Monday, May 23, 2011

The Poetics of Meatspace

There's a very persuasive, enveloping mythology around meat in this country. Most people seem to believe that vegetarians are only able to remain vegetarian through an extreme force of will, and that, if/when they go back to eating meat, it will seem insanely, irresistibly delicious, and they'll realize they were deluding themselves into believing they could live without the magic of meat, etc.

Neither holds true for me. About six years ago I decided to cut back on my meat eating, for ethical reasons, but ended up giving it up entirely, because I stopped wanting it. It was easy to do without. I'm gradually adding some meat back into my diet (this time for health reasons; now that grains and soy are a problem it's no longer easy to live without meat), and for the most part I find it less than delicious -- certainly way less delicious than I remembered it being. I used to think meat had a pretty neutral taste (the way vegetarians think of tofu, though tofu also has its own taste). Now I think it tastes like what it is: muscles and blood. After I swallow a bite of meat the metallic tinge reminds me of having a cut in my mouth. (This isn't true of bacon, of course, because bacon is salted and smoked within an inch of its life/death and is mostly fat anyway, not flesh. It's true that bacon is the most vegetarian-friendly meat for this reason: it tastes the least like meat.)

I'm curious: If you have returned to eating meat after an extended period without it, what was your adjustment period like, if there was one? Did meat taste like you remembered it? Better? Worse? If different/worse, did it ever go back to seeming normal?


  1. I've been a vegetarian for about four or five years now. More recently I've gotten lax with myself when it comes to a specific local resturuant that sources everything from nearby farms, as well as with a specific Indian dish--Chicken Tikka--that seems to sit well with my digestive system when nothing else will. I always liked my meat medium-well/well done, I was never a huge meat fan beyond steak and chicken and BLTs.

    But yeah, I agree with you, whenever I have had meat. Save for this one slice of amazing amazing salami, it muscles and blood. Like the inside of my own mouth. While sometimes this is covered up or complimented (in cases the like you mentioned with bacon, or with a welldone burger or certain indian dishes) but mostly, I prefer tofu. I actually went veggie when I started cooking for myself--moved out of the dorms--and tried to cook chicken for the first time and was pretty repulsed by the process. I kinda love how tofu is just...super versatile nutrient sponge blocks :)

  2. Salami! I should seek out some salami. I bet salami tastes nothing like meat. :)

    I used to like almost every kind of meat, including rare steak and bloody burgers. I'm staying well away from beef for now though. I'm thinking that, as long as meat tastes like blood to me anyway, I should eat liver, because it's extremely nutrient dense.

  3. Dear Elisa,
    I became much more meat-centric when I started having reactions to some fruits, veggies, and of course, wheat - and it's been a fairly pleasant rediscovery. I also love the magic of eggs - meringues, custard, souffles - who knew you could make eggs imitate dessert so well?
    I've always been anemic (both regular and b-12 anemic) so meat has been sort of a religiously-thrust-upon-me thing by doctors etc. So while I grew up loving veggies, I sort of dreaded meat (and my mom liked to cook the daylights out of meat in order to "make sure it was safe." Which, it turns out, makes it taste terrible. It turns out I love rare filet mignon, for instance. I love a good cheeseburger (even sans the bun.) But then again, I've had that thing where I craved metals (like tasting jewelry and such) so the current meat-love I have may be related to the need for iron? And the lack of other fallback things, like bread?

  4. Eggs really are magic. A few years ago I discovered how much better the omega 3 ones are and I've never gone back, even if they cost twice as much.

    When I really want a big protein hit and eggs won't do, I like to get a tuna steak and just sear the outsides. But I haven't seen tuna at Whole Foods for less than $22/lb in a long time. Ugh.

  5. I just realized I've never had a piece of meat that was less than medium-well. My dad has always insisted on well done, even better if it's actually charred to cinder, so that's what I grew up eating, as least as far as steaks and burgers went. The idea of eating red/pink meat still makes me nervous.

  6. So, I was a vegetarian from birth till I was almost 16. My family wasn't vegetarian, but I refused meat from the start and they never pushed it or made a big deal about it. Then I went to Switzerland as an exchange student and was told by the exchange program that I needed to loosen up and be easier to feed/live with. So I started eating fish and chicken. It took a little getting used to, but it wasn't too bad. Later I lived in Italy and started eating pork. Because prosciutto, come on.

    Now, I'm still largely vegetarian. I cook with meat when I entertain pretty regularly (roast chicken, pork stew, etc.), but I can easily go weeks without eating meat and not really notice. I also use bacon and other pork as a sort of condiment pretty regularly. But I still don't really eat beef – probably because it is the ultimate in flesh-and-blood. I've had smoked brisket (cooked for 24 hours) that was pretty good, but rare steaks or hamburgers don't really appeal to me.

    That said, I enjoy being an easier guest now. And I would be sad not to ever again taste the slow-roasted pork stew over polenta that I made a couple of weeks ago.

  7. Bronwen, I really miss being an easy guest. Even if/when I eat meat, I'm a pain in the ass now. I get a little tense when people offer to have me over for dinner.

    I should say I was never really vegetarian, just pescatarian. But fish is really nothing like other meat (mammal, fowl, etc.) taste- or texture-wise. I had forgotten, or not realized, how different they are. Most fish just kind of falls apart in your mouth. You don't have to sit around chewing the sinew for five minutes...

  8. I've never been a vegetarian, though in recent months I've begun cutting back on meat eating, especially on red meat, eating more chicken and fish and eggs. I also like ham now and then, which has a thing similar to bacon, smoked and salted to death.

    These days when I have some red meat now and then, I'm now much more aware of the muscle-and-blood effect, and the metallic taste. (When I was a kid, if I would get a small cut or scratch and would instinctively suck on it or lick it, I was always surprised by the taste, again the taste of metal.) I'd guess it would have to be the taste of the iron in the blood.

    I have a couple of friends on the west coast who are basically vegetarians, although they do eat meat, however they don't eat dairy. They both moved to Madison, Wisconsin, for a couple of years to do grad student work at the U. there, and I could hardly think of a more difficult place to live and not eat dairy. In most places, when you drive along the highway, there are signs periodically that say "Gas - Food - Lodging" -- in Wisconsin, the signs say (I'm not making this up) "Gas - Food - Lodging - Cheese."

  9. Lyle, that is hilarious.

    I agree ham comes close to bacon in terms of its tangential relationship to meat. Things like sausage taste as I remember them too -- highly seasoned and texturized so as to remove all associations with the animal itself.

  10. I've been a lacto-ovo vegetarian since I was thirteen years old. That was a long time ago. I haven't looked back.

    My son has been a lacto-ovo vegetarian since birth. He went through a hot dog phase when he was five that lasted for two years but I kept on taking him past the butcher at the Pike Place Market to show him the skinned pig's head in the window and eventually he finished his hot dog phase. I didn't fight him on it. He has been vegetarian ever since. He's 30. He's 5"6' tall, surfs, and has never been sick except for a sprained knee.

    I can't imagine "missing" meat. The concept is just too out there for me. I can't speak for anyone else. I'm not a zealot.

  11. I would prefer to remain pescatarian, mostly vegetarian. But I would also prefer to eat pizza and oatmeal and wedding cake. Most tragically of all, I think tomatoes (my favorite food) are inching their way on the list of problematic foods.

  12. E, I was a vegetarian for a few years in my early 20s. I was just curious. Then I moved to England didn't trust any of the food. (I don't know why.) It wasn't difficult for me to stop eating meat until I stayed in Italy. It's hard to explain to an Italian grandma why you won't eat her meal. If not for social times, I'd easily stay vegetarian. However, I do like the taste of some meats. I crave a hamburger every now and a again.

    When I went back to eating meat, it was exactly how I remembered it. I can't eat a lot of it, though, without having a stomach ache for two days. My boyfriend's a meat-and-starch dinner kinda guy. I get a kick out of cooking for him, but usually eat much smaller portions of the meat.

    One thing I'll never get is peoples' freak-outs over bacon. Bacon, to me, smells just like the biscuits I give my dog.

  13. I like bacon mostly as a condiment. A bit crumbled in a breakfast taco, for inst!

  14. i wish my house was a denny's, at least in the mornings. as it is, i never get to eat a real breakfast.

  15. I used to wake up starving every morning, for years. Oddly, I'm never hungry in the morning anymore and have to force myself to eat a little something. I've lost my taste for cereal, which I used to love, in the same way I've lost my taste for ice cream. When I wake up I like to have coffee and then breakfast an hour or two later.

  16. yeah i like to wait until i get to work. i'm typing this with my right hand and eating a bagel with the other. and the coffee is free.