I'm a Guilty Carnivore

I eat meat. And I feel pretty awful about it.
Publish date:
March 26, 2012

I love hot dogs. Love, love, love, love, love hot dogs. When I was in Austin recently for SXSW Interactive, I went to a big restaurant that is entirely devoted to hot dogs and hot dog-like creations (sausages, brats, etc.) I had a big sausage with sauerkraut on a pretzel bun because, just the previous day, I'd eaten a chili dog at the DQ and I wanted to vary my intake.

I concluded the DQ chili dog festival with fries and a mini Oreo Blizzard. I followed up the sausage meal with a bacon chocolate chip cookie and ice cream. After each meal, I had the exact same reaction: a mixture of delight and disgust that I will call delgust. It was utterly delgusting.

The delight, of course, was at the tastiness of the meal, the way it hit all the right pleasure centers in my gut and in my brain. The disgust was the knowledge that I'd consumed stuff that was bad for me, bad for the environment, and bad for the animals who'd suffered or died in the service of my delicious snack.

Okay. I know that sounds over the top and whiny and stupid. At least, it does to part of my brain. But another part of my brain is like, "Fuck yeah, it's nasty and disgusting. You are fortunate enough to have the ability to make excellent food choices, but you continue to chomp down on processed meats and other crap. Pigs are as smart as dogs! Would you eat fried dog? What about fried kitty cat on a stick? You donate to PETA, for Chrissakes!" (It's true, I do.)

I think I might feel differently about eating meat if I were the one raising the animals, slaughtering them, and preparing them. Maybe I'd feel I'd earned it in some way, or at least that I was part of some very old and very natural system of life and death. But the truth is that I sit on my ass and type at a computer all day, while somewhere in the Midwest a hog grows up in cramped, fetid quarters before being tortured in ways I won't go into here, all so I can pick up a hot dog on my road trip from Houston to Austin. I couldn't be more divorced from the production of my meal.

My friend Jamie Kilstein, a comedian who also happens to be a very happy vegan, once said to me, "I'm really surprised that you're not a vegan. It just seems like your beliefs all line up with it." And he's right. In fact, I've always been disgusted when confronted with the reality of dead flesh.

As a kid, I had to force myself not to gag at family gatherings that inevitably featured a range of cured meats and cheeses. My refusal to eat any of it was no small thing in a large Italian family. I was a picky eater. I was weird. My parents would get enormously frustrated when I'd blanch at a request to help marinate chicken before a barbeque or throw a steak in the oven.

They'd tell me I was acting like a spoiled princess; I guess they thought I resented the idea of doing a chore, or simply was too fancy for my own good. But it wasn't that. I couldn't explain what it was. I just knew that it freaked me out in some deep-down way. Yet I was happy to sit down to a fully-cooked meal of meat, particularly if it were smothered in enough sauces to make its taste nearly imperceptible.

I was telling my friend Katherine about this post, and she laughed, saying that I'd always felt guilty about eating meat. I asked her why she thought I felt bad about it, and she said, "You're a crazy liberal. You think you should be a vegetarian because it's moral high ground but you actually like the way meat tastes." She's right – again, as long as the meat is smothered in some kind of sauce or marinade to disguise it.

Katherine, who is an unrepentant fan of veal, went on to rant, "I have had a vegetarian say to me: Well I just can't eat meat because if I couldn't kill the animal myself, then I shouldn't eat the meat, to which I say: LOOK CRAZY PERSON who has iron deficiency, this is 2012. I'd get arrested if I was slaughtering cows in my backyard. When's the last time you went and chopped down a tree and pulped it to make paper? Give me a break here. You wanna go Little House on the Prairie, fine. I live in Houston, it's not just not feasible for me." I'll add here that she has plenty of vegetarian friends and doesn't begrudge them their meatless ways; I think she just hates the passive guilt trip some vegetarians and vegans lay down about folks who choose to eat meat.

Anyhoo. She's right that I'm a crazy liberal, and she's also right that I think vegetarians have the moral high ground. Especially those vegetarians who are all into local food and make friends with the vendors at the farmer's market and cook at home – I look at those people wistfully, the way I used to look at the cool senior girls in high school when I was a freshman. How'd they get that way? How do they keep it up? Can I ever be like them? Vegetarianism and veganism just seem to require so much effort, so much advance planning.

But now, as we head into high barbeque season, I find myself once again contemplating going vegetarian. And despite my BFF's opinion, I think it might be a transition I'll finally try to make. Because if it looks like the right thing to do, smells like the right thing to do, tastes like the right thing to do and feels like the right thing to do, it's probably the right thing to do.

I'm just gonna have to find a substitute for hot dogs. (Seitan, I'm looking at you.)