On Meat

As is his custom and his pleasure, my Colombian son-in-law tucks into his steak—la carne in Spanish and carne in Italian, echoing the Latin carn- or caro (flesh), as do carnal in English (having a relation to the body as opposed to the soul), carnival (a time of feasting and fleshly indulgence as opposed to Lent and fasting), carnivorous and carnivore (flesh-eating animals as opposed to herbivorous and herbivore, plant eaters). Among flora, the carnation is a flower as red as raw meat, as blood.

Meathead suggests more muscle than brains. Sexual organs are called meat. Males are said to beat their meat. Women are objectified as pieces of meat (Antony even calls Cleopatra cold leftovers on dead Caesar’s trencher). Philip Roth’s Portnoy actually gets off inside a piece of liver.

Venery refers both to deer hunting and to sex, as in venereal disease, Venus, and venison. “My dear” could be “my deer.” Horny refers to stags and stag parties. Both hunters and lovers have trysts, or secret meetings. The hunter’s tryst is the camouflaged platform where he waits to shoot his arrow at the unsuspecting deer. The lovers’ is the bedroom, as in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, where both trysts are simultaneous and parallel—the lady of the castle hunts Gawain’s chastity as her lord hunts deer:

. . . Thus frolicked the lord on the fringe of the forest,

And Gawain the good in his gay bed reposed . . . ,

As softly he slumbered, a slight sound he heard

. . . The lady it was, most lovely to look at,

Who shut the door after her stealthily, slyly,

And turned toward the bed . . .

Benjamin Franklin struggled with Chastity in his schedule of self-improvement: “Rarely use Venery except for Health or Offspring; Never to Dullness, Weakness, or the Injury of your own or another’s Peace or Reputation.”

St. Augustine confessed: “I love a kind of light, and melody, and fragrance, and meat, and embracement when I love my God, the light, melody, fragrance, meat, embracement of my inner man: where there shineth unto my soul what space cannot contain, and there soundeth what time beareth not away, and there smelleth what breathing disperseth not, and there tasteth what eating diminisheth not, and there clingeth what satiety divorceth not” (Book IX).

No creatures on Noah’s ark ate each other, and after the Great Flood, God promised Noah’s descendants, “Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you.”

Of course, for observant Catholics, no meat on Fridays.

In his later, religious years, Tolstoy preached against eating meat. He gave up hunting, visited and described slaughterhouses, questioned butchers, and was horrified by the killing. He claimed that consuming meat “only serves to develop animal feelings, to excite desire, and to promote fornication and drunkenness. And this is continually being confirmed by the fact that young, kind, un-depraved people…without knowing how it logically follows, feel that virtue is incompatible with beefsteaks, and, as soon as they wish to be good, give up eating flesh.”

On a school trip to the Plymouth Plantation, my then eight-year-old daughter witnessed a Pilgrim chop off a turkey’s head and refused to eat meat for many years afterwards.

I came from a meat-eating family. When we went out to eat, we each ordered roast beef au jus. My mother served roast lamb and beef, steak (on special occasions tenderloin, which, she said “melted like butter in your mouth”), lamb chops, meatloaf, ham, turkey and chicken. We rarely ate fish. My oldest brother was a hunter, and once when he shot a stag, he brought it home and left it with Howard, our neighborhood butcher, to carve up and store in his freezer. But when we tried his venison for dinner, Mom and Dad decided it was too tough and “racy” tasting, and the rest was thrown out.

(By coincidence, my father was assigned Alcohol: One Man’s Meat— by Edward A. Strecker around this time as part of his treatment for alcoholism.)

Meat means substance (“the meat of the argument”) as well as sustenance (“where’s the beef?”).

As a grad student in the 1960s, I cooked for myself in the rooming house kitchen and shopped at a corner market nearby, where the owner, Sol Levine, who was also the butcher, took a kindly interest in me. He asked why I chose the expensive milk? Buy the other one, you want to save money, don’tcha? Same milk, no difference. So I retrieved the other. Moved by his own good deed, So there you are, he said; go back and get busy and happy. I responded, Being busy isn’t always being happy, which struck a chord. He said, “Oh, don’t you worry, it’ll come around. You’ll be eatin’ filet mignon in a little while.” For the next five years, Sol kept me in prime cut meats, which he’d save for me without charging full price, whether for roasts, or for hamburger which he ground fresh while we talked. He told me about his life, sometimes for hours, leaning against his meat case. Shortly before we met, he’d been widowed after forty-four years of marriage. He had a son and two daughters and five grand-children. He was 73. He’d already distributed his estate, so there would be no quarreling after he was gone. He was working for free for his son and daughter-in-law in the store; they had the upstairs apartment and he lived in back. He told me he was up before dawn to drive his van to the North End and get the best sides wholesale. He shared and tried to teach me not only about grades of meat but also about the meat of life. He’d lost most of his family to the Holocaust, but his mother had survived, and when she reached New York, she had held and kissed him so hard he worried she’d left a hole in his cheek.

I stopped eating meat in mid-life more out of curiosity than conscience. I had discovered distance running and was surrounded by vegetarian friends and coworkers in my teaching (my daughter had reverted to meat when she came of age). How did vegetarians manage? What did they eat? Cheese, bagels, pasta, fruits, nuts, and vegetables, milk, eggs, yogurt? I acquired new tastes. I lost weight. I felt clearer, emotionally and intellectually. My wife supported me. My doctor approved. I never had meat dreams. I enjoyed a certain righteousness, and due exception. At catered school events, I asked for vegetarian options. Likewise, at restaurants and dinner parties, including Thanksgiving with family friends.

A full decade later without meat, I started slipping. Why not hard salami? Why not real bacon occasionally? Why not sausage patties? Why not compromise when there was no veg option? Eat the ham or barbecue out of good manners? I was now a “mostly vegetarian,” my wife said. I’d never been serious on principle anyway. She seemed complicit and relieved.

As for my son-in-law, he’s lean, works hard, and craves red meat as a way of remaining true to his culture. I eat mostly turkey, as if that is healthier somehow. Turkey burgers, turkey ham, turkey bacon, turkey meat balls. And as for Tolstoy’s logic, I live with the guilt, but also with realism, self-acceptance, and deliberate stupidity. I don’t dwell on the evil, nor on my animal brothers with spiritual regard. Animists, I read, thank the animals they kill: “When a large animal is killed or a large fish is caught, the hunter or fisherman may cry over its death to appease the animal spirit. Hunters also apologize to animals when they are killed, saying that they needed to take the meat and hide for their survival.” It is to think too curiously, I think, to trace my Styrofoam tray of red hamburger sealed in plastic wrap forever fresh and waiting in the supermarket (no butcher or meat cutter in sight) back to the refrigerated boxcar and truck, the meat processing plant, the slaughterhouse, the stockyard and feeding pens, the crowded cattle truck, the herd and range, the individual creature. It’s just meat. And though I do (I do!) weep at the stories of a farm kid given a lamb to raise as a pet, giving it a name, then one day having to surrender it for slaughter and eat its flesh; or, similarly cheer for the preservation of Wilbur as Some Pig, I also understand the need of being versed in country things.

At some level, to live is to kill. We’re both hunters and gatherers. We wield tools in place of fangs. We dream of paradise, where we feed in innocence; and our worst nightmare, even worse than the Donner Party, or Dante’s Ugolino—“And then the hunger had more / Power than even sorrow over me” (Canto XXXIII, ln. 70–73), is Soylent Green: “Next thing, they’ll be breeding us like cattle, for food.”

In India, sacred cows wander among the starving poor.  

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