Yesterday afternoon, I walked into the house, plopped my Whole Foods bag on the counter, and asked my husband, Scott, “OK – what do we do with THIS?!” as I pulled out a 5 pound chicken.
This, coming from someone who has adhered to a vegetarian diet pretty consistently for the past 17 years, and who has occasionally ventured into a vegan lifestyle. What in the heck was I doing with a chicken?
Let’s back WAY up to my choice of a vegetarian diet in the first place. I first gave up red meat, or all animal flesh but fish and poultry, in college to make my diet healthier. I grew up on southern food which included lots of fresh vegetables but quite a bit of meat and fried foods as well. In college, there was no other option for beef or pork (or I knew of no other one) than factory-farmed meat.
Then, the summer between my junior and senior years in college I spent at a research station where all meals were prepared for me, and I had to choose between vegetarian or non-vegetarian meals. Knowing that the non-vegetarian meals would likely involve red meat, I chose vegetarian. After nine weeks eating vegetarian, I adopted the label. Later, learning about factory farms for egg-laying chickens, poultry, turkeys, etc. strengthened my resolve.
“I adopted the label.” That sentence says a lot. In our society, we love labels, and we apply them to ourselves and others liberally. I often struggled with the “vegetarian” label I had adopted. When I was pregnant and was dying for protein and ate chicken, I facetiously wondered ,”So how long after this meal before I can claim to be vegetarian again? Is there a statute of limitations?” My older daughter, who also readily claimed the vegetarian label in the steps of her mother (bless her little heart), proclaimed on a recent beach weekend with friends, “OK, I am not vegetarian for the next 5 minutes because this bacon is GOOD.” Last night when I brought home the chicken, she asked me, “So are you not a vegetarian anymore?”
You know what? I’m not – in that I am refusing to be limited or tied to or judged by a 10-letter label. In reality, who was most likely to limit or tie me down or judge me? Yeah. Me. So I feel like I am setting myself free.
I am not denying all the important issues that kept me eating vegetarian for years (the main ones eventually being the horrific nature of factory farms and the environmental impact of them). I am not going to start believing I must have animal flesh at every meal. I may go for months or years without choosing to eat anything from an animal. Or I may not.
What I am doing is freeing myself up to make a deliberate decision based on some good, old-fashioned critical thinking (which flies in the face of a black-and-white worldview). How does my decision reflect critical thinking and comfort with this decision?
- I listened to my body. I have been craving chicken for a few days, and I believe that is because I recently stopped eating many of the whole grains on which I had based my vegetarian diet on for years. (Wheat and some other, mostly complex, carbohydrates have been giving my digestive tract a lot of difficulty lately.) Grains were a big source of protein for me, and cutting them out has left my energy levels very low and my meals very unsatisfying.
- I did not buy cheap chicken. I spent nearly $19 on this bird, the highest-rated chicken available at Whole Foods. (For more on their rating system, see here.) This bad girl was rated a 4. I’d have paid more for a 5 or 5+, but they had none.
- I made sure I used the whole doggone thing…well, except the liver and heart. I wanted to buy a whole bird because I could then know just what was thrown away and what wasn’t. Throwing away usable parts would disrespect the life of this animal. We roasted the chicken, and I used the carcass and neck to make a broth last night, even setting my alarm to get up once during the night to turn the stove off, and once to move the broth to the fridge when it was no longer boiling hot.
- I got my hands (at least a little) dirty. Literally a little dirty, by handling and experiencing the texture and feel, the weight and anatomy, of this animal I was about to consume. I think it is important to be as close to the animal as you can if you are going to eat one. On one end of the spectrum of chicken-eating, you have raising, butchering, plucking and cleaning, and cooking the bird before consumption. On the other end, you have buying pre-cooked chicken that may or may not resemble in any way the animal it came from. Ideally, all animal products I consume would be either wild game or locally sourced meat from a farmer I can meet. (Here’s keeping my fingers crossed that Scott is able to harvest a deer this year).
Where does all this leave me? With gratitude. Gratitude to this bird whose flesh nourished mine. Gratitude for the movement that has made it possible to find ethically sourced animal products. Gratitude for the many meals I have enjoyed and will enjoy – whether rich with vegetables, fruit, and grains, or supplemented with animal protein. Gratitude for the satisfied, healthy feeling in my stomach after a nice meal – something that so many people in our world cannot know.