A Confessed Carnivore Survives His Salad Days

Chris Bateman
By Chris Bateman September 15, 2012 12:00

“Burger Bash” screamed the banner in front of Sonora’s Perko’s restaurant. The new McDonald’s at Standard suddenly doubled the Tuolumne County availability of Double Quarter Pounders with Cheese (750 calories before you get to the XXL fries and the two-gallon Coke).

Then Jimmy Buffett’s “Cheeseburger in Paradise” blared over an oldies station: “I like mine with lettuce and tomato/Heinz 57 and french fried potatoes/Big kosher pickle and a cold draft beer. Well good god almighty which way do I steer…for my cheeseburger in Paradise.”

Amid such temptation there I was, eating chard, kale and garbanzo beans, doused with a low-cal, anti-oxidant dressing made of carrot juice, almonds, vinegar, sunflo

wer seeds and a bunch more guilt- and cholesterol-free ingredients. It was brown.

That’s a slice of my very brief past life as a vegetarian. Through June’s 30 days I ate no beef, pork, turkey, chicken, salmon or mystery meat. Bacon lettuce and tomato became lettuce and tomato, ham and cheese became cheese and a New York steak became an empty plate.

I went green on a dare from my vegetarian daughter, Hallie, who reckoned my meat intake was about 100 times the recommended daily allowance. “I don’t think you can do it,” added my wife. “What’s the longest you’ve ever gone without meat? Two, maybe three days?”

She had a point: I quit drinking and smoking years ago, and I exercise regularly. But I’ve never had a handle on the “diet” part of the good-health formula. In my early years I thought the basic food groups were burgers, hot dogs, pizza, and steak.   The vegetables in my diet were pretty much fries and chips.

My cholesterol in the early 1980s soared to nearly 340. That’s when you’ve gone past au jus and pretty much bleed gravy. I’ve since cranked it back into the low 200s, but I’m still a sucker for burgers and think the sweet-and-sour-pork bowl (390 calories, 26 grams of fat) at Panda Express is health food.

But on Hallie’s dare, I ventured into terra incognito. Salads, veg tostados, rice, beans, nuts, fresh fruit, smoothies, tomato soup, bananas, bulgur wheat, meatless casseroles—all once incidental or non-existent parts of my diet—became staples.

Early in the experiment, I sought sympathy. My mother and brother – purveyor and fellow consumer, respectively, of meat loaf, fried chicken, cream chipped beef, fish sticks, brown ‘n’ serve sausages and Swiss steak during my formative years – were horrified.

“Why on earth would you do that?” said Mom, a 94-year-old who attributes her longevity to Jack Daniel’s and prime rib.

“Do they let you eat cheese?” asked my brother, who grills his steaks on a barbecue that’s about the size of a Willow Springs bungalow.  My family’s meat cops, I told him, permitted cheese, eggs, honey and other animal products deemed verboten by harder-line vegans.

Others, most healthier than I am, merely shrugged at my new regimen. Giving up meat, they reckoned, should be no tougher than not eating, say, cactus, poison oak or sandpaper.

My new diet, I was surprised to find, was no burden. The salads were tasty, the meatless burritos delicious, and the soups and stir-fries tangy. I even sautéed up a Tunisian casserole featuring bulgur wheat, garbanzo beans, almonds, raisins and a medley of herbs and spices that was borderline magical.

Sure, my dish might have benefited from the addition of a few sausage links. Still, I was surviving without meat: I lost five pounds without trying and could help myself to seconds and even thirds and never feel full. My cholesterol plumbed unexplored depths.

Then, 10 days into my fast, the book arrived. Thinking I might backslide, Hallie sent me “Eating Animals.”  It wasn’t a how-to book. Instead, author Jonathan Safran Foer – a guy whose name sounds like something you’d order up at a veg café – reports in 341 graphic pages on the factory farms that produce nearly all the beef, pork, poultry and eggs we eat.

At one point Foer and an undercover animal activist sneak into a million-chicken California laying operation. It’s crowded, stinking, dirty, unpleasant for humans, and nearly unimaginable for the birds.

Cows, steers, hogs, turkeys?  They don’t have it any better.

So did “Eating Animals” turn me into an uber-vegan or send me in a flash to the nearest PETA recruiting station? No. But I was uncomfortable facing the fact that my bacon and burgers come from huge livestock disassembly-line operations rather than Old McDonald-style farms on the outskirts of Mayberry.

If Hormel, Swift and Tyson give tours of their plants, they certainly don’t publicize them. You can see wine made in Napa Valley, but you can’t (and wouldn’t want to) spend a spring afternoon watching bacon made in Iowa.

Still, we are a nation of meat eaters: Americans annually put away 25 billion burgers, 9 billion chickens and 1.7 billion pounds of bacon. Most estimates say fewer than 5 percent of us are vegetarians, which means 298 million are carnivores. We love the stuff.

And as with any mass commodity, the laws of supply and demand come into play: Just as Ford and General Motors strive to manufacture cars faster and more efficiently, meat packers do the same. Their raw material, however, just happens to be alive.

Could our meat be processed more humanely? Could our livestock be spared antibiotics-laced feed that includes ground-up remains of other animals that died before they could be killed? Could our farms, feedlots and packing plants be cleaner and kinder to the environment? As Foer’s book shows, the answer is yes.

Yet even the most sanitary and exemplary slaughterhouse will never be mistaken for a petting zoo. After all, the job there is killing.

After reading “Eating Animals,” however, I still wanted to eat them. I craved that cheeseburger in Paradise, even though I know darn well it doesn’t come from Paradise or even one of its distant suburbs. But free-range, grass-fed beef raised by local ranchers or, better yet, by wholesome 4-H members selling their steers at the county fair junior livestock auction just might be the answer.

On July 1, I broke my fast with a juicy, delicious barbecued tri-tip of indeterminate heritage. I could almost feel my cholesterol rocketing dizzily skyward.

That said (and fully savored), I’ll probably eat more fruits and vegetables going forward. Not only did the truck garden’s worth of rabbit food that I downed back in June taste good, but, as I’m 66, my diet needs all the help it can get.

But if those vegetables were so tasty back in June, you might ask, why not give up meat altogether?

More than 10 years ago I quit drinking, thus surrendering one of my mom’s keys to longevity. Giving up the other is a risk I just won’t take.

Contact Chris Bateman at chris@seniorfan.com.

© 2012 Friends and Neighbors Magazine

Chris Bateman
By Chris Bateman September 15, 2012 12:00
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