Vegetarian vs. veterinarian

Every so often at suppertime, my 7-year-old breaks into gales of laughter when he sees me eat a few bites of meat. “Mum, you’re a veterinarian, you can’t eat meat! – I’m going to tell your boss on you!!” His 11-year-old brother rolls his eyes and tries to explain for the umpteenth time the difference between veterinarian and vegetarian. But for Z, it’s a running joke – I’m pretty sure he knows the difference – the words are too similar and the idea that an animal doctor would eat her patients is a crazy kind of funny.

The fact is, I’ve never craved the taste of meat. I prepare it, cook it, serve it, and eat it more out of cultural habit, convenience and concern for getting enough protein, B12 vitamins and iron in the diet, rather than zeal for its taste and texture. Last summer I put a name to my approach to eating meat, with the word flexitarian. Basically, there is no maximum amount of meat allowed for a flexitarian, which is handy. I came across this concept in Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food. Pollan’s writing on food has been influential for me, from The Botany of Desire, The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food – not because I felt he exposes information that I know nothing about; quite the contrary. It is wonderful to read someone like Pollan, an American with the travel opportunities, journalistic skills and funds to flesh out exactly what I already know about the trends and changes I’ve observed since my early days in grocery-store foraging in the late 1980s and through my nitty-gritty experience on the working end of North American agriculture. I’m gratified that he’s noticed all the things I’ve seen and thought about over the years.

Lately, I’ve been wondering if it’s finally time for me to ramp up my flexitarianism, and shift into a completely vegetarian diet. For the past nine or so years, I’ve only eaten local meat, provided by a neighbour who took over the small cow-calf operation that I ran with pain and misery for the first few years, or else from the sheep and beef farmer down the road, who also produces chicken, turkey and various flavours of sausage. I haven’t eaten pork in years – I’m angry at the way the pork industry has polluted wide swaths of southern Quebec, and its up-and-down globalized cycles have ruined too many farmers. I came out of my visit to a pork operation in my first year of veterinary medicine thinking that there is nothing ethical or healthy about eating pigs, in any time or place. I’m with Moses on that one.

Right now, my freezer contains a one-pound bag of ground beef, a single turkey thigh, and some fish from last summer’s catch. I didn’t ration the meat at all during the winter, in fact I was relentlessly emptying the freezer and cooking all kinds of stews and meat dishes in anticipation of reaching the End of Meat. For the past few weeks, noting the coming penury, I’ve been buying and preparing cans of different bean varieties, some whole barley, lentils, falafel mix, and a package of tofu, which I breaded and baked (not bad, but could be better).

I have no idea if a steer will be slaughtered in the coming days or weeks; that would surprise me because this is the wrong time of year. Any young steer that was born too late in the 2008 season for slaughter in the fall would be too slim after a winter in the barn, and I’d like to think he’s looking forward to a summer in the fields. I certainly don’t want to deny him that pleasure after a long, dark winter in cramped conditions. Buy meat from the grocery? Ha, no. When you’ve had meat from the farm for so many years, grocery meat is not an option anymore – especially not chicken.

If it were just up to me, I’d make the shift relatively easily. I’d go by trial and error, cook up spicy and flavorful dishes with all kinds of vegetables, legumes, tofu, seitan and other items I’ve never even tasted before. But my main hurdle is the kids. Even at the best of times they don’t think much of my cooking (they still treasure fond memories of the food at their daycare babysitter’s, a real professional when it comes to making nutritious kid-friendly food). Anything too exotic, sticky, limp, fishy, colourful, chewy, spicy, or overly bland is automatically suspect. And since they’ve become a part of my life, I haven’t thought about food and cooking in the same way. For starters, I don’t think about what I would want or like to eat, instead I think about What They Will Eat Today; it’s a mindset I can’t shake, a fact of life that defines the way I move through the day, even when I try to pour myself fully into something else altogether, like work. When I buy fresh fruits or vegetables, as I do a few times a week, it’s not so much to eat them myself, it’s to make sure they have enough for their snacks and lunches at school and to ward off any searching for easy, junky food and candy, which they manage to eat enough of anyways. Their health is my quiet obsession: I think about the bodies they are growing into and the young adults they will be in a few years, and when I look at the young men in the world out there, I am frankly worried. What I see are too many dough-boys: large shapeless faces and guts that overhang trousers, oversized clothes and over-taxed joints. Guys in their early 20s! Obviously I’m getting old, because the young men I remember from 20 years ago didn’t look like that, or if they did, they were the exception. And when I look at old pictures of my dad’s contemporaries, men circa 1940 – they were all wiry and scrawny, nearly to the last man. OK – they were eating British army rations at the time, which were notoriously bad, but to me they look healthy and muscular, in spite of their small size. Kind of like the vegans and vegetarians of today – those people out there whose faces have definite shape and contour, and who have the kind of leanness and vitality you don’t see as often in young people anymore, unless you’re looking at the ones running in the Olympic triathlon.

Oh dear, it looks like the “ethics” of not eating meat is overshadowed by my concern for human health. I can’t help it – that’s the way I was raised, and that’s the way I was trained as a farm animal veterinarian. One of my professors in bovine medicine and surgery proudly proclaimed, every chance he got, that he became a farm animal veterinarian “to feed the world”. After the second time my eyes would automatically roll, but the message stuck. Milk, eggs and meat: the foundations of industrial civilisation, and that’s what you are working for. Your job is to make sure they are always available, as cheaply and as abundantly as possible, in spite of what that might do to the animals who provide, in spite of how we continually betray the ancient unwritten and non-verbal contract of domestication. If I had the chance to respond now, I’d say that we’ve fed this part of the world too much, and not nearly well enough.

It’s just possible that this veterinarian has come to the end of meat. I wouldn’t bet the farm on it, but I have a feeling there’s a whole world of food out there that I know very little about…

Explore posts in the same categories: agriculture, animal welfare, human-animal bond, Nutrition, vegan, Vegetarian, veterinary medicine

27 Comments on “Vegetarian vs. veterinarian”

  1. skdadl Says:

    Wonderful reflection, brebis noire, and I envy you the knowledge that produced that wonderful paragraph on the young steer (climaxing with the chicken). I know so little of many natural rhythms that I wouldn’t have stopped to think about the packaged steer before me, although I do at least grasp some of the problem with the chickens.

    I’m a great lover of the pulses, which are also easy to cook in lots of interesting ways, easy to store, and inexpensive, so I’m happy to go for quite a while without flesh. I do get the yearnings, though, but then the meat I go out to fetch so seldom measures up these days to whatever that experience I was yearning for was.

    We are very far removed from the ancient contract, as you say. I’m sure I’m beyond earning my supper that way, but I didn’t understand that until it was ‘way too late. It would take a very different society before large numbers could harvest or trade only first-hand. O’ course, we may be headed there perforce.

  2. lagatta à montréal Says:

    This is fascinating; I don’t eat pork either at home or restaurants, because I’ve seen what pork farming did not far from you, a good thirty years ago. (I’ll pretty much eat what is put in front of me if invited chez les amis). I do eat some meat because I have a hard time digesting legumes, and I’m a bit leery of processed soya such as tofu and soya milk – I consume some, but don’t want to rely on them as a main protein source.

    Not all vegetarians are slim; the temptation is too much carbohydrate. I was at a conference in Europe recently, and although youth obesity has increased there too, there is still a big gap between twenty-somethings in France and here in Québec, with similar genetic makeup. Animal protein portions aren’t typically large in much of Europe (except some northern countries) but vegetarianism remains relatively rare in southern European countries, including France.

    Ideally, I wouldn’t want to eat any dead animals at all, but do have nutrition concerns. I think people who have been brought up eating more legumes have less trouble digesting them, which is a good point for making them feature prominently in children’s diets. My ability to digest legumes has lessened in recent years.

    You are right about young people twenty or thirty years ago. Although the traditional Québécois working-class diet was a disaster in many ways, in particular for the teeth, perhaps people simply ate less and got more “natural” exercise, as young people, anyway, were leaner in old photos. Middle-aged and older people, not necessarily, as there was less emphasis on keeping fit and looking young past 40 or so.

  3. LMA Says:

    Thank goodness for local farmers markets where one can buy grass fed beef and free range chicken and eggs. I’m not a vegetarian, but I no longer eat beef from feedlots or chicken and eggs from caged chickens. I don’t think any living creature should suffer that much to feed us.

  4. JimBobby Says:

    Whooee! I ain’t a vegetarian but Ma an’ me only eat meat about 2 or 3 times a week. We eat a fair bit of cheese an’ lotsa veggies and pasta. That said, I generally sorta scoff at blogging about “what I had for lunch today”.

    Yer veterarian vs vegetarian story reminded me of something that happened at our dinner table about 12 years ago. We was babysittin’ a coupla nieces an’ teh younger one mused after dinner, “I wonder if I’ll be a Libyan when I grow up.” Moammar Qaddafi was much in the news around that time and we asked the little gal what she meant. “You know. A lady that likes other ladies.”

    I don’t see her too often now and she’s all grown up but I’m pretty sure she plays for the het team.


  5. Wonderful post, brebis! I am of the flexitarian variety because I consume fish and chicken. Having two kids and a partner and being the cook more or less forced me into it. That said, the chickens are local and free range and the fish is rarely consumed because my daughter cannot eat it.

    Like you, I forgot about what I wanted to eat in favour of providing what they would eat until I had a health crisis and dropped red meat from my diet. (I’ll cook it on occasion for them.) They were preteens when I changed my diet and I think they’ve adapted relatively well. In fact, my daughter will fearlessly tie into any vegetarian dish. My son’s taking a little longer but I’ve been able to lure him along with spice which, since he’s become a teenager, he has decided he really likes!

    Politically, I’ve become very interested in the slow food movement, thanks to my poet-friend, Rhona, and her blog, Iambic Cafe. And, I’ve found the only Community Shared Agriculture organization in Saskatchewan and printed out the form to sign our household up for it.

    I grew up on a small mixed farm and know what good food is supposed to taste like. That taste is not available in supermarkets, not even in the organic products they sell, really. So, I grow as much as I can, purchase locally and process as much as I’m able during the growing season and hope to hell I have enough to last us through the winter!

    Yesterday, for the first time in about six months, I saw soil in my back yard! Soon, planting will begin!!!

  6. Beijing York Says:

    More food for thought 🙂 Thanks for this brebis.

    My mother was an orphaned child during the Spanish civil war and grew up fixated that eating lots of meat was essential to good health. In our household, we were NEVER the scrawniest kids on the block thanks to at least two servings of meat daily.

    I was briefly a vegetarian while in Asia and beyond but would cheat infrequently when it came to bacon, my Achilles heel. I also developed a mad fixation on Lebanese kibbe (egg shaped toasted cracked bulgar wheat stuffed with spiced ground beef). Just one of those tasty treats would make for a meal in itself – no muss or fuss, just pick up at my favourite corner market.

    I had a pregnant, single mom friend living with me for awhile and they were vegetarian. One evening her four year old questioned me about my late night kibbe dinner:

    What are you eating?

    It’s a kibbe.
    [His fascination grew because let’s face it, it’s a cool sounding name.]

    What’s a kibbe?

    It’s a type of snack food, from Lebanon?
    [At this point, I think he wanted to try it but was hesitant.]

    Oh, what’s in it?

    [I went through the ingredients one by one, ending with spiced beef.]

    Beef! You’re eating beef! Don’t you know some baby cow’s mother is crying?

  7. ThirstyApe Says:

    I would recommend you check out the book The Flexitarian Diet by Registered Dietitian Dawn Jackson Blatner. It offers guidelines for flexitarian eating (Beginner, Advanced, Expert). The recipes are really great because they allow for “flex swaps” where you can sub in/out meat as you feel the need. It is also filled with sound nutrition advice and great tips (fact stacks) throughout the book. It has been really helpful for me and many of my friends. One of the best things about finding the book has been the author! I absolutely love her website . I have downloaded dozens of recipes (for free) from her site and have found every one of them to be quite delicious. All of the recipes on her site are vegetarian.

    I like your blog! Take care!

  8. My h & I were both vegetarians when we met. When our children were babies, we kept a close eye on them, because their health came before our food preferences. But they’ve both grown up healthy and happy with vegetarian food. Chick peas seem to be a kid happy food. Also humous (made from chick peas). Also my h’s famous pink sauce which has always been happily eaten by our carnivore friends’ kids. You make regular tomato sauce (meatless) and blend it with silken tofu to produce a creamy, heart-healthy protein rich sauce for any pasta. They are both also very fond of lentil soup (esp if it’s blended smooth). Luckily for me my h is a much more interesting cook than me, though my kids like my not very interesting cooking. They also both gobble down bean burritos which are very easy to make, naturally, since I make them. Also kid friendly. Sautee onion, garlic, put in a couple of cans of black beans (drained), 1 teaspoon each of cumin, coriander, oregano. Mush after 20 min. Serve in warm burritos with whatever toppings you like, tomatoes, salsa, grated cheese, lettuce, yoghurt, etc.

  9. brebisnoire Says:

    skdadl – what are “pulses”? I don’t think I’ve ever heard that before. Thanks for your comments re the steer – that kind of seasonal thing is more common with the small cow-calf operations. In bigger ones, the timing is stricter – all steers are sold as approx 6-month-olds in the fall, to feedlots that fatten them up over various periods of time, the time it takes to go from 600-1200 pounds or more – I think that’s usually about a year.
    Of course, as grain prices have been rising, so has the price of meat….

  10. brebisnoire Says:

    lagatta – I also have those nutritional concerns. In fact, one thing that worries me about eliminating meat is a real or perceived lack of energy and vitality (and keeping warm in winter). I always feel like I’m waging a losing battle with my energy levels, so it’s important to me to make sure that I’m not lacking anything known (iron, vitamin B family) or unknown that would affect my energy or stress. There is definitely a wrong way of going vegetarian, and that is to simply continue to eat the same diet, sans meat. I tried that once and got anaemia, but I was doing it all wrong.
    It’s hard to say, in our society (Quebec and rest of North America), if it’s the excess carbohydrates or excess meat that have had a greater impact on people’s declining health and looks. I tend to think it’s both; and yet for so long the emphasis was on fats. I don’t think nutrition can be broken down so easily, and of course I would never begrudge extreme northern peoples their natural and healthy consumption of meat – as long as their lifestyle goes along with it.

  11. brebisnoire Says:

    LMA – exactly. And I think all of that suffering is part of what affects our health negatively. I’m not a big believer in karma (I’m a small believer?) but I do think that what goes around, comes around – and the fact that animals are suffering that much cannot produce anything positive for us.

  12. brebisnoire Says:

    JB: yer cute 😉
    Kids generally don’t like to be reminded of those word mixups when they get older, but I have a feeling my Z isn’t finished with the vegetarian-veterinarian thing.

  13. brebisnoire Says:

    reginamom – I’m glad you can identify with the problems of feeding a family. A lot of the time I get really frustrated about what they refuse to eat or don’t like, but they really aren’t that bad (when they invite their friends over, I get some perspective…) They’re both healthy kids who are generally making good choices as they get older, and in fact they’re a lot like me. They don’t like fish or seafood of any kind, and they prefer simpler, raw fare whenever possible. I’m glad I don’t have to deal with any real intolerances or allergies.
    Thanks for the link to the Iambic Cafe. I am fascinated by the slow food movement – only problem for me is that while I love slow food in theory, I’d like it fast, in practice. 😦

  14. brebisnoire Says:

    Beijing, your mother probably knew some real deprivation that I can’t even fathom. I’ve seen the same obsession with meat dishes twice a day here in Quebec, but I don’t know if that comes out of deprivation of some sort (not necessarily food – at least not in terms of quantity), or tradition and climate: meat is just easier to preserve during the long, cold winter. There are so many meat dishes in traditional Québécois cuisine, you cannot make a main dish without meat being the overwhelming ingredient – sometimes several different kinds of meat in the same dish.
    And yet some Quebeckers are definitely open to becoming vegetarian or vegan.

  15. brebisnoire Says:

    ThirstyApe – thanks so much for the comments and for the link to that blog and recipes. I will definitely take a good look through it all, as I am in this transitional period. It reminds me of when I first learned to cook and had to use recipes all the time…until I didn’t anymore.
    Take care!

  16. brebisnoire Says:

    Hi Lilian! Thanks for those great tips on vegetarian fare for kids. The tofu spaghetti sauce is brilliant! My kids prefer their sauce to be smooth, so that sounds like an excellent way of making it. And as for the burritos, we’ll try that tonight. Each time you’ve mentioned your experience with vegetarianism, it’s been an inspiration to me.
    (I love chick peas too, but my kids haven’t developed a taste for them yet.)

  17. mouthyorange Says:

    Coming in late …

    Over thirty years ago I was eating a delicious pepper steak my mother had made. I had a piece on my fork half-way to my mouth, when suddenly my perception of it changed from a delicious morsel of food to a cut off piece of flesh from an animal I could relate to as a being. I put the morsel down instead of eating it. Essentially, since then I have no longer eaten mammals of any kind.

    I tried being vegan for awhile and I believe I was the healthiest then I’ve ever been in my life. I read about it and did it carefully — didn’t make the mistake of simply eliminating animal foods from my diet.

    But it was tough to maintain that, for two reasons. One is that to take in adequate protein I had to cook long and carefully and use combinations of ingredients that are not regularly put together in our meat-obsessed part of the world. So once I went out the door to work or anywhere else I could rarely find anything I could really eat, and when I did there were so few choices that I had two repeat the same two or three things all the time and the boredom factor set in and became a real problem. In other words, I couldn’t spend my life just cooking my unusual diet, and I was all alone with what I was doing so the situation became impossible.

    The other reason was that I realized in the late 1970s that I am hypoglycemic. When blood sugar drops I have found that the fix is a small dose of good quality protein, followed by unprocessed (whole) carbohydrates to help maintain the balance. Beyond my front door protein was, and is today, mostly offered as animal flesh; and carbs are mostly offered as processed foods that I believe actually aggravate hypoglycemia. So I out in the world I couldn’t maintain my blood sugar level as a vegan. Unfortunately, my hypoglycemia didn’t resolve in spite of my best dietary attempts to shift it and I have had to deal with it ever since.

    My compromise, with continual regret: I do not eat mammals, but do eat fish, fowl and seafood and legume+whole grain entrées whenever I can find them. I do my best to get my animal flesh from humane and organic sources — for example, I go to considerable lengths to find free range and organic chicken. If I can find only EITHER free range or organic, I choose free range. The chickens have got to have some kind of a life.

    brebis, pulses are another word for legumes.

  18. brebis noire Says:

    Hi mouthyorange 🙂
    I can relate to your dilemma. Vegetarian, never mind vegan diets, can be very difficult to maintain in some places, the minute you go out the door. I have no trouble finding good variety in vegetarian dishes when I’m in cities like Toronto and Montreal, but where I live, vegetarian cuisine is an anomaly. I can’t even find tofu in a lot of stores, and different beans and pulses (thanks!) can be hard to find sometimes. At restaurants, I’d have the choice of French fries or salad – while salad can be healthy, it’s not exactly filling.

    My flexitarian-vegetarian diet will also include fish – only because I can’t cook it to make it taste good, so I only eat it when I’m out. My compassion does not extend to individual fish – though I am very concerned about fish populations and the environment they have to live in.

    And I have no trouble with eggs for the moment because I have my own chickens, and they appear very happy to give me their eggs. The last thing they want to do is sit on them for any length of time!

    There could have been great potential for excellent human-animal relations based on the exchange of milk and eggs for protection, but we have chosen not to go that way.

  19. mouthyorange Says:

    Hello, brebis. 🙂

    I agree, it’s much easier to find good vegetarian (if not vegan) meals in Toronto and Montreal these days; when I was trying to do it I lived in the Toronto of the 1970s. Now, I live in rural Ontario so I still can’t make the shift! Diets out here have been very slow to evolve. In many ways rural Ontario diets are decades behind the refinements in balance we keep seeing in big city diets. With some exceptions on both counts, of course.

    I believe that your chickens are quite lucky because you appreciate them. And I love what you say about the potential for excellent human-animal relations based on mutually understood, respectfully negotiated exchanges. I’ve been waiting since I was a child to see the human race start going that way in our relations with our animal kin. What’s taking us so long? How come some of us can see it, and so many others cannot?

    Don’t you ever wish that you could throw your arms around them — not restrictively, of course — and protect them all!

  20. brebis noire Says:

    mouthyorange, I am frustrated by the way urban diets are so much more ahead of the rural ones; there are a lot of things about modern rural life that are unsustainable, and a lot of that is simply a question of climate. There’s something broken in the countryside; we’ve moved into remote areas before they could really be properly supported, I think (unlike the way rural areas in Europe tend to be more connected to larger networks).

    And about protecting animals – it’s exhausting to even think about it! So much energy is spent protecting and caring for certain (owned) animals, and while there’s nothing wrong with that, people just don’t know how to address the bigger picture (and I include myself in that…)

  21. mouthyorange Says:

    I agree with your points in your most recent comment, and hope to know more —when you’re ready to write about it — about what you mean and what you think about us having moved into remote areas before they could really be properly supported.

    On another note, I’ve left a newer comment at JJ’s in the discussion that turned into women’s self-defence. It contains a bunch of info that you may want to know about, including a link to a women’s self-defence organization in Montréal. Just in case you haven’t been back to that thread since you last commented there.

  22. This is hilarious! My daughter has said the same thing to me on occasion (I am also a veterinarian). Funny how words can get mixed up so easily to them!

  23. brebisnoire Says:

    Thank you for your visit, Animal Specialist! I love hearing from other vets, and your hospital looks wonderful and welcoming.

    One of the vets I worked for told me that vets’ kids tend to look at veterinary medicine as somewhat less than exciting compared to other people’s kids. I saw that in action last year – my kid’s class had to write essays on what they wanted to be when they grew up. By far, most kids, especially girls, wrote about wanting to be a vet or an animal health technician. My kid didn’t even mention it as a remote possibility, even though he loves animals. 😀

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