It's been hours since I had meat, a fennel-sausage from the Whole Foods breakfast bar. It's been a day since I had my last burger, a dry-aged beauty with bloody rivulets from the Nomad Bar in New York City. And it's been two days since I ate a 120-day aged tomahawk chop from Osteria Morini. I am a meat-eater, avowedly, virulently, and prodigiously.
It is not my aim here, nor is it necessary, to extoll the splendors of meat. That has been done before by others more eloquent, more versed in rendering poetry from fat and muscle. And though I feel them, taste them, smell them no less strongly than those other silver-tongued carnivores, I shall leave the noble qualities of beef, pork, chicken and fish — and venison, rabbit, woodcock, pheasant, and frog — unenumerated. This is not a celebration of meat. It is a confession of my weakness for it.
For when I eat meat I am participating in nothing less than calculated moral myopia. There should be as little doubt as to the profoundly harmful effects of our meat dependence as there is about global warming. Americans eat approximately 234 pounds of meat a year. That's a (fat) man made of meat.
Americans eat approximately 234 pounds of meat a year. That's a man made of meat.
This meat, of course, was once an animal — like man — a fact that continues to assert itself no matter how we attempt to skirt it. To avoid this inconvenient truth, cattlemen call cattle "beef product," even before they've transitioned from life unto death, cow unto meat. And we, consumers in general, foodies in particular, focus on cuts, preparations, dry-aging, wet-aging, char, thyme and rosemary, grass-feeding, grain-finishing, antibiotic-freedom.
But, annoyingly, when one looks up from the steak frites, the real consequences of eating animals come into focus. There are two, for me, that weigh most heavily. The first is its effect on the planet. The second is its effect on the cow in question. For both, my steak addiction is fatal. As for the first, according to a study published in the journal Climatic Change, a heavy meat eater — which the average American is and I am doubly — contributes twice as much to global warming than a vegetarian.
That's because a burger isn't just a burger, it's the final stop on a long and costly train. A 2012 story on NPR called, "A Nation Of Meat Eaters" broke down what goes is required to make each quarter-pound burger: 6.7 pounds of grain. 52.8 gallons of water. 74.5 square feet of grazing land. 1,036 BTUs of fossil fuels. I'm tempted to think the headline's echoes with Odysseus' Island of Lotus-Eaters is on purpose.
I eat about three cheeseburgers a week, on a cheeseburger-lite week. In order of my favorites, they are the Flat Top burger in Harlem, the Spotted Pig burger in the West Village and the Nomad Burger in the Garment District. But what am I consuming? By the above estimate, that's 20.1 pounds of grain, 158.4 gallons of water, and 3108 Btus. Even at $17, a burger is a bargain. The only problem is it comes at the world's expense.
As a restaurant critic for the New York Observer and a food writer, I've spent acrobatic years trying to justify my meat habit. But, I howl, my meat is local, and pasture-raised. It's humanely killed. I've looked into the eyes of my beef product, back when it had them and they were shiny and hazel, to pay respect to the circle of life. But Jonathan Safran Foer is such a whiny prick! But I have to eat meat because it is my job. Which is more important, being able to provide for my family, I ask myself, or saving 234 pounds of meat a year? Save a cow or send a kid to Montessori?
Nor can there be any denying the various and wondrous cottage industries, bearded artisans, and moving narratives that have formed among those who pall-bear the body of the animal to market. Wisened Italian meat-curers, caves full of culatello; butchers like Dario Cecchini or that old guy, Mario, in East Williamsburg with the snowy chest hair. There are chefs with tattoos and passion, former investment bankers-turned-artisanal-knife-makers, and farmers with antiquated accents and disappearing lifestyles. But without dismissing the manifestations of goodness in these businesses, let's recognize they cropped up around an immoral act, the suburbs of a slaughter.
The only thing left in meat's favor is...I like how it tastes.
When all that is stripped away, the only thing left in meat's favor is... I like how it tastes. And so I still eat meat, all the motherfucking time. There are entire weeks where I'll eat some sort of meat product for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Pork sausage for breakfast, chicken paillard for lunch, barbecue for dinner. My stomach must look like a ballotine, a digestive chaotic turducken. Increasingly, in fact, every time I hear myself order a cheeseburger, it leaves me feeling somewhat disappointed and furious at myself.
Perhaps, it's just that my moral ligaments are getting tighter as I age. But my exotic justifying poses are becoming exhausting. Eating meat is simply not compatible with my moral and ethical universe. (Especially true if one believes, as I do, in karma and reincarnation. I could literally be eating my grandchildren.) So what's left on the ledger?
On one side is desire, habit, and a penchant for tastiness. On the other is all that is right in the universe, selflessness, love, kindness, caring for our planet, doing no harm to others. Think of all the dastardly deeds we could undertake without compunction if simply "really liking a thing" trumped all other factors. Rapine and pillage would be all the rage. Bank robber to cop: "But I really really wanted the money." Cop: "Well, when you put it that way....."
In other words, it is not the cheeseburger, that charred patty of perfection twixt a Martin's potato roll, itself that guts me. It's the doing of a thing I know is wrong. Oh, I'll still go in for Mighty Quinn's brisket and even the foie gras at Betony, don't get me wrong. But it is only a matter of time and mindfulness before eating meat sounds just as regressive, reprobate, and repulsive as denying suffrage to women, marriage to gays, or equal rights to all. "Meat eating today, meat eating tomorrow, meat eating forever." But by then, the question will be: Is it too late to make amends?
· The Five Days of Meat on Eater [-E-]
[Burger Photo: Krieger]