for dinners/potlucks with people over unless I know them well and know that they eat meat, in which case I might make chicken or fish. It is more what I am wiling to eat that interests me because I keep trying to understand it.

  4. MamaJillian says:

    Dianna, you are so funny! I love your perspective.

    1. Dianna says:


  5. Alexis says:

    Dianna, this is a great perspective on making food choices! I haven’t eaten red meat or pork for almost 25 years, and although I’ve become less sensitive to the social pressures that can arise in meat eating environments, it is still sometimes awkward when someone forgets or just doesn’t know that I don’t eat meat. I could care less whether anyone else is eating meat around me though, so I certainly appreciate your humorous take on all this!

    1. Dianna says:

      I sometimes think I am just too neurotic to be a vegetarian, but I guess that is ok. It isn’t the pressure to eat meat, it is just that I hate turning down things people make for me. I wrote this because I keep wondering why I can’t just take a stand.

      1. Alexis says:

        Is it a fear of conflict, or something bigger and more noble, like a sense of being a part of more of a collective unconscious? (You don’t have to answer that question)

        1. Dianna says:

          I am afraid our species collective unconscious may be a rather scary place, but I don’t like being finicky or turning down people’s prized offerings. My neighbor downstairs in our old house sometimes gave
          us jello mold when we went to visit her, telling us how delicious it was, contrasting her jello mold to her friend’s jello mold, which did not meet her exacting standards. I always ate it and agreed with her, even if it had marshmallows in it. It wasn’t that I was afraid of disagreeing with her, but I didn’t want to disappoint or disrespect her. Not so noble, just trying my best.

  6. Hi Dianna….Laurel gave me the link to your Blog and I read the post about the Goats—Mabel & Jennie….lol! LOVE those names, my dear…..And this is great! Your description of ‘wanting to vomit’ when eating that Pork Ball thingy—OY VEY! So I loved the last line of this post…..lol…..So happy to know about your blog, my dear.

    1. Dianna says:

      Hi Naomi! I am so glad you liked it. I read your blog from time to time, have only just gotten the hang of all of this, so you are way ahead of me. I hear your birthday party was great and I am so glad Debbie made it out there. We feel really badly that we couldn’t come, but look forward to seeing you in October.

      Michael named the goats. It was a stroke of genius.

  7. Oh…it’s Naomi, by the way…..! LOVED talking to Michael tonight…..Sweet!

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