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On eating animals
Symposium on Animals: Part VI
I never planned to be a vegetarian. I took it as a point of pride that I was one of those people who would eat anything, who in my travels and in people’s homes would gratefully accept whatever was offered. Many of my favorite dishes involved offal. To be omnivorous, to me, was a way of being open to the world: to receive hospitality wherever it was given to me, and to make no demands on my hosts. When I cooked (infrequently, and not well), it largely involved simmering organ meats and dubious but cheap sausage with a can of beans in a slow cooker: a New York bachelor’s answer to cassoulet. In my twenties, at least one OKCupid conversation went south when my vegan match discovered my fondness for meat.
Then the pandemic came. We got married in late March 2020 — a pandemic elopement — and promptly spent the next three or so months locked down in our New York City apartment with a pantry full of nonperishable groceries. Dhananjay — and his whole family before him — had been a vegetarian from birth (full disclosure: as an adult he now eats, though rarely cooks, fish). Dhananjay was also, of the two of us, the far better cook.
When we got married, we agreed that we wouldn’t keep or cook meat in the house. I fully intended, once restrictions on restaurant dining were lifted, to go back to eating meat again. But after three months of an entirely vegetarian diet, I found that my relationship to meat, and to its consumption, had changed. Not just because I liked the food that Dhananjay made (although, it must be said, I did), but because my relationship with nature and the natural world had changed: a shift that owed as much to my (relatively) recent re-conversion to Christianity as to my marriage.
Before — as an avowed carnivore and, I now recognize, a Christianity-curious seeker suffering from a sort of spiritual pica — I had understood my relationship to meat as being tied up with my relationship to an imagined primality — and with my aesthetic distaste for what I saw, naively, as a kind of priggish sublation of that primality. To eat meat with gusto, as I did then, meant being one of those girls who did not stymy an evening out with an officious list of restrictions (it is not lost on me that much of my meat-eating was done on dates with men, and that, doubtless, it subconsciously signaled openness of another kind).
But my love of meat was also tied up, in its own way, with the draw that the atavistic had on me: the by-now-well-documented fantasy that, amid the cushy sterility of Internet-poisoned modern life, violence, the shedding of blood, might put us closer in touch with life as we ought to live it. Some men hunt. I just really liked steak tartare.
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As a thirty-two-year-old woman, of course, I find my past self ridiculous. And, no doubt (I like to think), had I tried to codify my past sentiments to my twenty-something self the way I have just done above, my younger self would have had the good sense to find this ridiculous, too. In unexamined practice, however, my sense of myself as a carnivore was inextricable from a different kind of hunger: for a less alienated life, a life lived in accordance with nature, a life given intensity by the unsentimental way in which I looked upon the necessary predations of the world.
I have written before, elsewhere, about my brief flirtation with traditionalism, as well as about the lure that atavism more broadly once had upon me. In the end, the desire to find something real, something true — and yes, something fleshly, beyond the layers of irony and discourse and self-narrativizing of the life I once lived — was central to my ultimate conversion.
But — as Susannah Black wrote so brilliantly last week for Mere Orthodoxy about a certain neo-Nietzschean bodybuilder — you cannot both be a Christian and believe that the ouroboros of violent nature is all there is, or all there was meant to be. As Christians we understand that nature’s cruelty is inextricable from human fallenness, that the eating of meat, like the barrenness of earth, are not part of God’s first vision of human life, not part of the abundance of our Edenic life, in which no satisfaction of our rightly-ordered desire caused any being pain or death. That is not to say that Christianity demands vegetarianism — I don’t think that, for what it’s worth — but rather that any aesthetic posture of meat-eating, or any other form of “natural” violence, as a necessary part of an ancient and therefore purer world is doomed to fail from a Christian standpoint.
The very weirdness of Christianity — and I do believe it’s weird — is rooted in the idea that Christ both subverts and perfects that which we understand as the natural. He comes back from the dead — unnatural indeed! He destroys earthly hierarchies! He comes into Jerusalem on an ass. Weirder still — we are meant to eat his flesh and drink his blood: a reimagining of carnivorous feasting as the participation in a sacrifice designed to destroy violence altogether. (It’s not totally incomprehensible that pagans in the time of the early Church worried that Christians might in fact be cannibals).
The weirdness of Christian doctrine, in other words, is rooted neither in gnostic asceticism nor in violent vitalism, worshipping nature, in all its terrible impersonality, for its own sake. Rather, we understand Christ not as denying or celebrating but rather redeeming nature: restoring it to what it was meant to be, if sin had not entered the picture. He shows us, in other words, what nature ought to be. There is something more primal than the primal, and it does not require us to harden our hearts to death — of human or of animal alike.
Perhaps ironically, the relative restrictions on my diet have not made me closed off to the world in the way I’d feared. Without the instinctive pressure to structure meals around animal proteins, I found myself enjoying food — and, to an even greater extent — understanding my own enjoyment of food, beyond the binary (perceived) categories of “healthy” (light meats, fish) and “unhealthy” (everything else). With less of a sense of what I enjoyed, or remembered enjoying in the past, I chose both cuisines and specific dishes less familiar to me, at times relishing the surprise of whatever vegetarian option was available for its own sake.
I’m not, for what it’s worth, the world’s strictest vegetarian — nor even, properly speaking, a vegetarian at all. I eat all manner of fish, for starters. I will eat meat on a few rare occasions: for instance, in someone’s home if someone has inadvertently cooked it for me, or for a larger group of which I am part. Or if my mother, with whom I share fond childhood culinary memories, orders a meat-containing dish she enjoys, I will try a bite or two in order to maintain that tradition. I want to always accept hospitality from those I care for. But my taste for meat, like so many of the tastes I used to have when atavism appealed to me, has vanished. A bloody steak, however abstractly aesthetic, no longer thrills me. (And, for what it’s worth, I feel significantly less guilty around cows).
Unnatural it may be — and even a little bit cringe; but in the vision of nature I now have, where the lion and lamb lie down together, and where the dead come back to life, it fits perfectly.
Note to our readers: this is the last essay in our Symposium on Animals. Expect regular essays on a range of topics in the coming months and a call for submissions for our next symposium in the autumn.