Earth Day presentations at high school are fraught with issues; the usual recommendations are to change your lightbulbs and buy solar panels, with not much in between. This year, they added “Don’t eat meat.” “Will you tell the whole school why you don’t eat meat?” they asked. “I don’t think so,” I replied. “It’s not a simple answer.” After all, it goes back to a rainy college summer….
It was my last summer at home. I was to be a senior, graduating in June, and no longer able—or willing—to move back home after graduation. It was not the best summer. First, everyone else was doing something cool, an internship, traveling, anything but living with their moms in Hampstead, New Hampshire. I was lonely. Second, my boyfriend broke up with me via letter as soon as I unpacked my stuff. Then, it rained every Monday all summer long; I know, I checked the records. It was damp and cool and nothing grew. And, I was a meat wrapper.
Meat wrapping is a job that has gone out of fashion, but, at one time, all beef and pork arrived in slabs, like a quarter of a cow, to be cut to specifications in the grocery store. It was the half way point between a real butcher and pre-packaged meat. If you wanted, say, a thick London Broil, you could ask for it and the butcher would carve you off a section. They also de-boned chicken and thin sliced other cuts of meat. It was a good, blue-collar job. Men were butchers, women meat wrappers. My job was to take the Styrofoam trays of beef, pork, and chicken, toss a plastic wrap over them, and then price and display the food. I worked with two men—one older, one my age—and an older woman. The younger guy was prone to flirting with young women at the deli counter and saying things like “I have Male Intermission. I know when it’s time for lunch.” It was a trial. On Monday mornings, I arrived an hour early, (walking down the road in the rain at six thirty am), wash out the meat case, and set it up for the week. Honestly, it was a good job. It was within walking distance of home, paid a little over minimum wage, forty hours a week, and good working conditions (if you don’t mind being in a 45 degree room all day) and generous co-workers. However, by the time the summer was over, I was sick of the sight of meat.
That fall, I lived by myself in a tiny two room apartment with the bathroom down the hall. It was cheap. It was cozy. It was on the bus line. My food budget was fifteen dollars a week. I made my own bread, muffins, and soup, baked beans, experimented with crepes—and realized that meat was taking a huge chunk out of my food budget every week. This is crazy, I thought. I don’t even really like pork chops! Slowly, I cut them out of my diet. Chops, bacon, sausage—no sacrifice. They went in September. By October, I was no longer buying beef or chicken. I felt great! And my food money went a lot further, even with an occasional Dunkin Donuts from the shop down the street.
Worried about protein, I bought a copy of Diet for a Small Planet and read about combining beans and grains, dairy and nuts. I grew more intentional about my meals. I read about the efficiency of a plant based diet, how it used far fewer resources to eat beans rather than meat, wheat rather than dairy. I was convinced. Meat was bad for the planet. I would no longer eat it. My mother was horrified.
Even in my most extreme vegetarian days, I was never perfect. I have always eaten pepperoni pizza—pepperoni is not meat. If I was served meat, I ate it. Now, I feel less determined to be pure. I no longer like the taste of beef or pork, so they are easy to not consume. I will eat an occasional piece of chicken or fish, usually when I am very tired and stressed. I am no longer convinced that grass fed beef, raised humanely and eaten in small quantities, is a bad thing for the planet. In fact, it might be good. My partner eats meat—it makes him feel better. We have, after all, become adults. All things in moderation.