Meat and Aesthetics: Death at the Dinner TablePosted: April 19, 2010
A vegetarian cooks her first steak.
Walking through the farmer’s market at Union Square is dangerous business. I am bombarded with the intense visual, auditory, and olfactory sensations of the outdoor market. On a temperate day, the tents brim with lolling bodies carrying canvas bags. They finger the week’s harvest of asparagus, they grip rubbery eggplants, they brush dirt off Portobellos searching for any unnecessary nicks or spots. Like an addict confronted with substance, I necessarily must touch, smell, and inevitably buy something, anything from this celebration of foodstuffs.
On this particular day, I was merely strolling through with no intention of purchasing. As the crowd thinned toward the outskirts of the market, I noticed a smaller tent with only a single folding table. Laid out over the table were packages of beef that looked more like giant packages of rubber candy than slabs of animal carcasses. The sign read “New York Beef, 100% grass fed.” This immediately appealed to my farmer’s market curiosity. This stand was uncharted territory, an area that I’ve never dared venture into: it symbolized all that is anathema to my vegetarian crusade. Yet, it represented everything that I have been advocating since the onset of my food studies career. I was standing face to face with a farmer who simultaneously angers and excites me.
Although my boyfriend is not a vegetarian, he rarely eats meat. He probably falls somewhere within the Pollan-esque category of a contentious omnivore, eating only meat sourced from farms that he can visit, and raised by farmers with whom he can engage in conversation. That night, he was coming to visit me from three and a half hours away and upon seeing this stand I immediately thought of him. What else could be a more appropriate expression of affection than cooking him a steak? Not just any steak, but a grass fed, locally sourced steak from a farm that happened to be located a mere twenty minutes from my home in upstate New York.
The only caveat being I have never, in my entire twenty one years of existence, cooked animal flesh. But this is something that I should learn to do, right? If I am ever going to follow through with my life ambitions of being a domestic goddess, of providing for my children, then I will necessarily need to learn to cook meat. Raising my children vegetarian is nothing more than a pipe dream. For practicality’s sake, I need to cook meat.
I made sure to my complete duty as an informed buyer: I questioned the farmer about his practices and about the cow’s quality of life. I had no problem picking through the various cuts of flesh that were laid out before me on the New York Beef table; the meat looked abstract and unreal in its thick shrink wrapped container. I was able to distance myself from the bloodied flesh in my hands and the illustrated cow imprinted on the bucolic label. “I can do this,” I thought to myself. “I can fry this up in a pan and be completely fine.” I handed the amicable farmer my credit card and for $13.82 I had in my hands the first piece of meat I would ever cook.
My menu for the night was as follows, a thoroughly ethical meal:
Homemade hummus with artisan olives (from the Whole Foods olive bar so you know they were expensive)
Organic, local, grass-fed beef with a balsamic reduction
Fusilli pasta with sautéed spinach and spiced, toasted walnuts in a garlic infused olive oil
vegan chocolate chip, coconut cookies bars
I rehearsed the order of events in my head: “Cook the steak first because it will probably take the longest. Then chop up and bake the walnuts. But when will I sauté the spinach? What time should I shower in order to allow my hair ample time to dry? Oh my god, the steak!” I was suddenly hit with the weight of my purchase. I called everyone I knew with the slightest culinary knowledge. I discussed marinating, searing, and temperature with my mom, my dad, my guy friend, and even my boyfriend’s brother.
I settled on my go-to marinade when I need tempeh in a hurry. I poured some balsamic vinegar, olive oil, a little maple syrup, chopped garlic, salt, and pepper into a thick zip-lock and whisked it all together. Now the part I was dreading: transferring the steak from its shrink-wrapped casing to the marinade bag.
I cut off the top of the package that contained the steak and pulled the opening large enough so the steak would, theoretically, simply slide out from the package into the zip-lock, saving me from having to actually touch the meat. But when I turned the package upside down, the blood created a suction between the meat and the plastic casing. Was I so stupid as to think I could cook a steak without having to physically touch it? Apparently I was. Looking at the flank, I could no longer disassociate the dead piece of flesh in front of me from the living, breathing being that it once was. My ethical reservations notwithstanding, I had committed to cooking this steak: I had to pull the steak out of its packaging.
I frantically searched my apartment for rubber gloves, but of course, as my luck would have it, none were to be found. Bare hands it is. With my pointer finger and my thumb, I pinched the top of the steak with the disgust of someone picking up a piece of dog shit. I pulled the steak from its casing, plopped it into the marinade bag, and then furiously scrubbed my hands clean. Thankfully, the vegetarian gods did not strike me dead. I actually felt unnervingly calm. Shouldn’t I be freaking out at my brush with the object that I have passionately defined myself against for the past five years?
I realize now how the majority of eaters are able to distance themselves from the packaged cuts of meat in the grocery store and the living animal from which those cuts came. The only moment that was particularly difficult for me was pulling the bloodied meat from the packaging, but if I was able to remove myself from the process for that long, then it must be significantly easy for the rest of the population.
I imagine my post-graduate life to be one of bucolic bliss. I want to live self-sufficiently off my land, each nights’ dinner provided by just-picked vegetables from mine and my husband’s organic farm. This vision inevitably includes livestock: chickens, pigs, maybe even a few cows. Luckily, my boyfriend shares a similar vision of the future; he wants to be an organic farmer. I want to tenderly care for the livestock, but he wants to kill them.
My vegetarianism is a personal, if not spiritual decision. For me, meat represents violence and death. Ingesting it allows death to enter the body, and gives unconscious consent to those who abuse and violate these animals prior to their death. With every animal-free meal, I am silently recognizing the violence of these acts and displaying a form of reverence. Vegetarianism is not sentimental. If any diet is sentimental, the omnivorous lifestyle bears the guilt in their refusal to acknowledge the death within each carnivorous meal.
Yes, I will allow my husband to slaughter our livestock. In raising and killing the animals himself, he is performing a similar reverence for death. He’s acknowledging the violence and looking death in the face, something that the average meat eater cannot, and refuses to do. They remove themselves from these acts through the cellophane and Styrofoam that pervade the grocery store’s refrigerated bins, and through silencing the cries for transparency from farm to table.
Cooking the steak was surprisingly easy. Despite the fact that I couldn’t taste-test the steak as I was cooking it, my boyfriend said it was delicious. He had his steak, I had my vegan pasta and hummus, but through this meal we were both celebrating and revering death.