Tale Of An Ethical Eater
“I’m sorry, you only eat what?” is a question I hear a lot. As in, every time the subject of food in general or meat in particular comes up. So, let’s just get it out there, up front. I only eat free range, ethically sourced meat. Yep. I’m that person. Just when you thought that the crossfitters and the vegans were the only ones clamouring to tell you that they are crossfitters or vegans, now you have the ‘free-range, ethically-sourced-meat-eaters’ to deal with.
How does someone come to care about something that is, at face value, so random? Well, it’s a kind of a long story. And it’s one that starts with a vegetarian ruining all the fun.
The vegetarian in question is my mother, who, when I was about 13, set the morning paper down and declared that she was giving up meat. The article in the paper was about the annual seal cull in Namibia and it made her realise that she didn’t like how humans treated animals. That was it. No declaration about meat being murder or breast-beating that she was a superior form of life because she was rejecting meat. She just made a decision and stuck with it.
This announcement was the first time I was forced to question where my food comes from. Sure, bacon is from a pig, but my mother had managed to link the clubbing of seals to how we harvest our food. This seemed like a stretch initially, but is not so left of field if you consider our obsession with meat and animal products. Admittedly, as a vapid thirteen year old, this profound statement that my mother had just shared with us exited my brain as quickly as it entered and off I went to school to concern myself with more pressing matters, like trying to pass maths and impress the boys.
One memorable thing about my mother was that, while fully embracing her vegetarianism, she wasn’t going to force it on my brother, my father and me. She would grill us the steaks and roast the chickens we asked for, but, only if they were free range. To her, knowing that the animal had at least felt the sun on its face, eaten real grass and roamed free, softened the blow of allowing her family to eat meat. Even though I was still eating what I wanted, something had fundamentally changed.
When I moved to Cape Town to start culinary school, admittedly, my ethics evaporated with my first half price sushi at Sevruga. Seduced by the Cape Town culinary scene (this Vaalie hadn’t been exposed to much in the way of fine dining), I was feasting on everything, with not a hint of food guilt in sight.
Added to that, it was the first time I worked with (and unashamedly enjoyed) foie gras and other such ‘luxury’ ingredients. I didn’t ever stop to consider where my food was coming from; I was basically just gorging myself on everything I could.
Moving to London was the worst and then ultimately the finest thing that happened to my ethical eating journey. The very best of the best food is available, but with such high volumes, it’s inevitable that the sources are often questionable. I was fortunate enough to be eating at some of the world’s best restaurants too and would order with thoughtless abandon.
One day in London, I found myself chatting to my close friend (coincidentally a vegan yoga teacher) about meat consumption. “But you love animals!” she reasoned. In all honesty, it was some fine logic but it still didn’t do much to change my thought patterns. Baffled by my ignorance, she gave me a book to read that ultimately changed my life – The Food Revolution by John Robbins. Without going into too much detail, it was a thought-provoking exposé on our fixation with meat and how we don’t really need it to live healthy lives. This book, while challenging and lengthy, ultimately made an impact on me and made me think about what I ate. It was like I was back at that breakfast table with my mother. It didn’t cause a massive modification of my eating habits right then and there but I started to look at ways to reduce my animal product intake and to commit to being more conscious.
So, there I was. Bumbling along, sort of trying to be vegetarian. I stopped eating meat for four days of the week and even began choosing vegan options where I could. I experimented with almond milk flat whites – I avoid soy because that, too, is often not ethically sourced, and discovered which brand in the UK makes the best vegan mayo (spoiler alert: homemade took the top spot). It wasn’t perfect, or exactly clear but it felt good and it worked for me, and really helped to broaden my horizons. I left London for Cape Town by way of a three month road trip around the USA. There is a lot of meat-eating in the States, but Texas, in particular, is something else. I remember driving alongside industrial feedlots (where cows are essentially locked into a device that force feeds them) for HOURS. These animals are fattened up, unnaturally and cruelly so that we can eat more meat at a lower price. That was the moment I said to myself, no more. No more meat without provenance, without backstory or ethics.
Since returning to Cape Town, I have become close with people who own an ethical butchery, who have helped to drive my own cause forward. I won’t lie, it’s hard to sit down at a restaurant and ask “can you tell me where your meat comes from?” and forgo the meat if they can’t. It’s hard to live a life without bacon. It’s hard to be happy with a plate of chips when everyone else is eating a Wimpy burger on a road trip. It’s hard not being able to choose anything you want on a menu. It’s hard, but it’s also incredibly liberating. When I do eat meat, I appreciate it so much more than I would if I were eating it all the time. And the next best thing is that it’s opened my eyes to the glory of vegetarian food. There’s been something truly rewarding about finding vegetarian options that are satisfying and delicious. We don’t need meat, actually, and this is the best way I’ve found to balance my meat consumption.
My food journey is founded on compassion, and comes full circle back to my mother’s belief that humans don’t treat animals all that kindly. And I now carry those ethics into all aspects of my life. I won’t use cosmetics or cleaning products that are tested on animals, and I won’t participate in activities where animals are exploited for human entertainment. I watch that I’m not mindlessly eating gummy sweets or marshmallows because the gelatine used in them is unlikely to be ethically sourced. I only buy organic, unrefined sugar because a lot of white sugar is bleached using bone meal and I stick to the SASSI green list as strictly as I can. It sounds like a lot of work, and I have been accused of being hard work – but I’ve learned that if you truly care about something, you will make it work and you will make it worth your while.
Stand for something or you’ll fall for everything comes to mind. Every one of us should care about something. This is what I care about. It’s the small sacrifice that I make so that I can live with myself. It’s no fun being the party pooper at the dinner table explaining to the host with a leg of lamb on a platter that “no I’m not vegetarian, but I will only eat free range meat”. But it’s a stand more of us need to take. If we all paused for a moment to consider not just what’s on our plate but where it comes from, the world would be a kinder place and we would all be a lot better off because of it.
And besides, ethically sourced meat just tastes better. Try it for yourself if you don’t believe me.
Jess Spiro is a freelance writer based in Cape Town. When she’s not cooking, she can be found with a negroni or a taco in hand. Or both.