Meat and Morality: An Essay on Food and Identity

By Shawn Garner

The taste of meat can definitely be euphoric. I love its juiciness, the way its flavors explode in your mouth, and how meat has a unique taste that other foods cannot quite replicate. However, while I can appreciate meat’s tastiness, I now abstain from eating deceased animals. While that is a bit odd, vegetarians and vegans can love the way animals taste but not eat them. To end many stigmatizations about “my kind,” no, most of us do not silently judge meat eaters when we see them devour meat, and, in the past, quite a few of us have even viewed vegans as “crazy” or “too sympathetic.” Non-meat eaters are like anyone else; they have, however, made a difficult decision that will have positive effects on their lives and and the lives of non-human animals.

As one can only expect, becoming a vegetarian was not a facile task, and it took years of battling moral dilemmas to achieve. When I was younger I loved when my mother cooked baby back ribs. She would serve it with mashed potatoes and corn on the cob, and, when I tasted the meat’s gamey, barbecue flavor, I thought that life could not get any better. There was nevertheless a problem when I began to really think about the name “baby back ribs”. Did the ribs actually come out of a baby animal? Were the “ribs” like the ribs that are in my body? This is one of the first instances where my naive sense of cognitive dissonance dissipated. I not only realized the meat I ate was actually animal parts, but I came to the conclusion that I was potentially harming animals when I ate my mom’s delectable cooking.

This slow sense of realization continued for several months. The bronzed chicken wings came from an actual chicken’s wing, my turkey bacon was made of turkey, sirloin steak consisted of cow flesh, and who knows what my hot dogs were made out of. Having this newfound awareness felt like torture because I knew what I ate used to be sentient, but I lived for food, and at that moment food was meat. I am also Trinidadian, which, to put it lightly, exacerbated my moral dilemma. This may appear as a minute detail, but in Caribbean culture meat is a huge part of every meal. Just to name a few items, many dishes are composed of oxtail, shark, goat, chicken, or fish. Because of the prominence of meat in my culture’s dishes, I did not know how or what I would eat, and, even worse, I was nervous about what my family would think if I chose not to eat meat.

This next part of the story may appear unusual because normally, at this point, a protagonist would face their fears and diligently attempt to reach their goals; that was not me. I subtly mentioned to my mother that I was thinking about not eating meat – using the word vegetarian would be too abrupt or shocking – and she thought I was kidding. As a response, I firmly uttered that I was not joking and asked if she could stop including meat in my meals. She surprisingly said yes, but there was a catch. She would only stop preparing meat for me once there was no more meat in our freezer. Although I did not enjoy this response, I subserviently agreed and continued to eat animals. Looking back, I should have told my mom that she could just include the leftover meat in her food while removing the meat from my meals to save her time and money. Perhaps I was subconsciously relieved when I made this deal with my mom because I was not ready to remove meat from my diet – in fact, I continued to eat meat for a year after the bargain.

While living blissfully in my suspended disbelief, I eventually stumbled upon gruesome videos and articles that would finally push me to become a vegetarian. Yes, I did feel a subtle sense of remorse when consuming animals before, but what I saw not only affected me, a sensitive adolescent, it would affect the majority of people. I viewed a documentary called Food, Inc. which describes the nefarious acts committed by the meat industry. The point in this video that resonated with me the most is that mother cows are raped to produce mass amounts of milk, and, when that violated cow has calves, the males are put into tight cages for veal, while the females are forced to live the same cruel fate their mother has. This may not affect the average reader because American society has trained its citizens to be emotionally stoic towards certain animal abuse. However, animals have feelings. They can experience pain, fear, joy, and even sadness – therefore, I can not even imagine what maternal cows feel when their babies are ripped away from them at birth. Watching this documentary was the catalyst of a needed shift in my thinking because, not only could I feel remorse when chowing down on animals, I then unlocked the ability to empathize with ‘meat’.

I specifically remember my first day as a vegetarian; it was on October 10th, 2016. There was no school that day, so I went on a college tour at Brooklyn College, not really thinking about what food they would have available for lunch. To my surprise, the infamous veggie burger was on the menu. When I walked to the chef’s area and ordered my vegetarian food, I specifically recall the black employees making a joke, stating, “What kind of black person doesn’t like chicken?” This immediately made me feel self conscious because I feared that African-Americans would negatively view me if I did not indulge in eating meat. The man was right; animal flesh is a huge component of Black cuisine. Just look at soul food, Caribbean, and African dishes. If I did make the choice of removing meat from my life, would other people of color think that I was purposefully alienating myself from my own culture? Feeling overwhelmed in fear and shame, I walked back to my lunch table staring at the veggie burger – ‘meat’ that was clearly made of beans and potatoes – with its shiny bun and a lack of condiments and asked myself why was I doing this. When I bit into the burger, I was stupefied at how tasty the mock chicken sandwich was. Although I thoroughly enjoyed the food, I once again debated if bestowing upon myself a trait that would culturally separate me from my people was worth it, but I thankfully came to the conclusion that the lives of other living beings are more important than what other people think of me.

After the college tour, I continued to lead a vegetarian lifestyle and thankfully did not hear many more jokes about my food choices from food employees, which alleviated some of my fears. Even though I did worry about the stigmatization about not eating meat, I still feel a weight lifted off my shoulders knowing that my food choices are not directly harming any animals.

 

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