At the end of 1999, the United Kingdom Vegetarian Society issued a challenge. The British organization, which had scores of well-rehearsed and well-documented reasons why a nonmeat diet is the best option, asked lovers of "flesh foods" to identify the 50 best reasons for consuming meat.
Sounds easy, doesn't it? But the society, which threw down the gauntlet for World Vegetarian Day in October, didn't think so. Press materials said, "The Society is confident that there is not a single justifiable reason to continue to eat meat and that producing a list of 50 reasons to eat meat is unachievable."
The "contest" was not a publicity stunt, said the society, but, "a genuine challenge. We want meat eaters to find good reasons to eat meat and we will even publicize these reasons in our own magazine! This is an indication of how confident we are that the vegetarian diet makes perfect sense."
Hearing about the U.K. Vegetarian Society's challenge just weeks ago, I was inspired to draw up my own list.
I confess, I am a carnivore and proud of it. Despite flirtations with vegetarianism (don't ask me to give up dairy products), I always return to the ranks of meat eaters.
I eat meat and eat it almost every day. Meat in all its incarnations: pork, beef, chicken, turkey and the occasional sliver of venison. I consume Neese's sausage, hot dogs from Cook Out!, chicken breasts, salmon filets, Omaha steaks, the Spanish sausage chorizo, hickory smoked bacon, country ham, pepperoni, prosciutto, German bologna. The list could go on and on. It would be extremely simple to compile my 50 reasons, using just the many types of meat and cuts I eat in the course of a year.
But I search for a list that is more than a butcher's inventory in order to be taken seriously. The tone of the vegetarian society's challenge disturbed me: They seemed so sure that their recipes and dietary regimens were the end-all and be-all.
Writing about the challenge, Erik Marcus said: "If you've ever asked a meat eater to explain why he or she eats meat, the answers you get back are usually pretty unimpressive. The most common reasons I hear are either 'it tastes good,' or some health-related answer that's typically based on a profound misunderstanding of nutrition. I've often wondered if a clear and articulate case for eating meat can even be made."
Just as many meat-eaters stereotype vegetarians as "crunchy" environmentalists who wear all-natural fibers and take their "radical" politics too far, we folks who enjoy chicken or a greasy hamburger are given a bad rap. Because we eat beef, we are presumed ignorant.
"Don't you know that cattle are contributing to deforestation of the Amazon?" a particularly vehement vegetarian asked me one day. She felt compelled to express her disgust at my lunch (a roast beef sandwich), while I watched her dig into a tasty-looking ratouille without comment.
"Eating is an act with global repercussions," she informed me in an eager yet humorless manner, which reminded me of Jehovah's Witnesses working for a new conversion.
Why must meat-eaters justify what they put on their plates and in their mouths? As "unimpressive" as it sounds, I like the savory taste and texture of meat. That's my main reason for continuing to be a "flesh eater," a term that has connotations of cannibalism and Lord of the Flies brutality.
And there are loads of people like me. While more Americans are choosing vegan or vegetarian alternatives, statistics show that the nation is consuming more meat than ever. In 1999, the average American ate more than 220 pounds of meat, with poultry products outpacing beef and red meats. But classically, Americans are, in the parlance of grocery giant Winn Dixie, "the beef people."
Opponents of meat are quick to point out that overconsumption of meat may be tied to the obesity of Americans, as a whole. But that argument, too, can be refuted because the meat industry has responded to consumer demands for leaner, healthier cuts. A diet with meat doesn't always signal death by fat.
Certainly, the arguments for vegetarianism are numerous and persuasive. Yet there are also arguments for eating meat, red or white. Anemia can be remedied with iron-rich foods, and meats are an unbeatable source of protein. And several scientific studies suggest that the human body, and particularly those of young children, needs nutrients from meat and dairy products for proper development of brain and muscle cells.
Scientific evidence aside, I can name a number of personal reasons why I continue to partake. I may not have 50 reasons, but 50 is, after all, an arbitrary number.
1. North Carolina barbecue. Shredded or chopped, with or without sauce, beef or pork, there's no way to duplicate it. Could you see Bullock's making barbecue tofu?
2. Tofu has no taste.
3. This is a corollary to Reason 2. I have yet to meet a veggie burger that I can eat. Perhaps if they weren't labeled "burgers," I wouldn't have such expectations.
4. Premium steakhouses, with their Porterhouses, filet mignon and the like. The Angus Barn, the upscale Sullivan's in Raleigh and Ruth's Chris Steak House in Cary are all powerful motivations to eat beef. And if you want a more rustic, down-home setting and one that won't leave a dent in your checking account, Cattleman's in Durham dares you to eat a 30-ounce steak--free of charge to those who consume every last morsel.
5. What would you grill on Labor Day?
6. Ranching is a historic and much-revered part of the American tapestry.
7. Convenience while traveling. In countries like Germany, the land of bratwurst, and Switzerland, you'd be hard-pressed to eat the national cuisine without meat. Of course, you can always turn to ethnic foods where vegetarian dishes are the standard. In the Latin Quartier in Paris, there's a lovely Ethiopian restaurant, and thanks to the diaspora, Indian restaurants can be found in every corner of the globe.
8. Soul food. Try to tell Mama that she can't season the greens without a ham hock.