My carnivorous heart

A meat eater struggles with her diet dilemma

As a child, Kel Munger helped her uncle kill a buck like this, which then became food for the family. Now, she has reservations about where her meat’s coming from.

As a child, Kel Munger helped her uncle kill a buck like this, which then became food for the family. Now, she has reservations about where her meat’s coming from.

When buying meat and animal products, look for producers who do not confine animals. The American Humane Association’s American Humane Certified program labels products that meet their standards of humane handling.

I am convinced.

I’ve read the books and news reports. I’ve learned that meat eating (and the industrial feedlot-based agribusiness it supports) is as bad for the planet as it is for my cholesterol. I’m aware that the energy required to produce a delightfully marbled rib-eye for my consumption is about 11 times that required to produce a plant-based meal with equal caloric and protein content. Believe me, I feel guilty about it.

But apparently, not guilty enough. By the time that juicy, buttered piece of steak is fully masticated, I’m cutting another.

Perhaps I’m less evolved than I ought to be, a bit too closely related to the “hunting” side of our hunting-and-gathering ancestors. I have killed my own dinner. I shot at (and missed) a three-point buck, which my Uncle Buck then brought down. Unlike the Alaska governor, I’m not much for field dressing, but I helped back when I was growing up in Oregon’s Siuslaw Valley.

I’ve hauled up crab rings, sorted out the females and tossed them back into the river along with undersized males, then taken the catch home to boil up and serve with crackers. And I’ve learned the hard way that you don’t name a pig you’re going to make into pork chops, though I can’t say my Auntie Peg didn’t warn me that calling him “Wilbur” was a bad idea.

It’s not that I don’t know where meat comes from, it’s that “where meat comes from” has changed so much since I first learned to love eating it. The last pork chop I ate that came from a hog I’d actually seen would be one Auntie Peg cooked in the early 1970s; since then, my chops have all been wrapped up in plastic.

So what’s a carnivore to do when it’s socially, culturally and physically irresponsible to eat so much meat? Everything I know how to cook has meat as a central ingredient: pot roast, grilled salmon, sweet-and-sour pork chops.

Frankly, I just don’t see how becoming a vegetarian is going to work for me.

Fortunately, one of my favorite cookbook authors has a suggestion. Mark Bittman, author of How to Cook Everything, has made a counteroffer: Become a flexitarian.

I like the sound of that.

Yes, Bittman suggests change in his new book, Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating: reducing my consumption of meat and other unsustainable foods; substituting local and sustainable foods; paying a little more for what meat I do eat in order to insure that it has come to me from sustainable and humane sources; and, yep, learning how to cook new things. Well, it’s not like change has to be easy, just doable.

Unlike trying to guilt me (which is really pretty easy to do) or shame me (also easy) into feeling bad about liking meat (and we won’t even discuss my strange relationship with Twinkies), Bittman takes a positive approach. It’s not about what I shouldn’t eat, he says, but what I should eat.

And even though I’m focused on the meat—always the first thing I zero in on whenever someone suggests I should eat sustainably—Bittman has a holistic approach to food and the planet. He adds—only slightly—to Michael Pollan’s mantra from In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto: “Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much.”

In Bittman’s case, the focus is on the central part of the mantra. His suggestion is to cut back on animal foods. Just eat less meat, eggs and dairy: smaller portions, less frequently, used as treats or flavoring rather than staples. Cut back on the meat slowly, he suggests, switching first to meat-and-plant dishes and then gradually cutting back on the amount of meat added.

Then gorge—and that’s the word Bittman uses—on plant foods, with a preference for the green, leafy kind. He doesn’t even dwell on the “not too much” part; this isn’t a diet book. It’s an eating-for-the-planet-and-yourself book.

I like it. Especially the “self” part.