Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Giving up Meat

The days are lengthening. We are headed toward spring - we're well into Lent. Lent, a time to abstain. Depending on the tradition, a person might abstain from all animal products for a full forty days or from land mammals on Fridays. She might decide on her own to abstain from sugar or caffeine. She might decide to blog everyday. There are myriad options.

I like Lent. It's a finite time for change, for discipline. "For these forty days, I will not do this." Or: "For these forty days I will do this." It's not like New Year's when I swear I'll run more, and I do. For the first ten days. Then it becomes daunting. I miss a day, and I feel guilty. I miss another three days, and I give it up completely. Until next year.

I didn't do any of that this year - Lent or New Year's - but I am intrigued by the lines we draw, particularly with our eating habits. I drew a line a while ago when I decided to be vegetarian. People will ask why I don't eat chicken, why I don't eat fish, why I don't eat bacon. People will ask why I eat other animal products; why I don't just eat less meat; why I won't eat a bed of noodles that sat under a few shrimp, but I might eat a bed of noodles that was cooked with fish sauce; why I might eat something with fish sauce at a restaurant then never cook with it at home. Sometimes I don't know the answer, except that I feel I have to draw the line somewhere.

Sometimes it's regional. There's no fresh fish to speak of in Nebraska where I grew up (okay, there are catfish, pike and a few others). It seemed natural to exclude them with other animals. There was fresh beef, though, lots of it, and I abstained from that. It was about the amount consumed in the states, and the way the industry handled the whole thing. 

My neighbor's camel
When I arrived in Central Asia, I intended to remain vegetarian. I did, but my reasons for doing so changed with time. I wasn't sticking it to the meat industry in the U.S. The meat consumed in Turkmenistan is produced on a small, local scale for the most part. Today's dinner was yesterday's camel in my neighbor's front yard. Thanksgiving Dinner was the healthiest pair of turkeys at the bazaar, decapitated on site, plucked and placed directly in my newly purchased plastic bag. There were other reasons not to eat it, though, and I found even better reasons to continue on eating those other animal proteins. With the potato, cabbage and pumpkin as staples, I had few options outside yogurt and eggs.

Living in Crescent City is a different story, I've found. The most common thing people say to me is, "But you eat fish, right?" I understand their confusion. There is fresh seafood to be had here, not to be rivaled by what was available in the Karakum Desert or the farmland of the Midwest. But for now I am going to keep that line drawn: no seafood. Unless a fish sauce gets put into my Southeast Asian dish served to me at a restaurant.

Sounds sort of silly, delineating these rules. It's not just Lent that got me to thinking about it. I was reading a blog post about eating less meat. Included are recipes using meat as seasoning in a dish, as meat has a complexity of flavor not often found in plant based foods. It's a punch of flavor, not the thing the dish revolves around. The whole premise is not the health and environmental benefits of eating meat with temperence, those benefits that generally go undisputed. It's more like, yeah, we know you know all about that, but what if meat actually tastes better when consumed less?

But then, how much is less?

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