Back in the mid-seventies when I was a graduate student in Toronto, I was opening a tin of it in the communal kitchen of my rooming house on Huron Avenue in Toronto when my fellow lodger, a woman of indeterminate years, generous facial hair and not much in the way of sanity, picked up the pile of dishes in the sink, dropped them with a loud clatter, turned to me, foamed at the mouth and eventually squeezed out the admonition, “It is not meet to eat meat!”
I toyed for a moment with the idea of saying, “How very King James Bible of you!”, but decided it was unwise. Instead, I fled, poor mouse that I was, to the upper reaches of the house, clinging tightly to my tin of beef lest she try to wrestle it from me. This woman lived in one of the house’s basement rooms — these were unfinished, unfurnished except for a bed without sheets and lit by a single light bulb dangling from the ceiling. In other words, grim. But I give it to her — she had a great work ethic. Every morning, rain, shine or sleet, she would head out to the nearest TTC station and spend the day shouting about pills — that was her day job, informing passersby of the dangers of Big Pharma. Very prescient, if you ask me. “Big pills, blue pills, little pills, red pills!” That was the gist of her message and it was a powerful one. Then, after a long day of hollering while braving the elements, she would retire to her dank lair and pace, muttering so loudly that we could hear her quite clearly on the first floor about the Blood of the Lamb and the general slaughter and mayhem that would ensue on the Last of Days, which she was anticipating with considerable glee. Occasionally she would surface to promote vegetarianism to whatever unlucky tenant happened to be in the kitchen at the time. Thinking back on it now, I can’t help but reflect that our social safety net was a good deal more tightly woven then than now. Then she had a roof over her head, guaranteed; today such a benighted creature would most certainly be homeless. Or perhaps she would belong to PETA.
Speaking of PETA, Louis Nunnery, the choreographer of Unto These Hills for a number of years, was my introduction to vegetarianism. That was when I was fourteen, back in the pre-hippy days when vegetarianism was considered exotic and somewhat subversive. No one could figure out what vegetarians ate, my mother included. Whenever Louis would come to dinner, she would feed him spinach. Just spinach. He was always very gracious about it, pronouncing it to be delicious, which I’m sure it wasn’t. It was chopped and frozen. Louis’s vegetarianism was born of trauma. When he had been a boy living on a South Carolina farm, his father had made the children watch as he shot the pig they had made a pet of and that was it for Louis. From that point on he ate nothing with eyeballs. That was his rule. Under his influence, I became a vegetarian for two whole weeks. Then, during a late night photo shoot, somebody offered me a corned beef sandwich and that was the end of that.
Over the past two decades my husband and I have had many heartfelt discussions about becoming vegetarians. Once we saw an IMAX film about elephants and decided to swear off meat entirely. That lasted until we pulled into the driveway, when Ken rushed off to fire up the BBQ. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not as if we eat a great deal of meat. We don’t. But we do eat some and, if you are as fond of animals as we are (that is to say, mawkishly) that presents you with something of an ethical conundrum to ponder.
A few years ago, we resolved upon a middle way; we decided to eat only Happy Animals, that is to say, organic, free-range, having a reasonably good time of it up until the moment that. . . . You get my drift. Not because we are paranoid — although we probably should be — and not because organic meat tastes better — which it does. No. We want whatever animal we’re sinking our teeth into to have had a decent life. Moreover, the one time we wavered in our resolve, thinking that we might abandon our Happy Animal Policy to render an upcoming high protein diet less expensive, the Cosmos sent us a sign in the form of a truck passing to our left. It was stuffed so full of piglets that parts of them were sticking out between the slats and the squealing. . . ! We got the message.
Because, yes, organic meat is expensive. It’s damned expensive. However, we’ve reached an age and station in life where we can afford to buy organic and feel bad enough about munching on our fellow creatures that we do. Because, if there’s one thing having children has taught me, it is this:
You pay. You can pay now or you can pay later, but you always pay.