The realization hit me when I was halfway through a $1 McChicken sandwich. I was munching away on the breaded, deep-fried, patty-shaped glob of meat slurry, smeared with mayonnaise and limp, shredded iceberg lettuce and served on a slightly stale white-bread bun, when the thought occurred to me:
I’m not even enjoying this. So why am I eating it?
Before I go any further, I must stipulate that I’ve never been a paragon of dietary virtue. Far from it. I’m skinny, but only because of some happy accident of genetics. High-fat, high-sodium, high-carb, high-cholesterol, high fructose corn syrup — I’ve never bothered to avoid any of it. (I generally drink water instead of soda, which I suppose is a pretty healthy choice. But I do that mostly because I’m cheap, not really because I’m trying to limit my sugar intake.)
My eating habits have only gotten worse recently, now that I find myself often working out of my car and grabbing lunch wherever I can. With no fridge or microwave for last night’s relatively healthy dinner leftovers, I usually just turn to fatty, salty fast food.
It doesn’t help that I usually hold most veggies in pretty much the same regard as housework: Important, necessary, but not really enjoyable. Yeah, okay, I guess I’ll eat a salad, if I have to — but only if I slather it in high-sodium, high-fat ranch dressing. And top it, if possible, with meat.
I’ve known for years that nearly all of the meat I eat is produced under conditions that would make me gag if I ever witnessed them. As I’ve written here before, I have grave moral difficulty merely dispatching a mouse — or even a spider. And yet I know, at some level, that all the beef, chicken, and pork I eat comes not from the magical Meat Fairy who stocks the grocery store aisles for all the good little carnivores. It doesn’t even come from Old McDonald, with his happy little animals moo-mooing here and oink-oinking there. No, I realize meat comes to me from sweltering, putrid-smelling warehouses crammed with miserable animals that are stuffed with unnatural foods, pumped full of chemicals, and slaughtered en masse. That’s how we do meat, here in the Land of the Free.
I just choose not to think about it. Because, as far as I’m concerned, the bacon cheeseburger is nature’s most perfect food, and that ol’ Meat Fairy might as well keep loading up my plate.
And, yes, I’m fully aware this makes me a Grade-A, USDA Prime Hypocrite.
I didn’t even start thinking seriously about changing the way I eat when I heard author Jonathan Safran Foer start talking about all this. I flipped on the TV one morning while making the bed and happened to see him on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” talking about some of what he turned up while researching his book Eating Animals. (Think of it as Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle for our times.) Blah blah factory farming blah blah be conscious of what we eat blah. Then he caught my attention with this:
“If all Americans removed one serving of meat from their diets in a week, it would be the equivalent of taking 5 million cars off the road. I believe people, I respect people, I understand people who say, ‘I am not gonna become a vegetarian tomorrow.’ Someone who says, ‘I can’t remove one serving of meat a week,’ I have a very hard time understanding.”
I immediately recognized this as a fairly ridiculous argument. Not that I doubted his math about the 5 million cars, and I trust the many scientists who say raising our food this way is awful for the environment. But even if tomorrow we could somehow magically get all Americans to give up one serving of meat per week, I don’t believe for a second that the agricultural-industrial complex would suddenly start raising fewer chickens, pigs, and cows to match the decreased demand; more likely, the price of meat would plummet, the animal-growing industry would in turn demand bigger government subsidies, and America would start exporting loads more meat to the Third World to get people there hooked on all the McChickens that we wouldn’t be eating here. And the equivalent of those 5 million cars would still be spewing their toxic output into the environment.
And yet —
And yet I couldn’t so easily dismiss the second half of his argument, the part about how easy it would be to give up one serving of meat per week. It would be cheaper, probably. It would be healthier. It might even, in some infinitesimal way, be good for the planet.
Eh, whatever, I thought, and I finished making the bed and headed off to work. I can’t say for sure what I had for lunch that day, but chances are good it was a double cheeseburger.
My McChicken epiphany was the following week. All morning, I had genuinely thought I was looking forward to that lunch. And then there I was, eating it — and finding I was chewing out of inertia, rather than with gusto. So I decided to start taking baby steps toward more responsible eating.
I still haven’t given up on fast food — often, the allure and convenience of a $1 burger is still too good to pass up. (All the chains have dollar menus now, but for my money the best value is Burger King’s $1 ¼-pound double cheeseburger. In case you were curious.) But I’m trying to plan ahead a little better and bring, say, last night’s (meatless) baked ziti with me for lunch when I know I won’t be on the road that day. I’ll still have an egg-and-cheese sandwich, but I’ll leave off the bacon. Instead of greasy chicken tenders, I’ll have a greasy grilled cheese sandwich with a little sliced tomato. And once in a while, I’ll get a grilled chicken sub, but I’ll load it up with lettuce and peppers and cucumbers — y’know, salad stuff.
I’m not sure any of this is really making a difference on my health, and I know full well it’s having virtually no impact on the environment. It is saving me a few dollars here and there, which I guess adds up. I can make no promises as to whether I’ll actually keep this up for long, and I have no delusions about suddenly deciding garden salads are great or acquiring a taste for soybeans.
But I figure it must at least be good for my spine — because if I can’t face up to my Meat Fairy myth at least once a week, I really have no willpower at all.
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