adrianwphilp

The Happy Omnivore

In Food, Personal on 2013/07/24 at 17:47

As the organs slipped out of the incision I had made in the rabbit’s abdomen I noticed one I did not recognize. Gray-purple with a translucent membrane full of bright red veins, the thing was a forked mystery amongst the more familiar mass of leporid anatomy spilling out of this rather large, freshly-skinned specimen. The intestines were still squirming with peristalsis as I dropped them into the grass, but my attention was still focused on the mysterious organ that had slipped out with them. The dog licked his lips expectantly.

Food has been on my mind a lot lately. I’ve gone through somewhat of a personal dietary revolution over the past several months. I gave up eating meat for lent a few years ago and since I was starting a romantic entanglement with a vegetarian that persisted long after Easter, the habit stuck. I had always been attracted to the idea of being a vegetarian, but more as an identity that I thought would be interesting to take on, not as a lifestyle I thought I would enjoy. My motivations for embracing vegetarianism were much more honest and well-informed by the time I actually went for it I think.

I like to think I have fairly strong will-power, and my adventures in vegetarianism confirmed this. I didn’t find myself craving meat, and I didn’t burn with secret, shameful jealousy when others would consume delicious animal flesh in front of me. Eventually I decided to take things to the next level. Vegetarianism was for people who weren’t committed enough to be vegans. Eating eggs and dairy is still supporting the factory farming industry and all the environmental, humanitarian, and animal cruelty related baggage that goes with it. Also, I had actually gained a bit of weight since becoming a vegetarian as I was eating a lot more cheese and bread.

So I did it, I took the next step and tried out veganism. Veganism is enjoying a lot of pretty good PR recently. It seems like I come across some vegan propaganda at least a few times per month: mass veganism will solve world hunger, help solve the climate change crisis, help you lose weight, and give you bucket loads of warm, fuzzy, animal-love karma. If you are a vegan you will live forever and shit rainbows and adorable baby chickens and puppies will follow you everywhere you go.

Most of the arguments for veganism are really pretty solid. From personal experience I can tell you that I did get a bit slimmer. The idea that we can solve world hunger by eating less meat, using the grain that all those chickens and cows were eating to feed the hordes of emaciated children in the developing world, is compelling and everyone in the developed world should be constantly thinking about it, though I do find it a bit misleadingly simplistic. The direct environmental impact of mass adoption of veganism is also compelling, the way we raise animals and the things we have to do to feed them are terribly destructive, yet ask a vegan about the sustainability of most soy production (and I’d like to meet a vegan who doesn’t eat huge amounts of soy) and things are sure to get a bit awkward.

With all this in mind, vegan Adrian was happy, haughty, and always very hungry. Yet throughout my adventures with a plant-based diet, I always believed that I was not actually living the ideal food lifestyle. Yes, the factory farming industry is cruel and destructive and unnatural, but I never believed that killing and eating animals is inherently morally abhorrent. I have a lot of respect for anyone who chooses a more plant-based diet and thus takes a step back from supporting the horror and stupidity that is factory farming, but I no longer think abstaining from meat is enough for me. I want to actively support a better way of making eating meat a healthy and sustainable part of being human, as it has long been before the last century or so. I was always open to purchasing and consuming naturally and humanely produced animal products. Wild animals with healthy populations, grass-fed beef and other free-range domesticated species, sustainable seafood, they all seemed like responsible and desirable options, and I would eat them whenever I came across them, though I wouldn’t actively seek them out.

Then the latest twist in my food adventure happened. My girlfriend, the former vegetarian who started this by cooking me delicious meat-free meals during lent, and who bravely joined me in full-on veganism, started talking crazy. First she became worried about a cavity and started reading about how cutting grains out of your diet can help prevent tooth decay. Then she started working with some super-healthy people heavily into exercise and “fringe nutrition” and she was even more intrigued. She told me about the bizarre things her boss would eat for lunch; like a generous serving of beef which she would dip in coconut oil to increase her saturated fat intake. She started reading about Paleo diets, about how the food pyramid is a lie, carbohydrates are evil, and saturated fat is your friend.

Finally, after weeks of research, she decided she wanted to try it. I was hesitant and suspicious at first, but after doing some research of my own, and thinking back on the things I’d always said I believed about responsible sources of animal products, I decided I would come along for the ride and try it out. Even if the diet ended up being too extreme and we abandoned it, it was time to stop paying lip-service to sustainable meat and actually start supporting an industry I believe is good and probably needs all the help it can get.

Eating animals more sustainably is not hard. It’s not even expensive. Grass-fed beef is expensive and hard to find in stores, but if you put a bit of forethought into your diet, find and develop a relationship with a farmer who is willing and able to raise an animal to your standards, and buy in bulk you will actually end up spending less money on food. We are still figuring a lot out, but we are eating cheap, delicious food all the time now. I dropped 10-15 pounds of fat on the new diet in just a few months and my appetite has decreased. Furthermore, we are more closely connected to our food than ever before. We have a tiny, balcony herb and vegetable garden, we buy local produce as much as possible, and we know exactly where the animals we eat come from, how they were raised, and what they were fed. The only challenge has been in travelling, but even then, with a little bit of planning and effort, it’s possible to eat sustainable, healthy, affordable food anywhere.

This summer I left Toronto for a month to live and work in West Virginia with my girlfriend’s parents who own a landscaping business. They live on a large piece of property out in the woods where they grow an abundance of edible and decorative plants. We ate from the vegetable garden; they had a supply of grass-fed beef; and many of their friends raise chickens for eggs. I was mostly satisfied, but I still desired a bit more diversity in my diet. This is what brings me back to the rabbit.

Predator species like coyotes are largely missing from many areas for well-known reasons. That leaves an overpopulation of prey species like deer and rabbits. There were dozens and dozens of rabbits around the house in the vegetable garden eating my hosts’ food and in the decorative plant gardens and greenhouse, eating their livelihood. They were lazy, fearless rabbits who felt safe in the predator­-free zone around a human dwelling. In the winter they begin to starve, chewing at the bark around the roots of trees, having exhausted most of their food sources by their unnaturally large numbers.

The system was out of balance, my hosts were unhappy with the damage to their gardens, and I was hungry. There was one simple solution.

It didn’t take long for me to feel comfortable with the pellet gun. My aim was good enough to get a headshot on a rabbit that wasn’t used to having to run away from anything and let me get fairly close before spooking. The first time I killed one I freaked out a little bit. I felt a strange caveman pride in having killed something that I planned to eat, but I was a bit terrified as I held the still warm body in my hands, knowing that the next step was to take a knife to it, remove its skin and organs and chop it up into a crock-pot.

I googled it.  Sitting on the steps outside the house, pellet gun and dead rabbit sitting next to me, trying not to get blood on my laptop. “How to skin and gut a rabbit.” There were lots of results, a lot of Game of Thrones references, but also several very helpful how-tos and instructional videos. It turns out that skinning a rabbit is almost hilariously easy. My hosts had eaten rabbit before, though not recently, and had told me how easy it was, but I guess I didn’t believe them. Seriously, if you ever skin a rabbit you might find yourself wondering why they don’t spontaneously fly out of their own skin by accident all the time. If you make the right initial cuts it’s like slipping off a glove. Gutting them is also quite simple, as long as you aren’t too bothered by the smell. I cleaned and gutted the rabbit, fed the bits I wasn’t going to eat to the very grateful dog, and we threw the meat in the crock-pot.

Rabbit stew with vegetables. The rabbit and the bamboo shoots were both grown on the farm.

Rabbit stew with vegetables. The rabbit and the bamboo shoots were both grown on the farm.

It was delicious. I’m not sure if the pride and other happy feelings at eating something that lived naturally and happily 100 meters from where I was living, and that I killed and prepared it myself was making it seem that way or whether the meat really was better than any meat I’ve ever tasted. A lot of it was probably the locavore/caveman pride making it taste better than it was. The next day I went out again and killed another one.

My aim improved even more, I could hit them from farther away and so was less likely to spook them and lose the shot. I killed a couple rabbits each week for the rest of the time I was there. The damage to the gardens diminished quickly; I was eating a lot of delicious and completely free meals; and the rabbits that remained were acting more like rabbits — living in the woods and running away from people. The twinge of guilt and terror I felt at killing that first rabbit faded quickly, and I felt like a heartless, terrible agent of rabbit death. Until that extra organ slipped out of that one special rabbit.

The smell inside of a freshly dead animal is hard to describe. I don’t know what I expected, but I didn’t expect it to smell like that. It smells like death, but somehow it also smells like life at the same time. Blood and biles and feces and whatever else all mixed together in a weird stew that bursts out of the thing as soon as you cut into it. The inside of an animal is warmer than I imagined, and there’s a lot of twitching and squirming in the parts of the body that apparently take longer to get the message that they’re supposed to be dead now.

Like everything else I pulled out the unfamiliar organ was moving, and as I examined it and sliced it open an adorable little face came out, squirming and gasping. I froze, shocked and fascinated. There were six little rabbit fetuses in there. As I held them in my hands and called the dog over to come and put a quick end to any sort of simple suffering they might be feeling, I thought back on my relationship to my food. From blindly eating whatever was put in front of me, to a sort of lazy vegetarianism, to conscientious and self-righteous veganism, to this: disembowelling a pregnant animal and killing her unborn offspring with my own hands.

For a moment, I felt horrible. Something just seemed wrong about killing a pregnant animal, even though I had no idea that’s what I was doing when I took the shot. Then the fascination of dissection overcame my guilt. I understood, viscerally, the anatomy and physiology of rabbit reproduction better than I ever had before. I learned that rabbits have bifurcated uteruses, I saw just how tightly those little fetuses are packed in there and as I looked around me at the thriving gardens that would also be providing me with food for the next several weeks a little bit of pride crept back in. One mother, six babies — seven rabbits dead in one shot. That’s pretty good. Seven less mouths to chew on the scenery.

The guilt came back in waves for the rest of the evening, the foetal rabbits were adorable in a wet, Ridley Scott’s ALIEN kind of way. I comforted myself by remembering that they were overpopulated, and that when their food sources started to disappear with the changing of the seasons many of them would have died miserable deaths anyway. I was making life better for the rabbits that remained. The next day the guilt was completely washed away as I sat down to dinner.

The mother was the tastiest rabbit yet.

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  1. So accurate, this. The thrill…sadness…appreciation… joy …. and reverence in eating what the land provides. Oh, and funny too. Thanks for putting into words what so many of us struggle with.

  2. I did not want this post to end, it was so well written. Looking forward to reading more.

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