It’s What’s for Dinner

YummmAbout a year and a half ago I triumphantly kicked Coca-Cola, something I did to assuage my concerns about my own long-term health. Happily, my soda consumption is still relatively light — I’ll have one every few weeks, perhaps, but I no longer crave that particularly satisfying bite of a glass of cola. But as I get further along into my thirties, I realize that, as methods of arresting one’s incrementally declining health go, giving up soda is hardly a comprehensive plan for long life.

Right now, I’ve got it in my head that I need to kick beef, too. It’s always struck me that consuming red meat is something like trying to get a train wreck through one’s body; it’s spectacular and awful and a mess to clean up. I’m sure there are arguments in favor of beef consumption in moderation, but I’m not sure I buy them. What’s more, I’ve been haunted lately by the ethics of the entire slaughter process — how horrific it is to think about the thousands of cattle being led to their demise, and how much sheer force is required to take a cow down (forgive the crude terminology). I know there’s nothing egalitarian about poultry or pork production, either, but something about beef gives me shivers.

So Good

The thing is, I’ve always taken great pleasure in the taste of beef — in all kinds of cooking. There are dozens of unbelievably satisfying dishes in Vietnamese cuisine in which beef plays a starring role, many of which I grew up eating regularly and with great alacrity. I’ve had beef in France and Italy and even in the culinarily-challenged United Kingdom and thought to myself each time, “This is living.” I’ve relished the taste of a great hamburger many, many times and, gawd, I’ve unabashedly driven far out of my way to get my hands on one.

I’m thinking a lot about this because I’m going to dinner tonight with friends at a restaurant in New York that, though not the most famous of its kind, is my favorite steak house in the city. The rib-eye steak there is gorgeous and decadent, and it’s going to take an herculean effort to resist it. I’m not sure I’ll be able to; in fact, I’m more confident that, afterwards, I’ll be filled with a stomach full of expensive red meat and a chest full of regret. Rationally speaking, I’m so sure that beef is cruel and inhumane, and that it constitutes a kind of velvet assault on my cardiac health, and yet I’m drawn to it. Jeez, if they only had a version of the nicotine patch for people trying to kick beef, I’d head to the pharmacy right now.

  1. I think moderation, exercise, and lots of fruits and vegetables are the key to a healthy diet/lifestyle. Contrary to what many fad books would want you to believe, broad research shows there’s really no such thing as poison food or things that should be avoided 100% — it’s about understanding and appreciating that some things are a lot better for you than others, and consuming in an informed, balanced, smart way. There’s a pretty compelling argument that simple starches (like white rice, white bread, potatos) are more harmful than fats, but again anything in moderation and balance.

    I’ve gone through the meat issue(s) as well, and I have friends who are chefs and very serious cooks. I finally came to this bottom line: the ethical issues of food production are separate from the health issues, despite the cross-arguments that are prolifigate. We live in a society that has a lot of ugliness inherent in the way things are produced, people are treated, and money is made. If you want to start really looking at all those things, good luck and my hat’s off to you, but there’s nastiness under ever rock you’re going to turn over. Most of America should change their diets, but you certainly can continue to eat meat and do so in a way that doesn’t erode your health.

  2. I believe that there are very few natural foods that, when eaten in moderation, are “bad” for you. Meat is one of them.

    Pretty much everything out there is bad for you if you eat too much of it. Mixing red meat in with fish, chicken, pork, etc. is part of a healthy diet and appetite.

    You just have to avoid the McDonald’s, Taco Bells, and other “purveyors” of “beef byproducts.” 🙂

  3. Yes, I completely agree — all things in moderation. I think it’s entirely possible to eat beef as part of a healthy diet, and I agree with Tom that if you start trying to approach all food from an ethical perspective, you’re taking on a huge burden. But more and more, I’m thinking that both health-wise and ethics-wise, laying off of beef is something that’s right for me. I’m not 100% sure of that, I should say, I’m, just thinking about it.

  4. I remember watching a tv documentary about a chinese doctor, who was like 600 years old or something, who preached the virtues of eating what he called ‘simple’ foods.

    I too have been looking into my diet now for the past year (having been forced into it through ill health last year). After my visit to the hospital I asked the doctor if I needed to make any changes to my diet, he said “no, eat what you like” – I didn’t believe him, so I saw a nutritionalist who basically said eat ‘simple’ foods – fruit, nuts, seeds vegetables and cut down on bread, processed sugars and saturated fats – as a result i’ve been well for over six months and feel much better as a result. Old chinese guys seem to know what they’re talking about.

    In western society we eat way too many processed foods – too much fat, refined sugar and wheat. Red meat is ok as long as it’s good meat, as humans we are designed to eat meat, but good meat.

  5. (Khoi, long time listener, first-time poster.)

    I have to echo the last paragraph of Tom’s, re: society and ugliness.

    There are lots of nasty, creepy crawly bugs under those ethical rocks once you start looking; it kills me that should my Almighty Temple of ElectricityЎ grow dim, I and my dependents (and most of the rest of the Western world) are basically hosed, reverting back to some caveman-like existence, screaming, “Can they just get the power back on?! Please?!” And yet, I can sum up the other side of the argument in two words: air conditioning.

    My parents raised me in an environment of self-reliance, food storage, etc., but I’ve never worked a farm. I couldn’t milk a cow if you pointed a gun at my head. Point: If you are reaching the point where you question all the ethics of all of the production processes of all of the modern technology and conveniences in your life, its seems that the only moral thing to do is get off the grid, move to Montana, and live in a log cabin with your livestock. We’ve come so far, yet progressed so little.

    Re: “It’s What’s For Dinner”: I grew up with a fairly ovo-vegetarian palate placed before me (and my in-laws are renowned carnivores, go figure), and it wasn’t until two years ago that I picked up a beef product, processed or otherwise. Granted, the process is cruel and inhumane, but as you said, there’s nothing egalitarian about processing poultry or fish. (You should see the turkey farms in my area of the country.) Again, as Tom—and many other wise scholars have—stated, moderation in all things is generally the best path to go. Take something off one side of the teeter-totter and you drop right to the ground.

    (Rhetorically, from creative to creative: Would you rather give up meat or cut four to five hours out of your 12-hour work day, which is certainly also burning the candle at both ends?)

  6. Shit, I didn’t even know cutting four to five hours from my work day was an option! Seriously, you’re right, I bet working less and managing fewer stressful demands on my time would probably add years to my life.

  7. Yah, I mean, props to the people that can do it. I had a friend of 20 years recently move to Japan to become a Buddhist monk. Rock on, I envy his dedication and sincerity. Almost short of that I think that most ethically-based decisions on things like this border on the self-delusional, and they’re about making you feel better about yourself, rather than making any kind of difference (sad I know, cynical maybe, but likely true). As the candle at both ends comment points out, look at health and wellness holistically — and moderate extremes. There are definitely ethical issues around eating, driving, and spending $20 on a Spiderman movie. How one chooses to deal with them (or not) is a personal decision, but more mental-health related than physical.

  8. I too think moderation is the key. I stopped eating beef about 10 years ago, so it is possible. On occasion I’ll have a bite of steak or something but overall I really haven’t had more and a hamburger,or two, since I stopped.

  9. yes, i also agree that everything in moderation is a good way to live your life. i’m a vegetarian now but it took a long time to get here. i originally gave up red meat because it caused me to have all types of digestion problems. once that was out of the way, i took an ethical look at the rest of the meat industry and realized that i couldn’t put dead animals in my body anymore. i also realized that you can be a vegetarian and eat and live a healthy life.

    now, i often keep my vegetarianism to myself because no one likes to be lectured on this topic, and i personally don’t like to talk about it. but i’m here to say that you should try taking red meat out of your diet to see if it works for you. set yourself a goal/deadline like “i’ll not eat red meat for two months and see how i feel.” that way you can gauge your body and see if it works and if it doesn’t you can always go back to eating it. or, you may be like me and cut it out completely! who knows.

  10. Speaking as someone who as been: a vegetarian (6 years); vegan (one very sad, incredibly skinny year); abstainer of red meat (5 years), I think I am qualified to say that the vast majority of people *need* some level of red meat in their diet. There just are proteins and such that you can’t get anywhere else, no matter what the tofu / TVP manufacturers claim.

    About two years ago, I finally gave into what my body had been telling me during my entire time away from red meat, and started eating the occasional bit of red meat here and there. My overall energy level and mental alertness hasn’t been better.

    I think the goal with eating red meat (or meat of any kind) is to try and get as close to the source as possible. I try to find farmers and other providers who provide organically-fed “product” (a nicer way of saying “meat”) straight from the field. It’s much easier to know what you’re getting, and what the animals were being fed, which is key in our screwed up, BSE / ruminant-as-feed world.

    One thing that people forget is what the vast majority of chickens are fed. Just because you’re avoiding putting red meat into your mouth doesn’t mean your local chicken farm isn’t.

    P.S. Why did I become a vegetarian / avoid red meat in the first place? I worked in a meat packing plant (chicken, pork, and beef) for six months.

  11. I’m an omnivore and have a balanced diet and exercise regularly. I haven’t been ill for more than two years, even whilst those around me sneeze their germs in my vicinity.

    I’m approaching ethics in my lifestyle from the point of view of how I consume resources. E.g. Cycle for short journeys, use public transport when possible, reduce the number of flights I take, switch to a ‘green’ electricity provider, and so on and so forth.

  12. what works for one person does not always work for everyone. i think that every person’s body retains a delicate balance that needs to be tweaked in order to get the right output. i’ve been a vegetarian for 5 years and never been healthier. when i was a meat-eater, i used to get sick 5 times a year! now, i get a cold MAYBE once a year. i workout regularly and have as much energy as the person sitting next to me. also, my husband has been vegan for 11 years and he’s possibly one of the healthiest people i know! so, in essence, neil’s found a healthy balance that works for him. i found one that works for me and khoi can experiment for himself.

    hhmmmm, i’m not sure about *need*ing red meat. i think most people *think* that they need it but it really comes down to knowing and being educated on the right kind of diet should they go without it. but like i’ve said, to each his own… though *need* and *want* are two different things.

    the rest of neil’s comment is dead-on about finding products that are organically farmed. it’s good to know that people care enough about what they put in their bodies, meat or not.

  13. Everyone is different. As much as we are the same as a species there are many different things that we as a people grew up eating. Myself I tried to be veg for 2 years, until I ended up in the hospital. I was a veg with two of my room mates at the time, they both were vegs for like 2 years before that. They are still, but they unlike me are 160lbs and about 5feet 8inches. Me on the other hand 6foot 6 and 210lbs. I need meet, I am one big guy. I think its all a personal choice, do what you want cut red meat, if it works for you then hell yeah, if it doesn’t then you tried. all in all this is you. We all have different ways of using food, its a fact. Well good luck, and I used live on a farm in Northern Canada; did it all chickens, turkeys and pigs. It does take a lot of force to take down a cow.

  14. As an adjunct: I’ve been trying to eat healthier for a few weeks now. But as of around noon, I think I’m coming down with a cold. Maybe I should go back to McDonald’s.

  15. Okay, here’s a thought. You think that kicking beef altogether might be for you. Why not try it for a specific period of time and then decide whether to make it a permanent change? A few years ago, I gave up meat altogether for the specific period of a year. During that time, I eschewed all attempts by my friends to cajole me back to eating meat and successfully met my goal. (There were some severe times of temptation – such as when I was in Nairobi and several friends invited me to “The Carnivore,” a restaurant that serves a number of exotic types of meat such as crocodile, ostrich, zebra, among others. But I was able to overcome even this.)

    At the end of that period, I decided to go back to eating meat, but I found that my time without had profoundly affected my appetite. To this day, I get more delight from a bowl or pasta or a good salad. Do I sometimes crave a hamburger – heck yeah. But not nearly as often as I used to.

  16. Yah, it’s chicken and the egg, but my friends who seem most obsessed with healthy eating and wholesome lifestyle are the ones who always seem to be sick or fighting a cold. Maybe they get obsessed because they have some immune deficiency and feel shitty all the time, or maybe they just have a lower tolerance and are hyper sensitive to feeling perfect. Most of the time I feel like I need some sleep but I run my engine pretty hard for extended periods without worrying too much about the details. One thing for sure, feels great to make your body work.

  17. Perhaps the solution lies in non-kill meat, that is “meat” which is artificially grown from certain natural cow cells. This is something I, for one, would like to see. Imagine both the humanity and practicality of this technology – an unlimited supply of beef, free of the harmful chemicals currently used on cattle, while forever eliminating the sad practice of wholesale animal slaughter.

    Technology is the answer – that is unless those elitist European anti-GMO activists somehow falsely, and selfishly convince the world that it would spell certain disaster for humanity (much like they’re currently doing with genetically modified crops).

  18. raphy, ha! have you ever seen “soylent green”? i’m suddenly struck with the vision of chuck with his fist in the air shouting “soylent green is made of… PEOPLE!”

  19. Never even heard of that film, but just googled it. Interesting premise for sure. I may have to netflix it now.

  20. not eating red meat is a good thing i went through as well once you try it again it will be really hard to digest and make you feel like crud the upside is you will lose weight being as how white meats digest easier and burn calories easier dont leave an old frined totally its nice once in a while if you eat a lean burger

  21. Khoi –
    Try it, slowly as others have suggested. Or, as Tom succintly stated, in moderation. Extremes aren’t always for everyone. I gave up beef 12 years ago (though admittedly, I’ve indulged once a year, if that) and I’m more or less a seafood and veggies kind of a guy. I loved chicken for the longest time but really, chicken is sort of a bland food – “tastes like chicken.”

    Here’s something you could do, in tandem with moderation – start buying organic high quality meats. Head to Whole Foods or a similar health-leaning supermarket or a farmers market and buy organic/free range meats. It tastes amazingly better (just like free range vegetarian fed hens for eggs) and keeps things in check if you’re worried about health.

  22. And another positive in eating organic beef: the price will make you NEVER WANT TO EAT IT AGAIN. In Australia we’re at least lucky that beef isn’t ‘grown’ in feedlots – cattle live a relatively comfortable, chemical-free life until the uncomfortable moment of their deaths. It’s the environmental damage done by cattle and sheep farming that concerns me, and leads me to the ethical decision not to eat beef. Unfortunately, my tastebuds are ignoring my ethics, for the moment.

  23. I myself am appalled by the treatment of animals on farms and in slaughter houses. I think there is a definite (and disturbing) mentality of taking (all) meat for granted in a lot of the industrialized world. Most people would give up meat forever if they had to actually kill and prepare each animal they consumed.

    That said, I also don’t buy into the vegetarian (or vegan) mindset of not consuming animals. Human beings are omnivorous no matter how you look at us. Our digestive tract is capable of breaking down meat, and we possess a number of canine teeth, designed for eating meat. But by the same light we can also see that we don’t have a mouth full of canines, nor can our digestive system handle huge quanities of meat.

    With those things considered I’ve instead reduced my meat consumption to one meal per day. To keep my conscience a little clearer I try to always buy meat that has been prepared in a humane fashion. When eating out I generally order vegetarian dishes because I cannot be sure where the meat is supplied from.

    Another consideration that I also included in my decisions process regarding meat was the actual slaughter of animals. I personally don’t have much problem with killing animals to eat them. In nature every animal kills other living things to survive, whether it’s a bird eating a mouse or a cow eating grass. Living organisms outside the plant kingdom feed on other living organisms. But that doesn’t give us the right to treat animals poorly before they are slaughtered.

    Finally, for me the bottom line is that meat tastes good and has nutritional value.

  24. Tim – some interesting points. As a seafood and vegetable eater, I don’t do it so much for the ethics though I’m quite appalled at the way the meat industry is operated in the States.

    Virginia – also interesting. In countries like Malaysia for example, you can go down to your local farmer’s market first thing in the morning and know that the meat that’s hanging up on the pole that supports the stall was killed that very morning. That’s as close to getting farm-raised fresh meat as it gets.

    I have to say, as a kid who grew up eating steak all the time, I certainly appreciate good meat and yes it does taste good and can do some good. I mean a really good lean medium rare organic steak goes down real smooth in the throat.

    In the end, moderation is key ‘innit?

  25. I was a vegetarian for 9 years and I attempted veganism several times (always failing). I found I was always inspired to go vegan when I was educating myself on the ethical and health issues involved. I recommend two books that may help you make the transition if you choose to: 1) Vegan: The New Ethics of Eating, Revised Edition, and the classic 2) Diet for a New America. If you are mainly interested in it for health reasons, wait until you read about cancer rates in countries where meat is not a large part of the diet.

    Today I’m a filthy hedonistic meat-eater, and quite a bit less idealistic. That’s another story. I can tell you first-hand the human body functions differently without the proteins found in meat. I’m sick a lot less and I have more energy, and basically I enjoy food a lot more. You give up a lot being a vegetarian, but it’s a great thing for the animals, our planet, and ourselves. In the end though, I think an altruistic approach or any diet that doesn’t take into account the dichotomy of our being will fail.

  26. Nutritionally, the color of the meat is simply a reflection of how much iron the animal consumes. Cows, which eat lots of grass, have red meat. There are plenty of cuts of beef that are healthier than bacon…

    The environmental and safety concerns you raise over factory farming are valid, but they’re not going to magically go away if you switch to chicken, pork, or even vegetables.

    Ethically, I’ve come to terms with the fact that, as animals, we kill things and eat them in order to live. Somewhere along the Magic Continuum Of Life you need to draw the line and say “everything on this side is ok to kill; everything on this other side isn’t”, and ideally you’d have some rational explanation for the position of that line.

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