In a previous post, I mentioned that I had picked up the book while browsing through the “New and Noted” section at the Winnipeg Public Library. While I was browsing, I also picked up Marissa Landrigan’s book, The Vegetarian’s Guide to Eating Meat. Landrigan is an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh-Johnstown, where she teaches creative, digital, and professional writing.
The Vegetarian’s Guide to Eating Meat, subtitled, A Young Woman’s Search for Ethical Food, chronicles the author’s journey from a red headed Irish misfit in a large, extended, Irish-Italian family of meat eaters, to a vegetarian activist, to meat eater again. This isn’t the first book I’ve read related to our meat eating choices. The first being Tovar Cerulli’s The Mindful Carnivore: A Vegetarian’s Hunt for Sustenance and the second being Scott Gold’s The Shameless Carnivore: A Manifesto for Meat Lovers.
Landrigan’s book is much closer in tone to Cerulli’s than it is to Gold’s. Gold tries to hard to be a comedian, and while claiming to have respect for vegetarians too often veers into sarcasm and mockery. Cerulli, on the other hand, focuses on the interconnected nature of all living plants and animals. The biggest difference between The Mindful Carnviore, and the Vegetarian’s Guide to Eating Meat, is: Cerulli has a greater emphasis on the relationships between human and biosphere, while Landrigan focuses more on the role of personal relationships among family and friends, and how they impacted her eating decisions.
Landrigan’s journey is in fact two journeys. The one described above is the second journey. The first journey is the one that took her away from her family, a journey to find an identity that wouldn’t tie here down to the perceived domesticity of her Italian roots.
The transformation, from meat eater to vegetarian, on her food journey, came after watching PETA’s Meet your Meat film, during a university class. This change was instantaneous, based on one thought: “killing animals for food is bad.” As strong as her conviction was at the beginning of this transformation, it wasn’t long before questions about her decision to live a vegetarian lifestyle arose. The road back to eating meat began almost as soon as she embarked on this journey, but Landrigan’s journey back to eating meat was much longer, many layered, and more complex, than her journey away.
One of the best parts of the book is how Landrigan attempts to show how interconnected all of our food choices are. Essentially, she says, unless we grow all of our own food, we are implicated in the larger food systems that we are part of. One chapter is entitled, Cheez Whiz is Vegetarian. In chapter 8 she makes reference to a chart that shows how much of the organic, natural, market is controlled by the same companies that produce and sell some of the most processed foods on the market. You can find the chart here.
One of the complexities Landrigan faces is learning to understand herself, and her place in the world. The word privilege comes up frequently in the course of the book. It starts with an encounter in here neighbourhood in her early activist days, which breaks into her conciousness, and continues throughout the rest of the book. It shows up in unexpected places and unexpected times in her life.
In some ways privilege serves as the GPS for the author’s journey. She is frequently being forced to recalculate and change the direction of her life. These changes are not as major as the one she made in becoming a vegetarian, but they are constantly moving here in a new direction.
This direction isn’t so much a movement towards a new understanding, but rather a movement deeper within her understanding. As the book progresses, we as readers, are drawn, along with the author, into the ever greater complexity of our implication in our food systems. Beyond the role of trans-nationals in the production of food, we are reminded of things such as the life of labourers who help give us readily accessible, and cheap, fruit and vegetables.
Three sentences stand out from the book. The first is on a sign that is hung in the slaughter room where Landrigan is watching a steer being slaughtered and cut up. The sign reads, We Honor These Animals, for By Their Death, We Gain Life.
The second is towards the very end of the book when she is recounting more in-depth a conversation she had with a fisherman before she went out hunting for elk. He gives his reasons for why he thinks hunting and fishing are more ethical than vegetarianism, and then ends it with the statement: “We all kill a little,” he said. “The least you can do is look at it.”
The third is one that really resonates with me as a priest. She describes the activity of the farmers market, of the hand to hand exchange between the growers and the consumers. To do this she uses the Eucharistic phrase: Take this, all of you, and eat it.
One of the things I’ve been exploring with the idea of eucharistic eating is the idea that all of our eating should be a reflection of the Eucharist. As the church, the Eucharist is our common meal. The one where we are joined with all other followers of Christ throughout the world. I think Landrigan is on to something about the way we approach food when she makes this statement. Sharing food is about much more than physical nourishment, it creates deeper and more lasting bonds than we can ever build simply through the anonymous consumption of anonymously produced food, vegetarian or otherwise.
Ultimately this brings the author back to a new appreciation for the family that she had so much trouble belonging to. The family ties are no longer cords that restrain her, but rather more like bungee cords that continue to allow her to stretch out, but which will always pull her back to the love and security of her family.
Whether carnivore, vegan, vegetarian, or omnivore, there is food for thought for everyone in The Vegetarian’s Guide to Eating Meat. Readers likely won’t agree with everything in the book, but it should give cause for stopping and thinking about various parts of our food buying and eating habits that we haven’t reflected on fully enough. A definite worthwhile addition to any food library.