After writing my post last week about the Big Island cowboy culture, some people questioned my statement about mostly giving up beef. Why, they asked. Part of the answer lies in a couple of videos I saw years ago, “Forks over Knives” and “Food, Inc.” The first explained the health benefits of giving up meat; the latter talked about the consequences of corporate farming practices and government agriculture policies on our way of life. After seeing them, I gave up beef, though I sometimes lapse when I am traveling. That was four years ago. Living here on the Big Island, it’s become a choice based on personal experience.
This is the first time in my life that I’ve lived so close to farms or ranch animals. Growing up in Wisconsin, we saw lots of dairy cows when we drove in the country. But raising cows for milk doesn’t seem to be the same as raising calves to become dinner. Others might disagree.
I see these animals every time I drive to Waimea. And I’ve come to know just a bit about their lives. I’ve seen several complete cycles of birthing and raising calves to the weaning stage, when the calves are shipped to the mainland for “finishing” on corn. A few ranchers take the risk to raise calves to adulthood on grass. But during times of long drought, grass hasn’t been plentiful enough even for the adult cattle. Anyway, the point is they are no longer an abstract packaged piece of meat in the grocery case.
A while ago, I finally saw cattle crossing the road. It was clear that it happens regularly: one day the cattle are on one side of the road and the next they’re on the other. I was just never in the right spot at the right time to see it. But this time I was in luck.
As my cowgirl neighbor had told me, these days the paniolos are just as likely to round up the cattle with ATVs as with horses. One cowboy waited at the fence along the road while another pushed the cattle towards it.
Once the cattle were clustered at the road, the first cowboy opened the gate and the cattle simply walked across the road. A third person stood on the other side of the road and waved her arms to shoo the cattle into the chute in the field across the road. It happened quickly, quietly, and orderly; no fanfare.
I wonder if they ever have a stampede or even a jog, where a few cattle make a break for it. These paniolos on foot would be no match for a couple tons of cow heading for them.
Even this simple act of watching the cows cross the road made them more real to me. And my friends who live in the country talk about hearing the cows grieving for days with the most pitiful bellowing when their calves are taken. That affected me too.
So why not give up meat altogether? I’m heading in that direction, but it’s slow. Somehow my mind rationalizes eating a very limited amount of pork, because the wild pigs around here do so much damage to crops and indigenous vegetation. But I’m not eating pig that has been harvested in the wild, so that mental argument really doesn’t hold up. On the other hand, I don’t cook it anymore.
In fact, I saw something at Costco the other day that gave me pause. There in three freezer cases were boxes of piglets, $2.99/pound, ready for roasting in an imu, the traditional Hawaiian underground oven (only in Hawai‘i!). They have removed the need to shoot your own which at least had ecological benefits. Still, my German and Czech heritage calls to me when I’m homesick, and I succumb to it, eating a bratwurst with sauerkraut every now and then.
Then there’s lamb. My family never ate it, but my husband’s family did and I learned to love it. Now I have to unlearn it. Luckily, lamb has been very easy to give up. There are lots of sheep being raised along my route from Honoka‘a to Waimea, and the lambs are so cute. I can’t eat them anymore. I like to think that most of these sheep are being raised for wool for the burgeoning artistic needlework trade anyway.
Another aspect of my gradual walk away from meat is learning how many of my friends and acquaintances are already vegetarian or vegan. Wow. Makes me feel like a Neanderthal. But that’s only my own conscience judging me; these friends certainly don’t.
At this point in my evolution, my meat diet (called flexitarian) and the menus I plan, are restricted to chicken (mostly organic skinless thighs), the occasional turkey, and fish. I also cook vegetarian a couple of meals a week. My family complains, and they mutiny by cooking their own meals. But even that will be less of a temptation once my youngest goes off to college in a couple months.
Still, I’m not sure I will give up the chicken and fish, especially the chicken. I have a long-running feud with the neighborhood roosters that saunter into my yard to feast on my compost pile. I wouldn’t mind them visiting if they were quiet. It’s the blasted crowing that peeves me. Somehow that justifies eating their brethren. Maybe someday I will evolve further.
Postscript: After I finished writing this, my husband came home with steaks for supper, a rare occurrence. I confess, after long stretches without beef, it tasted very good. Now I’ll have to live with my conscience.
Second Postscript: A vegan friend sent me to a website, Beyond Carnism. I urge you to look at the 18 minute video called The Secret Reason We Eat Meat; the link is right on the home page. It’s not the usual guts and gore video, but a great explanation of how we’ve come as a society to eat pig and cow, but not dog or horse (well, at least in the US).
I invite you to witness my struggle with the noisy neighborhood chickens over the past four years:
Too late, with the cats!
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