A carnivore’s dilemma

Can a writer survive without his Western Bacon Cheeseburgers?

Photo By David Jayne

I consider my carbon footprint to be pretty low.

Except for a brief two-year stint in Los Angeles, I have never owned a car. I rarely even use my motorcycle to get around. And lately, as I train for charity rides, I’ve ridden my bicycle to just about every part of the Sacramento area. I’ve also decided to not have children, partly because I truly feel the planet is overrun with humans. (OK, I’m also selfish and don’t want to give up sleeping in on weekends.)

So when Sena hounded me for my meat-eating ways, I scoffed. Sure, I could live without the luxury of cars and the joys of diaper changing, but abstaining from meat? No way.

But, as always, Sena was onto something: The meat-for-food industry is a major contributor to greenhouse gases and global warming. I’ve known that for a while. But I would soothe my eco-guilt by joking that I was a part-time vegetarian, which was just another way of saying that I could chomp down a juicy Western Bacon Cheeseburger whenever I felt like it.

So giving up meat for this experiment wasn’t a problem; it was just a test of willpower. No, the hardest part was dealing with my carnivorous friends and family and having to rethink the hows and whys of what I eat.

Just a few days after diving into this challenge, I get invited to a friend’s house for an evening of barbecue and drunken Rock Band. Whenever I’m eating with these friends, the only vegetarian foods are side dishes. So I stopped by a grocery store and picked up a pack of veggie dogs. They looked disgusting.

At the house, I pull the dogs out of my backpack and throw them on the counter. The interrogation starts immediately. I explain the challenge.

“Wait, this isn’t permanent, is it?” asks Jason, a guy I’ve known since high school, through a mouthful of corn chips and salsa. He emphasizes “permanent,” making this no-meat thing sound like a botched face lift.

Theo throws two of the veggie hot dogs on the grill. I sip a Fat Tire—thank God beer is vegetarian—and try to explain that it’s for the environment. Some of my friends are supportive. Others, even my pro-gay, pro-choice, pro-Obama friends, pity me. Others flaunt their meat dishes in my face. I don’t blame them. I would do the same thing.

The veggie dogs are tasteless. I load them up with ketchup, mustard and relish to give them some flavor. When that doesn’t work, I pour on gobs of habanero sauce. It helps, but I’ll never eat them again. My friends laugh at my meatless misery.

Meatpaper barbecue

So why do people look at you strangely when you tell them you don’t eat meat? To get some answers, I call Sasha Wizansky while walking home from work a few days after the barbecue. From her office in San Francisco, Wizansky co-edits Meatpaper, a quarterly journal dedicated to all things carnivorous. The latest issue—No. 6—features a business suit made of steak on the cover.

Wizansky became a vegetarian at age 13. One day at summer camp, she suddenly became repulsed by meat. It wasn’t about protest or politics, she simply didn’t feel like eating it anymore. She abstained from flesh until her senior year in college. Her downfall? One afternoon at a favorite Thai restaurant, a friend tempted her with a bite—just a bite—from a chicken dish served in a pineapple hull. Like Eve tasting the fruit of the tree, there was no going back.

With her vegetarian days decidedly behind her, Wizansky started talking to people about meat. She was surprised by how much there was to say about it. It’s a divisive food, she says over the crackle of the cell phone, but some people can even get spiritual when it comes to their meat.

And, she says, there’s something very American about our barbecues.

I can see our country’s love of meat at the grocery store a few days later: open refrigeration units hold pounds and pounds of beef, pork and poultry. The average American eats 176 pounds of meat per year.

All that meat wreaks havoc on the environment. Livestock production accounts for 18 percent of the world’s greenhouse-gas emissions.

But the idea that an agricultural process can contribute to global warming seems counterintuitive. Every Saturday morning in the ’90s, I watched the green-haired Captain Planet and his trusty Planeteers battle mechanized, industrialized environmental threats: gas-powered chainsaws clearing rainforest trees, factory smokestacks belching dark pollutants into the sky. Nobody ever pointed out that one of the big reasons those forests were chopped down was so that cattle could graze.

But as I wander around the supermarket with an armful of groceries—hummus, cheddar cheese, an organic apple—I wonder how I’m going to get the protein I need. Just about everyone I’ve told about this experiment has asked me how I’m going to get enough protein. I don’t know how to answer that. I don’t even know how much protein I should be getting.

I’m heading back to the produce section in search of nuts when it hits me: I’m 31 years old, and I’ve never really thought about what I should put in my body every day. Besides protein, am I getting enough of, well, anything?

Veggie-protein power

Later that evening, I make an appointment with Garret Radcliffe, the director of fitness at my local 24 Hour Fitness. I joined the gym a couple of weeks earlier, and as a new member, I get a free health-and-fitness consultation.

When we meet, I ask him what I should be concerned with as a vegetarian. The main thing is protein, he says, which is made up of amino acids. “There are 29 amino acids,” Radcliffe says, “Nine of which you can’t produce and need to get from other sources.”

Based on my weight and heavy cycling schedule, he calculates that I need 110 grams of protein a day. He tells me to eat a mix of protein-rich foods, such as beans, nuts, eggs and green leafy vegetables.

“No protein source is absolutely complete by itself,” He says. “Even the protein powders we sell here in the club won’t give you all the types of protein you need.”

Photo By David jayne

Radcliffe’s advice is helpful, but I still don’t really know what I’m doing.

After the first week, I meet with Sena to get more pointers. We’ve ridden our bicycles—with Sena complaining the entire way—to a grocery store near her apartment. We’re picking up ingredients to cook a sampling of veggie platters.

We mull over the different types of tomatoes in the produce section. “I’m a bad vegetarian,” she says. “I get what’s cheap. I don’t always buy organic.”

That’s the twisted reality of eating responsibly: It empties your wallet. McDonald’s charges 99 cents for an energy-intensive double cheeseburger, yet I pay more than $1 for a single organic apple.

When it comes to making meat, it’s like we live in some bizarro world. Consider the following: In one year, a single person uses 5,200 gallons of water for showers, yet it takes 5,214 gallons of water to produce just 1 pound of beef. Making a single calorie of beef requires 54 calories of fossil-fuel energy. The amount of land needed to sustain one person with beef could be used to sustain some 20 people if it were used for growing rice, potatoes or cabbage. Making meat is an incredible waste of water, energy and resources.

At least one local group, the Sacramento Vegetarian Society, is actively pushing an Earth-friendly veggie diet. And I first meet them, of all places, at Capitol Dawg. The famous Midtown home of brats, hot links and Polish sausages wouldn’t be my first choice for this month’s meet-up of strict plant eaters. But president Linda Middlesworth tells me that’s the point.

“We want to show people that you can get a plant-based diet anywhere,” says Middlesworth. “Even a place like this.”

As I chomp down a vegan dog smothered in sauerkraut and mustard, the SVS members get passionate about their green diet.

“Veganism really is the only sustainable diet,” says one.

“The CO2 emissions from vehicles doesn’t compare to that from animal agriculture,” says another.

“Eggs and cheese have opiates,” says yet another.

But Middlesworth knows that when it comes to giving up meat, most people can’t go cold turkey. So she suggests following New York Times columnist Mark Bittman’s “vegan before dinnertime” plan: “Eat vegan before 6 p.m.,” she says. “After that, eat whatever you want.”

After dinner, they hit the streets to pass out a map of Midtown vegetarian restaurants. The Second Saturday crowd reacts in different ways.

Some take the maps: “Oh! Awesome!”

Others politely refuse: “No, thanks.”

A few seem confused: “No, I’m a Christian.”

Double dare’s end

Near the end of week four, Sena and I meet up to talk about our experiment. She’s driven a total of six times. I’ve had meat once—a stray piece of chicken somehow popped up in what was supposed to veggie stir-fry dish.

“So, what have you learned from all this?” she asks.

I tell her that there’s great news when it comes to fighting global warming: that the most effective way for anyone to reduce their carbon footprint—giving up meat—is also quite easy. Every restaurant I’ve visited had vegetarian options.

I’ve learned that I need to rethink the role food plays in my life. Up until now, food has been about convenience and satisfying cravings. For the past 30 days, I’ve had to rethink food as fuel for my body.

And last, I’ve learned that when it comes to a challenge, Sena is more princess than warrior.

“Dude, I had to run errands!” she says.

A week after the experiment ends, I’m back at the same friends’ house for more barbecue and drunken Rock Band.

I had told them that I would continue this vegetarian thing—for now. But as Chuck waves a sirloin cut in front of me, I revise my plan: I will eat meat once a week. My friends seem happy with this idea. Now I don’t have to be that weird vegetarian guy at social events. No matter what Sena thinks.

More importantly, I am happy with it. After all, I did ride my bicycle out to their house. That merits an occasional steak.