The vegetarian as the better person

Trouw editor Iris Pronk considers herself a low profile vegetarian. Meat eaters regularly attempt to convert her. ,,I don’t mind. Maybe, I now realize, I even like it."

A factory-farmed broiler is to be pitied, but this (genetically altered for explosive growth) ’dynamite chicken’ , also known as ‘plofkip’ is tender, and cheap to boot. Whereas her sister from the farm yard is tough and costs you triple the amount of euros. And there we have one of the ‘terrible dilemmas’ carnivores are faced with. Vegetarians have it easy, the Dutch culinary food writer Sylvia Witteman complains in her book ‘Het lekkerste dier’ [The best animal] (2009): ,,They just don’t eat meat and that’s that.”

‘Het lekkerste dier’ is a cookbook, with recipes for tough chicken and plofkip, but also for turkey, calf’s tongue, pig neck, rabbit and duck. Strip the latter, Witteman instructs, of all ‘attached giblets’, and then lower into the boiling stock, neck first. Dead animals can be cut, chopped, skinned, boned, plucked, emptied, minced, kneaded, and then – rubbed with garlic pulp and cooked in real butter – consumed with great relish, I learn from Witteman.

Her book was unusual reading for me, because I don’t eat meat. What made me read it after all was its subtitle: ‘Conversion of a vegetarian’. Witteman dedicated the book to ‘her good friend Henk’, who – for reasons not clarified – is thinking about becoming a ‘tofu drop-out’ and eating meat.

In the context of Dutch Book Week, which had animals as its theme this year, Witteman had an engagement at a book shop in Breda. The organizer was looking for an interviewer and felt the fact that I am a vegetarian exciting. Such a confrontation in front of an audience also looked interesting to me, and so I ploughed my way through the recipes in preparation for our conversation.

I have always been a low-profile vegetarian, an undemanding guest who does not want to inconvenience the cook, who is more than happy to pick any pieces of bacon from the mashed potatoes and endive, and who feels absolutely no need to point out to table-companions the history of their pork chop. Self-determination on the plate, what people eat is up to them.

Now Witteman’s book compelled me to reflect on the meat eater. I read about stuffed breasts of veal, stupid chickens with ‘painfully little cute appeal’ and cows that are destined for the pan so they won’t be in the way later on. And I did so with increasing discomfort. To Witteman that pot is the start of a hedonistic meat fest. My head, however, was filled with the cries of distress and the dying screams that came before the pot.

My discomfort was increased by my meeting with Witteman in Breda. It soon became clear that her good friend Henk was a gimmick and did not exist. And that not only the author, but also the carnivores in the room were indifferent to those ‘terrible dilemmas’ of ethics and animal suffering. ,,And how do you prepare lamb kidneys?”, they wanted to know. All of a sudden I felt alone, and I was starting to lose my sense of humour as well. Which is the deathblow for a vegetarian.

Humour is to an ugly man what a hairpiece is to a bald man, Dutch author Arnon Grunberg once said. Now vegetarians aren’t ugly by definition, but they do have something to cover up: the conviction that they are right. I will not expand too much on this here, for I am terrified of being taken for a nag. I don’t like to comply with the image many meat eaters still cherish: vegetarians are prigs à la Marianne Thiemen, leader of the Dutch Party for the Animals. Or boring health freaks, who probably don’t drink or smoke either; they are just no fun.

Eating meat has a sexier image in some circles, so Dirk-Jan Verdonk writes in his dissertation ‘Het dierloze gerecht. Een vegetarische geschiedenis van Nederland’ [The animal-free dish. A vegetarian history of the Netherlands] (2009). It is associated with irresponsibility, hedonism, immorality, machismo and decadence, ,,values you could revel in”. If you preach against the steak, you are a moralist.

And that is something very few people want to be. This spring the science section of the Volkskrant carried an article with the tenor that people who eat a lot of meat run a higher risk of getting cancer and cardiovascular diseases. This was not an editorial, but a straightforward piece in which various researchers had their say about the (un)healthiness of meat. And yet at the bottom it said: ‘The author is not a vegetarian’. Which probably means something like: he really isn’t trying to convert you, he is merely the bearer of a message you may find disagreeable.

Another example, from this newspaper. Under the heading ‘We will not be harping on about meat’, general editor Willem Schoonen defended the position that we should all eat a little less meat. And then he concluded his piece with a conciliatory sentence with machismo overtones: ,,But I am sure that the daily recipes in Trouw will still call for the occasional steak to slide into the pan.”

Three days after this letter from the editor, on 22 September, the combination ‘nagging vegetarians’ popped up again. This time above the column of Sylvain Ephimenco, who fulminated against Indian Rajendra Pachauri of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. He had had the audacity to make a case for a meat tax and a compulsory ‘vega-day’. ,,Ever met a nagging carnivore who wants to compel vegetarians to eat meat once a week?”

Undoubtedly Ephimenco’s question was intended to be rhetorical. But my answer is: yes. In the thirty years I now refrain from eating meat I have met countless nagging carnivores. They still regularly sit next to me at the table, in a living room or restaurant. My meat-free diet disturbs the ‘fraternization at the table’, as the American author Jonathan Safran Foer puts it in his recently published book ‘Eating animals’. I don’t participate in the principal part of the shared dinner. And they never fail to let me know it.

My announcement ‘I don’t eat meat’ is invariably followed by the same witty remarks. In his pamphlet ‘Eatnomeat’ (2006) Hugo Brandt Corstius calls them ’the twenty-six standard comments of the meat eaters alphabet’. I will quote a few. ,,Hitler was a vegetarian.” ,,I see you are wearing leather shoes.” ,,And what about fish? Do you eat fish?” ,,And do the animals send you thank you notes?” ,,On the wagon, too, aren’t you?”,,Do me a favour, have a bite of this slice of smoked horsemeat I am cutting for you, and tell me honestly how divine you think it tastes.” Brandt Corstius ends his alphabet with: „Hitler was a vegetarian too. Oh, I think Pete already mentioned that.”

Vegetarians think they have found an easy solutions to a difficult problem. They don’t eat meat, because eating meat is difficult to justify. I suspect the largest group don’t annoy anyone with this.... at least the vegetarians I know polish off their tofu burgers without being pedantic about it.

The difference between the vegetarian and the meat eater is that the latter feels attacked by the ‘Eatnomeat’, says Brandt Corstius. ,,Eatnomeat knows he must not try to convert the meat eaters. But the meat eater wants to reason with Eatnomeat. He wants to prove that Eatnomeat is a misguided idealist and a fool, who in addition through his behaviour cunningly wants to depict him, the meat eater, as inferior, cruel, and insensitive.”

Brandt Corstius implicitly broaches an interesting issue. For doesn’t he secretly think the meat eater is inferior? And the vegetarian a better person?

Of course there is no such thing as the meat eater. Apart from nagging carnivores there are also wavering, contrite, selective carnivores, part-time vegetarians, organic meat supporters, once-a-week carnivores, the ‘I wish I could do without, but I really really like meat’-carnivores.

Before he started researching factory farming, Jonathan Safran Foer was one of those wannabe vegetarians. He compares meat to the cigarette, another one of those unhealthy but addictive products. ,,According to Mark Twain to quit smoking was one of the simplest things a person could do; he did it all the time. I added vegetarianism to the list of simple things. In high school I turned vegetarian more times than I can remember.”

There is also no such thing as the vegetarian. People opt for an animal-free diet for very different reasons. Because they believe it is healthier, because they love animals very much, or because they are worried about the climate pollution that results from meat production.

For me personally factory farming is the biggest reason to forgo chicken breasts and bacon. The thought of the half billion animals that are murdered in the Netherlands every year after a life under artificial light on 0.09 square metres (chicken) or 0.7 square metres (pig) spoils my appetite. Chickens need to scratch and scrape in the yard, pigs need to root about in the mud instead of being reduced to a cheap sale item right from birth. In any case they don’t have to die just for the taste.

Lo and behold my brave position. It’s okay that some meat eaters try to get me to change my mind. It doesn’t really bother me. Perhaps, I now realize, in some way I even like it. Because aren’t their easy to refute objections indications of their insecurity and sense of guilt about their own weakness?

By attacking me these meat eaters a least acknowledge me. And they give me the opportunity to glory in my role: the role of the graciously silent vegetarian, who really does feel compassion for the hedonists who are unable to resist the roasted or braised meat. Not everyone can be as strong as I am.

Although, to be fair, I do have something to say about this ‘strength’. I happen to have absolutely no difficulty not eating the dead animal. My mother is a vegetarian, roast chicken appeared on our table only very occasionally. Apart from the incidental pâté for my sandwich, I look back on a meat-free youth. I am still not missing anything, sometimes peck at the umpteenth bland omelette in a restaurant, but that is the extent of my sacrifice.

You could say my vegetarianism is a simple bid for the title of ‘better person’. You can achieve this status in plenty of other ways: get rid of the car, give up air trips, shower less than five minutes, separate your waste consistently, turn the heat down to 18 degrees centigrade and wear warm sweaters, or do volunteer work for animal welfare organization Wakker Dier. All things that would be difficult for me, and I therefore do not do. Not without feeling somewhat guilty, but I generally manage to quickly appease that. For I don’t eat meat, and that’s something.

There is one more great advantage to a meat-free life. I never have to think about the animals anymore. I don’t have to feel miserable about those huge claws used years ago – when swine fever was sweeping the country – to dump all those dead pigs in containers. Or about chicks that disappear alive into the grinder. Or about the pigs that are jacked off at the breeding establishment. Or the degenerated turkeys, that in their short life before the slaughter can’t even walk normally. It’s not my doing.

In my head the pigs, the chickens, the cows and the rabbits are largely absent. And in my heart too, actually: I am not a lover of animals. As a child I never progressed beyond a half-hearted attempt at keeping guinea pigs. Now I dread the day my daughters want a cat. I have never felt animals were endearing, my position that they deserve a life and not torture and cruel death, is rooted in reason. Perhaps that makes me an a-typical vegetarian. If you penetrate deeply into vegetarian circles, says Dirk-Jan Verdonk, all attention focuses on animals. They grow legs, soft snouts, personalities, consciousness, they turn out to feel pain, have a right to life and protection.

Carnivores, according to him, do not reflect on animals as much. ,,Eating meat makes animals absent. Very literally as a condition to process them as ingredients, but as regards the modern meal frequently also symbolically, by obscuring the connection between the meat and the actual, concrete animal it used to belong to, by changing animals into an anonymous abstraction.”

Modern meat comes from misery, from a horror film, according to Jonathan Safran Foer. The large majority of people deny this using a ,,simple trick of the back-garden astronomer: if something is difficult to see, don’t look directly at it, but slightly past it”.

Our veiled language helps this great silence. People don’t eat animals, they eat ‘meat’, cows and chickens aren’t tortured and killed, they are ‘processed’. And the unwanted sea animals that swim into the intensive fishing nets we call ‘bycatch’. While the bycatch of one kilo of shrimp from Indonesia is a staggering 52 kilos, according to Foer.

Animals only become visible again as cellophane-wrapped chunks at the supermarket. For me also, although the only thing I take from the meat-shelf are the small vegetarian balls. From the adjacent fish-shelf I used to occasionally take a sustainable piece of salmon, but after reading Foer’s ‘Eating animals’ that sort of sticks in my craw also.

I have always connected eating animals with - conscious or subconscious – shame. But then I ended up at this bookshop in Breda, with an offhand Sylvia Witteman, who simply wanted to celebrate meat. The animal was present only in decapitated, dissected, kneaded, cooked and marinated form. And none of the people present were interested in the opinion of the vegetarian. Not even as a matter of courtesy.

So then I got angry. Because of those poor, denied animals, I thought. Now, months later, I must admit that something else bothered me as well: the denial of me as the better person.

The other day a colleague made a - well intended – joke: ,,Really, vegetarian? In that case you don’t look half bad!”

Now that’s what I like to hear.

Iris Pronk is the education and youth welfare editor of this newspaper. This article originally appeared in Trouw, section Letter&Geest, on the 14th of november 2009.

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