Rob Parsons

You Like Beef, Brah?

Confessions of a non-meat eater

by Rob Parsons

June 4 , 2009

"Nothing will benefit human health and increase chances of survival for life on Earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet." - Albert Einstein

I grew up in a town, Madison, Wisconsin, where the second-largest employer, after the University of Wisconsin, was the Oscar Mayer meat packing plant. I recall seeing the famed Weinermobile driving through town for parades or special occasions, with "Little Oscar," the beloved, diminutive celebrity, behind the wheel.

As a kid, I was a bologna sandwich lover—slathered with mayo on white bread, if you please. Meat was a central focus of meals, from breakfast sausage or bacon to lunch meat and on to dinners built around roast beef, corned beef, ham, London broil, steak, sloppy Joes, beef stew, spaghetti and meatballs or even "wiener surprises." 

My parents found it amusing that one of their budget meals from my dad's  medical school days—hot dogs sliced lengthwise with melted cheese over mashed potatoes—was one of my favorites.

This was the blissful Baby Boomer era, when part of the post-World War II American Dream was the opportunity to consume goods that had been in scarce supply during wartime rationing. The meat and dairy industries were strong, representing two of the "four major food groups" (along with fruits and vegetables, plus cereals and grains) in the pre-food pyramid era.

By the late 1960s, the societal mores of the day were being questioned: the Vietnam War; civil rights; women's rights; environmental degradation. It only made sense that a growing dietary awareness would spring up among young Americans, centered on the "you are what you eat" precept. By the '70s, health food co-ops sprouted, and many people had their first encounter with a strange food from the Orient: tofu.

Around this time, my older brother came back home on a break from college and announced his vegetarianism. Not long after, we drove up to join him at an old farmhouse in Minnesota for a turkey-less Thanksgiving, featuring a 20-pound stuffed Hubbard squash.

Back home, I remember my mom groaning melodramatically in the kitchen, in response to another food staple revelation. "Guess what your brother says we have to stop eating now," she wailed. "Tuna! They kill dolphins when they catch it, and now we have to boycott."

With heightened interest about my own food choices, I picked up a book that profoundly shifted the way I looked at the world, Frances Moore Lappe's Diet For a Small Planet

Lappe explicated that essential amino acids and complete proteins found in meat are all present in vegetables, grains and legumes, especially when combined (e.g. rice and beans) to form "complementary proteins."

But what really caught my attention was the revelation that animal feedlots are particularly inefficient at converting grains to proteins because of the wastefulness associated with feeding livestock corn, soy and cereal grains that could be consumed directly by humans. The premise was clear: the marriage between corporate agribusiness and the meat and poultry industries was not the way to feed the world. At least, not with an ever-growing population straining our overall agricultural yields.

The 1970s also marked burgeoning awareness of the destruction of the Amazon rainforest in Brazil for expanding cattle operations. Word on the street was that if you were eating McDonald's hamburgers, you were contributing to deforestation in South America.

I had heard enough. Just out of college and working as a cook at La Creperie restaurant in downtown Madison, I decided to go cold turkey and stop eating meat. 

More than 30 years have passed since then, and I have stuck to my resolve with no ill effects other than some good-natured ribbing from my softball buddies, who offer to throw a zucchini on the grill for me.

But in all that time, I've never tried to convince others to quit eating meat. With most people I know, dietary choices are highly personal, whether or not the person possesses much understanding of human nutritional needs.

To this day, I resist being told what to do, even when it's the right thing. My analytical suspicion is that my reactive response emanates from some early childhood effort of my ego to establish itself—and it's still often successful at trumping my educated superego, to stick with Freudian theory. So, far be it from me to tell others how to act, or what to put in their bodies.

Until now.

The more I read and learn about how our species (6.8 billion and counting) is impacting nearly every other living being, the more I am convinced that we need to change our over-consumptive ways. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has determined that meat production is responsible for an astonishing 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. Eating less meat can be found on nearly every top ten list of things to do to green your life and reduce your carbon footprint. 

You don't even need to completely set aside carnivorous cravings; just keeping them in moderation will be a positive step for personal as well as planetary health.

In Belgium, city officials in Ghent, a university town 30 miles west of Brussels, declared that making one day a week meat-free, "is good for the climate, your health and your taste buds." According to a report in The Guardian, Ghent officials are teaming up with Belgium's national vegetarian organization, EVA (Ethical Vegetarian Alternative), and adopting Thursday as a vegetarian day. Beginning in September, the city's schools will be making a meat-free meal the "default" option every Thursday. At least one hospital wants to join in.

The city council was persuaded to back the idea when an upcoming young chef, Phillipe van den Bulck, served a gourmet vegetarian banquet at town hall. The city threw a party to celebrate the first veggie day and distributed recipe booklets and 90,000 maps with listings of the best local eateries. Inquiries have come in from other cities in Belgium, as well as The Netherlands and Canada.

But don't expect to hear "Meatless Monday" or "Tofu Tuesday" being announced anytime soon in Omaha, Des Moines, Albuquerque—or Honolulu. You see, Americans are meat lovers, plain and simple. Old habits don't change overnight; dietary alterations take a long time—as does coronary artery hardening from a diet too high in fats (and other risk factors).

Worldwatch Institute has proclaimed that consumption of meat in the United States is "embarrassingly high." They've calculated America and China, "which contain 25 percent of the world's population, combine to consume 35 percent of the world's beef, over half of the world's poultry, and 65 percent of the world's pork."

Hawaii is a smorgasbord of ethnic favorite meat dishes: teriyaki beef; kal bi and char siu ribs; kalua pig; chicken hekka and katsu; Portuguese sausage; the hamburger steak-topped loco moco plate; and Spam, the all-American island favorite. Yet despite the menagerie of meats available, national rankings show Hawaii among the lowest percentages for incidence of heart disease, diabetes and obesity. Go figure. Maybe it's the surfing.

I've often felt that if people were closer to the source of their food, there would be a lot more vegetarians in the world. While many of us have visited a farm or dairy in our lifetimes, few have ventured into a slaughterhouse or meatpacking plant. Those who get woozy at the site of blood from a visit to the clinic for a finger-prick might have a difficult time seeing that their steak begins as a living, breathing cow before winding up in a hermetically sealed Styrofoam grocery pack.

I landed on Maui the Monday before Thanksgiving in 1977. Two days later, I took my first drive Upcountry, visiting a friend's Hotel Intercontinental co-worker to ask if he knew of any places for rent.

I walked into a peaceful Kula backyard to meet the family, and found that they were preparing for the next days' feast. They had returned from a hunting trip with a live baby pig, having shot her mother. They were in the process of stringing up the youngster to slit her throat and bleed her to death. I quickly walked back around to the front yard.

There, two young local kids were playing, a boy and girl, maybe six or seven years old. I will never forget the looks of terror on their faces as they froze, motionless, while the pig let out a piercing, blood-curdling cry from the backyard—its last breath. 

Vegetarianism isn't for everyone, apparently. Those who subscribe to the Eat Right for Your Blood Type line of thinking might find they are descended from hunter-gatherers, and that they just don't feel right without a regular meal of animal-based protein.

The significance of how humans treat animals has been pondered by some of the great thinkers of the world. The Buddha said that eating meat "extinguishes the seed of great compassion." Author Leo Tolstoy put it even more bluntly: "As long as there are slaughterhouses, there will be battlefields."

So—you like beef?