By Erin Jolley
When I was 13 years old, I declared mine a meatless existence. And being the precocious girl I was, becoming a vegetarian was yet another way I could challenge traditional family values, claim independence, and distinguish myself from the “lame stream” to become a righteous, eco-friendly, health-conscious crusader.
I loaded up on PETA paraphernalia (think dark, blurry photos of caged animals and dreary feedlots). Wanting my fellow middle-schoolers to know the truth about their Chicken Wings of Torture and their Corndogs of Cruelty, I would stand at the end of the cafeteria table, waving PETA propaganda in the air, assuring everyone that vegetarianism was the healthiest, most natural way to live. Then, I would quietly take my seat and finish my lunch of strawberry milkshake-dunked French fries.
I was steadfast: all veg, all the time. But that doesn’t mean I was eating actual vegetables regularly. Instead, I was indulging in all the I-can’t-believe-it’s-not-meat foods I could get my hands on: tofu dogs, Fakin’ Bacon, unchicken nuggets, Boca burgers, and – my personal holiday favorite – Tofurkey. Nope, nothing evokes holiday spirit like a giant, mechanically-separated-then-reassembled rubbery ball of soy protein.
After moving to Durango, Colorado, in 2007, I became instantly fascinated with the “locavore” movement. It was such a radical leap from my hometown of Las Vegas, Nevada, where eating local was not yet reinvented or possible. Unless you count golf course grass or high-rise condos, there wasn’t much growing in Vegas.
In Durango, I began questioning the idea of a meat-free, anything-else-goes diet. Although well-intentioned, my food choices were largely guided by what I did NOT eat, rather than the integrity, wholesomeness, food-system footprint, and nutritional value of what I DID eat. I thought as long as I abstained from meat, I was in the clear. After all, I reasoned, gummy bears aren’t made from real bears, so they’re a totally legitimate lunch.
My continued fascination with local food led me to work on an organic farm and visit many other farms in southwest Colorado. One such visit was to James Ranch, where I experienced what I affectionately refer to as “the meating of a lifetime.” My fellow farmies and I spent the day volunteering in the garden and touring the entire property, including the grass-fed cattle and raw-cheese-making facilities. As we observed the pigs running – nay, frolicking – in their gorgeous green pasture, I couldn’t help but admire their beauty, charm and undeniable appeal.
I was smitten, but also surprised: this was nothing like the black-and-white images of caged animals I had fervently brandished in the middle school cafeteria – the scripture upon which my faith in vegetarianism was based. Was the vegetarian god a false one? Here were healthy, happy pigs, probably much cleaner than I was at the time, in a setting that inspired new ideas about what it means to be the eco-friendly, health-conscious consumer I had strived to be for so long.
Of course, in the exact moment of the pig encounter, I had not yet fully formed any such insights. I only remember gazing at one of those glorious hogs and whispering, almost involuntarily, “I could totally eat you.”
The very next day, my house filled with the distinct aroma of bacon fresh from James Ranch. How to describe the smell of thick sliced, smoked, salty bacon? I was like a______ being beckoned to a ______. (It’s almost impossible to find the right metaphor; conversely it seems that all metaphors for attraction should be based on the smell of bacon.) Before I knew what hit me, I’d lost all grip of who and where I was and became conscious only of the thick, juicy, salty, crunchy, fatty piece of bacon swirling around my well-salivated mouth.
The rest was history: there was no turning back. Adapting to my new life in the agriculturally-steeped southwest Colorado fundamentally changed the way I related to food. I learned a new expression of what it means to be a health-conscious steward of the earth who is sensitive to not just the “what,” but the “where” and “who” behind our meals. And to me, that meant eating animals with names, from people I know, living on land I love.
Eat, Love, Preach
For me, and for many of us, eating is not just an act of survival. We do not simply eat to live, but rather to celebrate, commune, embody, connect, express, and share our values. Food is one way we define who we are and express our vision for the world.
For many years, I identified with the fact that I did not eat meat. Given the stink I’d raised about it with friends and family, I had to wash that blessed bacon down with a bit of pride punch. I was no longer unique in that particular way. I had joined the carnivorous empire just like everyone else. Was vegetarianism just a silly phase? Was I now conforming, joining the “real world” and thus, was I no longer myself? Not quite. My original values – animal rights, environmental stewardship and physical health – are still very much intact. It took an afternoon on a progressive family farm combined with a deeper understanding of our local food system to manifest the carnivorous tendencies I now freely enjoy.
I encourage everyone to stay curious about food and how we use it to tell the story of who we are. And to reconsider a diet grounded solely in what you don’t eat vs. a diet that’s conscientiously inclusive. Meat or no meat, my invitation to you is to remain open to new information, to stay dynamic in our food-borne philosophies and, most importantly, to enjoy!