What happens when you take a break from eating meat?
I’ve always enjoyed eating meat. Lamb in particular, but give me roast turkey or chicken, the odd steak, bison or fish and I’m a happy omnivore. A switch several years ago to organic, ethically raised animals and the taste, texture, and load on my conscience improved. But still, the vast literature on the health, world hunger and environmental impacts of meat consumption and production weighed.
On the prairies, where I grew up, at any given time our cavernous basement freezer contained roughly a whole cow, cut and wrapped in sections. We ate meat at most meals. To do so was the local culture, and the culture of the nation.
My family was eating as our friends and neighbours did, with a plentiful and affordable supply of animal protein. But it wasn’t always thus.
For our grandparents and generations previous, meat was something rare and special. Eaten infrequently, in some households and certain eras only on Sundays, and in modest portions. Typically, the whole animal was consumed — from tongue to tail.
When factory production and transportation networks reduced the price and increased the availability of meat, so did the amount and frequency of this indulgence on our plates.
I say indulgence, because what we now know about meat — the impacts of large-scale production and consumption — signals that it should be eaten mindfully, and in moderation. Single servings have burgeoned far beyond the recommended fist-size, and here in North America, meat is often consumed without pause, at every meal.
Scientific research tells us that if we are going to deal with health issues and climate change, we will have to eat a lot less meat.
It’s no surprise, then, that the United Nations has declared 2016 the “Year of the Pulse,” to help spread knowledge of the protein-rich class of dried legumes which includes beans, peas, lentils, and chickpeas. Pulses also contain significant nutrients and fibre, require a fraction of the ecological footprint of meat production, transport easily and store well.
In order to address the prevailing issue of world hunger, scientists also say it’s not a population issue — but a transition to a diet based much more heavily on plants (eat food, not too much, mostly plants — as author Michael Pollan has been telling us for a decade) that’s required.
In the western world, we produce a tremendous volume of grain to feed livestock. Today, 98 percent of the US soy crop, and 36 percent of the corn crop is grown solely for that purpose (40 percent of the US corn crop goes to biofuels). Total emissions from global livestock production is seven-point-one Gigatonnes of Co2-equivalent per year, representing 14.5 percent of all human-induced GHG emissions.
In North America, in addition to the overconsumption of meat, we don’t consume nearly enough vegetables. The most recent data from the US Department of Agriculture reveals that 87 percent of adults failed to meet the recommended intake of two-and-a-half to three cups per day. What’s more, the vegetables on our plates are largely potatoes, tomatoes and lettuce. While they have their place, to avoid deleterious health outcomes, dietary guidelines indicate we should be consuming dark leafy greens, and deep orange and yellow vegetables too.
With fragments of this knowledge in mind, as a trial — an experiment, I gave up the culinary pleasures of flesh (foregoing the consumption of creatures of land, air and sea) for a little over 40 days and 40 nights.
My longest stretch without meat since infancy coincided with Lent, the solemn observance that begins on Ash Wednesday and ends six weeks later on Easter Sunday.
Lenten observance had never been part of my religious tradition, however, I previously watched my boyfriend pass up meat for Lent and this season I was ready to try it, too.
We did it together, and when apart, we checked in on each other: How do you feel? What did you eat today? Are you tempted? It wasn’t always easy, especially as the weeks rolled on. I began to notice billboards and ads for steaks and burgers everywhere, and at times, thought I might not make the home stretch without caving to a craving.
My greatest moment of temptation came in New Haven, Connecticut, at Miya Sushi on the Yale campus. Invasive species are always the plat du jour at Miya, a restaurant which, under the guidance of highly-inventive chef and invasivore Bun Lai, is renowned for leading the way in alternative protein exploration. My thinking was: to try a breaded zebra mussel from the Mississippi, or beet-infused carp sashimi; when else might I have the chance?
The kitchen staff and servers at Miya, however, did an impressive job of accommodating our meat-free limitations. After a dozen delicious vegetable courses, we were left wanting for nothing. Some of the other diners at our table tried to convince us that the Crickleberry Roll (fried crickets, yes, along with brie and apricots, wrapped in nori) was permissible on a meat-fee diet, but that wasn’t a risk we were willing to take.
Now, the trial is concluded, and I’m back to eating meat, though less frequently. I continue to reflect on the meat-free experience, and the results of my current actions and choices.
I didn’t feel physically different while off meat, apart from the handful of aforementioned cravings. I ate fewer mashed potatoes — the usual accompaniment to all manner of meat dishes. Mentally, and creatively, the difference in feeling was vast. Above all, a meat-free period was an opportunity to be mindful about eating, and to learn.
New recipes and restaurants were discovered — establishments that specialize in flavourful, plentiful vegetable dishes that I wouldn’t have otherwise made the effort to try. This in turn helped inspire a search for meals to make at home: celeriac root sliced into “steaks,” then braised in the oven and topped with cheese, roasted brussels sprouts, kale chips — a crunchy, satisfying appetizer, and the joy of an entire pie made from onions.
Dinner party hosts were accommodating and also provided inspiration: steamed artichokes with a creamy, spicy vegan dip, hearty homemade sweet potato gnocchi; I could go on.
The conversations you have with people, and their reactions when they hear you’re taking a break from meat were interesting. We were never scolded, and frequently congratulated by folks who said they wished to try the same. On other occasions, we encountered life-long vegetarians who vehemently reinforced their belief in the benefits of abstaining from meat altogether.
Another welcome discovery was that a diet heavy on legumes did not result in what the naysayers for beans and other plant-based sources of protein would have you believe. I found solace and truth in the observations of Benjamin Franklin, who addressed the benefits of vegetable versus meat intake in his famous essay about flatulence.
From Franklin’s 1781 Letter to the Royal Academy of Brussels: “He that dines on stale Flesh, especially with much Addition of Onions, shall be able to afford a Stink that no Company can tolerate; while he that has lived for some Time on Vegetables only, shall have that Breath so pure as to be insensible to the most delicate Noses.”
I’m eating meat again, in limited quantities, but my worldview has shifted. Putting it in my mouth is no longer a mindless act, and the vegetable kingdom has opened up before me, alive with possibility.