Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Confessions of an Ex-Vegetarian

Warning: This blog contains text and images which may not be suitable for vegetarians, or most Americans.

I was a vegetarian for seven years. As a teenager I shunned meat and its insustainablity in reaction to what I considered to be my parents’ bourgeois lifestyle. Like most reactionaries, I took great pride in my heightened consciousness. I took advantage of each opportunity, no matter how small, to point out the perceived social and ecological benefits of my lifestyle choice. I mocked how others lived. When invited to someone’s house for a meal, I refused their unenlightened hospitality with the most enlightened of utterances: I’m a vegetarian.

I was an asshole.

All that changed about ten years ago. My first spring in Argentina, I was invited by Irving, the Peruvian office cleaner I had befriended at work, to spend mother’s day with him and his family. One November Sunday, I took the train heading to the airport and stepped off an hour later in the middle of nowhere. I was greeted by Irving's family and two bicycles, a small one and a slightly less small one. The family of five balanced on the smaller bike with acrobat agility. I teetered alone on the less small one. Local custom dictates that guests have the priveledge of riding unencumbered. They gave me a tour of the town. Finally, they led me to the outskirts where their shantytown began its great expanse to the horizon. We rode down the unpaved streets past the only kiosk, which sold milk and beer, to Irving’s small house, which he had built with the discarded satellite dish crate (he worked in the offices of a telecommunications company). As in most houses in this neighborhood, and the thousands that pepper Gran Buenos Aires, there was no running water. A neighbor had rigged electricity by pinching a cable that led to the town. Lights burned until the electric company disconnected them. But it wouldn’t take long to find another cable to pinch.

I was offered a cola and beer. I accepted with great curiousity. Lunch, I was told, would be ready in about an hour. Irving was preparing chicken, as they often do in his part of Peru. A hole is dug in the ground and lined with hot coals. Potatoes and a whole chicken are added and the hole is covered. An hour or so later, the whole lot is unearthed and served.

Chicken? I choked. Chicken. I could say I was a vegetarian and teach these people a thing or two about social conscientiousness. I could refuse the chicken and just eat the potatoes. (But hadn’t the potatoes been cooked with the chicken?) I could stick with my Coke and beer mixture and say I wasn’t hungry. Analyzing the options, I watched Irving gingerly pull lunch out of his front garden. It became increasingly clear: There was only one option.

The chicken was delicious.

And so, little by little, I reintroduced meat into my diet. The first years I limited myself to accepting meat when invited to dine at others’ homes. In my own kitchen, I kept a strict ban on meat which was only lifted at Thanksgiving.

When we came to Barcelona the ban was lifted for fish. Over the last year and a half I have lifted the ban again and again as I experimented with locally raised chicken and beef in the kitchen.

Spain is surely one of the worst countries in which to be a vegetarian. And if you’re vegan, you may as well not even come here. They do not consider ham to be meat, so it's impossible to know if the waiter’s interpretation of no tiene carne and your interpretation of no tiene carne are the same. Also, the Spanish have a very strange fetish for animal carcasses.

Most American tourists think the local markets are lovely until they reach the butcher’s section.

The butchers’ stalls often look like an animal side show from the exhibition Bodies. Small, firm rabbit carcasses laid out over cuts of meat, their floppy ears and cute little noses skinned and shiny pink. A suckling pig, creamy white and dull eyed looking over the counter, right at you. Many butchers sell cuts of suckling pig, with the head resting on top for decoration.

In most bars and local restaurant, a ham fetish is on full display. Pig legs – from the thigh to the hoof – often line the walls as the establishment’s only decor or, at the very least, sit upon the bar. Borges once commented that there was something almost sensuous about the way Spaniards treated their ham, comparing it to the pin-ups one might find in a mechanics' garage.

Most tourists find it appalling.


Even the fish here is often mildly offensive to most American visitors. The most common way to serve fish is whole. There was the case of the British-American professor who had to change places with someone at dinner because the person next to him had ordered a whole fish. It keeps looking at me.

The fishmonger will ask how you want it cleaned. Head and guts or just the guts. Just the guts, please.

Fish heads, fish heads.

The other day I served up my first attempt at whole sardines, minus the guts, grilled, on a bed of sautéed fennel and red onion sprinkled with lemon juice and fresh dill.

Rolly, polly fish heads.

By the end of the meal, both Andrés and I had each found a fish eye rolling around on our plate. Of the twelve eyes between us, only eleven could be accounted for. Eat them up, yum!

I have a come a long way since my days as a vegetarian. When I first started cooking with fish and chicken, I did so filled with disgust. I got used to fish quickly enough. But the raw chicken smelled. And it felt funny. I could only handle touching skinless breasts. I wouldn’t go near anything else.

I took a big step last Sunday, when I decided to prepare a whole roast chicken for the inauguration of our new oven. I went to the market on Saturday to purchase the chicken and when I opened the package on Sunday I was reminded of yet another curious thing about meat in Spain.

They sell you the whole chicken. Dead and plucked, but with everything else intact. Luckily, they had cut the claws off this one. But the head, the rump and internal organs were all in place.


I had no idea what to do with it. So I did what any of my 21st century American counterparts would do. I googled.

You can imagine how helpful American websites were. America, the land that has managed to sterilize even meat so that it is inoffensive to American sensibilities. There is no skin, certainly no feathers, no fat, or bone, or blood in those cuts of beef, chicken or pork so carefully placed in their plastic packaging. Meat in American bears no trace of the living animal it once was. If it did, people probably wouldn't eat it.

Cleaning a chicken can seem quite scary or put a knot of disgust into someone’s stomach if they have never cleaned store bought chicken before...Once you’re ready to begin cleaning your chicken be sure your sink is empty, then place the package of chicken in your sink. Start by cutting open the package of meat with either a knife or a pair of scissors. Reach your hand inside the cavity of the bird, pull out the bag containing the giblets and set aside.

That was no help. Though it did prove amusing to read the comments:

"If you put the chicken in the sink you will make your family sick."

"I rinse mine off with hose in the backyard. It’s tough in winter but I’d rather be cold than make my family sick.


Another link led me to a headline report in the Sun: I was about to tuck into my dinner and found a whole chicken head in there! I demanded compensation of course! The offending chicken head was apparently found in a package of frozen ribs and chicken wings.

Most websites that came up were warnings to anyone who might happen to stumble unawares into a Chinese butcher's. Make sure you have them remove the head and claws before wrapping it up.

But once I tucked into the job of chopping off the head and carefully cutting around its buttocks without cutting into it, I worked on pure instinct and assumption. This must be the esophagus. I yanked at it. That yellowish green sack must be bile or something. I have no idea what the yellow liquid that oozed out when I severed the neck was. I don’t know if I want to know.
I chopped and hacked and got inside that bird to clean it out. I marveled at how the organs were all connected. I identified the heart, lungs and liver. I looked for the gizzard. I couldn’t find it. I wondered how similar this chicken’s organ placement was to my own. I got my hands gooey, full of chicken body fluids, blood and fat.

It was glorious. I had officially become a carnivore.

And the chicken was delicious.

Grilled Sardines over Fennel and Red Onion

6 sardines
2 small red onions, halved and sliced thinly
1 fennel bulb, halved and sliced thinly
2 tablespoons, plus 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
Lemon juice
Fresh dill
Salt and pepper

Season the sardines with salt and pepper to taste. Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a medium pan over medium heat. Add the fennel and red onions and sautée, stirring frequently, for 5 minutes. Turn the heat to low and cover and cook 10-12 minutes, until fennel and onions become caramelized.

Empty fennel and red onion mixture into a small bowl. Heat remaining olive oil in the pan over medium-high heat. When just smoking, add sardines. Cook about three minutes on each side, until crisp.

Serve the sardines on a bed of the caramelized fennel and onion.

Garlic Mashed Potatoes

Followed Seth’s mashed potato recipe with the following additions.

Add a bay leaf three peeled cloves of garlic to the potatoes as they boil.

When they’ve finished, drain the water and remove the bay leaf, but leave the garlic and mash it together with the potatoes.

Roast Chicken with Potatoes, Carrots and Onion

Seth has already posted the definitive recipe for roast chicken. This is merely what I added:

1 whole onion, quartered
1/2 fennel bulb
1 lemon, quartered
4 potatoes
2 carrots
1 onion
extra virgin olive oil
salt and pepper

Preheat the oven. Fill the cavity of the bird with the onion, fennel and lemon.

In a bowl toss together the potatoes, carrots and onion with the olive oil and sage. Add salt and pepper to taste. Tuck the raw potato, carrot and onion mixture under the bird in the roasting pan. These will cook in the bird’s juices as it roasts.


Seth said...

My own conversion from vegetarian to meat-eater was sudden and fantastic. One day, I was strictly anti-meat. The next I was gnawing lamb, cooked rare. (I should write about this abrupt end to eight years of meat-sobriety.)

I had no sense of moral superiority when I was a vegetarian (although I was certainly uppity and snobby), but I sure do know. Meat-eating, to me, is superior. But it must be ethical, true, and honest. What do I mean by that? If I try to explain here, in a blog comment, I'll bore even myself. I'm a pain, I'm sure, but I refuse to eat meat that is below my superior standards.

Hopefully some sort of Peruvian-worker experience will illuminate me someday.

Anyway, I enjoyed this blog. I'm glad you realize that my chicken recipe is definitive. You might use a roasting pan with a V rack, which would allow for flipping (you could put the veggies underneath.)

Did you brine your bird?

Stephanie said...

Hi Suzanne, I thoroughly enjoyed this post and am happy to come across another 'born again carnivore' like myself. I had to laugh at your description of the Spanish restaurants and the pride they take in displaying their animals. (I'm envisioning the Museo de Jamon!). It was so appalling to me when I lived there, as I was earnestly attempting to maintain a vegetarian lifestyle. One can only eat so many ensalada mistas, tortilla sandwiches, and gazpacho - my staples!

These days I am also enjoying pasture raised chickens and grass fed meats that I buy directly from the farmers. I have had to go through quite the philosophical and psychological transformation in order to do so. It was a step-by-step process similar to yours. I also buy the birds whole (not with head though!) and try to use all the parts including the organ meats as well as the fat for cooking. Even though I still think the legs sometimes resemble the legs of my cats, butchering a bird is not unfamiliar to me since I did a lot of it growing up with my grandmother.

I agree about the way Americans sterilize their meats here. It erases the connection to an actual living being and I suppose keeps us from caring about how they were treated. I think it's important to know where your food comes from and to make a connection to the animal that is about to feed you. It honors the animal much more so than buying it after it has already been cleaned up, packaged, and disguised as some other unidentifiable processed food.

Knowing what I know now about the importance of animal proteins and the difference between healthy animals and those that have been raised through the feedlot/antibiotic/hormone track, I realize that the meats in Spain are probably some of the healthiest in the world. I look forward to going back some day and eating something else besides my old standbys.

Thanks for the sardine recipe! I looovve Spanish sardines (not ready for eyes though). : )

Mark said...

Enjoyable post, Suzanne. I particularly enjoyed your account of the slow series of toe-dips into the Wonderful World o' Meat.

I'm working my way back into the getting-to-know-you relationship with my meat. (The previous sentence, divorced from this context, is an eyebrow raiser.) As a kid, my grandpa taught me about appreciating where meat came from as he brought elk to his northern Wyoming dinner table. I sort of forgot those childhood lessons as I joined the default drive-through cheeseburger culture of my teen and early adult years. I've got some making up to do.

I hope to get over to Spain next year and see some of what you've written about with my own eyes.

david said...

I have heard of goats head soup but haven't had the pleasure yet.

wonderful blog

Steve said...

Nice one here, Sue. Your contriteness is refreshing. Yes, self righteous vegetarians and vegans can be insufferable. Extremely.

I agree with the ideas you raised about meat processing and packaging. It certainly does serve to remove any trace of the living animal that once was- as if our fragile pysches cannot handle knowing where our food really comes from and what it looks like. As if we need to be protected and shielded from the reality of it.

Children probably grow up thinking how somewhere in the heartland of America there are large farms where scientists are genetically engineering chickens to breed skinless, boneless, 6 oz. cutlets ready for packaging and shipping at the moment of their birth.

A long look into the "kid" section of any frozen food aisle here in America will show you how far the entire system has degenerated and folded in upon itself.

Take the "fun-sized" chicken nuggets for example. "Fun" means meat that is stripped from the bone, processed, breaded, then remolded back into shapes that look like a chicken!!!! (or a dinosaur, heart, star, etc...)

This is all before they are then fried, frozen, packaged in day-glo colors, and shipped to your frozen food aisle, where they wait for your child.

Who knew food could be so much fun?

Suzanne said...

El museo de jamón! Hilarious! They actually have a branch in Buenos Aires too.

I'm not sure about Spanish meats being particulary healthy. In general, animals here are raised the same way the are in the States. Many people are beginning to complain that the quality of the ham, Spain's favorite food, is being compromised by the way the pigs are raised. They're right.

Of course, depending what region you're in it is possible to find quality cuts of meat. Here in Catalonia it's easy to find good chicken and lamb. And the goat's cheese is out of this world. We rarely buy beef here. Andrés is Argentinian and nothing depresses him more than a bad steak. At the most, I may occasionally make beef bourguignon. Galicia, on the other hand, has delicious beef. It's lovely to see the cows grazing there. It's something that you just don't get here.

Steve, I remember Mr. Klein telling us about a study they did in inner-city schools in Philadelphia. Children were asked to draw a picture of a chicken. Some of them drew nuggets, some a cartoonish version of a roasted chicken, others fried chicken legs. Not one drew a picture of the actual bird. Shortly afterwards they initiated a city-to-country project where children spent a couple weekends a year on farms and stuff.

I've seen those day-glo star-shaped chicken nuggets! Fun for the whole family.

david said...

danielle said...

Although I am not a "born again omnivore", I agree with what you mentioned about vegetarians perceived as self-righteous a holes. I always feel (especially at dinners like Thanksgiving) that in explaining why I don't eat meat, I'm being "that girl" who makes a political/ethical issue out of anything, even though I take no offense to those that eat meat in the least!

danielle said...

(I meant carnivore...I have Pollan's book on my mind.)

Katie said...

Why anyone would be proud of contributing to the deaths and exploitation of billions of living creatures is beyond me. We know we don't need meat to live a healthy life (just as da Vinci, Einstein and Edison did) and we know how bad it is for the environment as far as carbon emissions. Even more than this, we know that non-human animals are sentient, intelligent beings capable of many emotions and desires. Who are we, as the dominant species, to decide which we exploit for their milk, flesh, skin and reproductive secretions? Simply because "chicken is delicious"? What if the author had been at a carnivorous BBQ - would the offer to eat human animal have been accepted if that flesh was simply "delicious"?

It is very easy to simply labels vegans/vegetarians as self-righteous in order to dismiss the arguments in favour of animal rights. I'm sure slave owners in the United States really enjoyed the exploitation of black slaves - but is their own selfish gains enough to justify such exploitation?

KJ's muse said...

Unreal. But, this post (and most of the discussion) makes me proud to be "an insufferable self-righteous" vegan.

Thanks Katie for adding your comment.

david said...

Nothing more strongly arouses our disgust than cannibalism, yet we make the same impression on Buddhists and vegetarians, for we feed on babies, though not our own. ~Robert Louis Stevenson

Seth said...

Katie: I'm trying to get this. Are you comparing eating meat to owning slaves. Because it seems like you are.

KJ's Muse: Did you even read the post? What, exactly, about the post makes you proud to be a vegan?

Katie and KJ's Muse: Why don't you try to add an intelligent comment that actually has something to do with the conversation. As far as I can tell, you're simply stating your preference (for your way; and against this blog) without offering one single example why.

david said...

aren't those supposed to be in quotes?

(I never thought I would regress to punctuation cop) hahaha

Sometimes I get sooooo confused lol

usually isn't there some kind of "point" after quoting someone? Or am I expected to be intelligent enough to capture your wit irregardless?

I am not intelligent at alllllll

Steve said...

Odd to say, but I've taken up vegetarianism since this post has been written. Not sure why. Although I've always been disgusted by the tactics and practices of the meat industry, I can't say that is why I chose to just give up meat out of the blue one day last April.

Katie does make a good point above when she takes moral offense at the notion that killing and eating animals is justified simply because it gives us pleasure. David Foster Wallace makes the same point (beginning around the 10th footnote) in his essay "Consider the Lobster" which can read at:

Not sure what KJ's Muse is trying to say other than proving my earlier point about insufferablility and veganism. Although I do love it when Seth gets pissy with our readers.

david said...

he gets pissy or pithy?

Anonymous said...

We have canines and of course and eyes on the front.