Wednesday, September 4, 2013

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Ugh… My wife is a vegetarian! (Why does my husband eat so much meat?) Part I


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Mel and Clint
I was raised next to my grandfather’s beef farm. Cows wandering the open field across from our home, bellowing and whipping their tails, was the backdrop of my childhood. Each fall, Grandpa would pull into my mother’s driveway in his grey Chevy pickup. In the back would be several large red sacks of beef, each cut wrapped in white butcher paper: T-bone steak, cubed steak, roast beef, ribs, hamburger, and many other parts of the cow. He looked a lot like Santa Clause as the old man hauled the large red sack up our steps and into our freezer. I really looked forward to these moments.
I have a lot of fond memories of grilling meat as a family. Some of the few good memories I have of my estranged father are of him flipping burgers in our backyard, or grilling steak and eggs on the stove. If I got up early enough, he’d cut me off a strip of steak and grill me an egg. Then we’d sit across from each other, not speaking, just savoring the beef.
This is why when Mel told me she wanted to be a vegetarian I almost shit myself. I wondered if our marriage could still work. I looked her in the eyes, and wondered if this was grounds for divorce. I thought about all our trips to Sizzler for steak and shrimp. I thought about the day I proposed. After she said yes, we went to Applebee’s for steak and potatoes. Anniversaries, birthdays, holidays, graduations, success and failures, every significant moment in our life together had been accompanied by beef, chicken, or pork.

Food Pyramid from 1988
To further complicate things, meat was not only emotionally significant; it was also a symbol of my masculinity. Men eat meat. Men eat a lot of meat because it is what makes us strong. It is the source of our power. Meat put hair on my chest. My uncle told me so. Meat gave me muscles. My freshman health teacher described using the food pyramid. Meat and dairy were near the top because, I assumed, they were very important to my survival. When I was sixteen I bought my first barbeque, a large charcoal grill that came with a side table and instructions on how to smoke a turkey. I’d gotten my first car a few weeks earlier, and I recall thinking that the grill was equally significant. Now I could have friends over and we could grill, bond, and grow chest hair. In so many ways meat was essential to my masculine identity. And now, eight years in, Mel was changing the dynamics of our marriage. It felt like she was trying to take away something very important to me.
We were at the dinner table when she told me about her decision to give up meat, and I got a little crazy. I asked her a very silly question that I already knew the answer to.
“Have you tried meat?” I asked.
Mel looked confused. “Well… yeah.” She said.
“No. No.” I said. I shook my hands in front of me, palms out. “I mean have you put it in your mouth? Because it's really good. Anyone who has tried meat would not make this decision.”
Mel rolled her eyes. Then she reminded me about some health issues she’d been having.
“The doctor told me that if I eat less meat, I would have less back pain,” she said. “So I stopped eating so much meat. Now it is starting to make me sick when I eat it.”
I have to admit, what she said sounded reasonable. However, I was beyond reason. Frankly I was frightened.
Then she told me about watching a documentary called Forks over Knives. “It was on Netflix,” she said. Apparently it showed that most, if not all, of the degenerative diseases that afflict us can be controlled, or even reversed, by not eating animal-based foods. She started talking about how healthy a low-fat, whole-food, plant-based diet was, and I tried to wrap my head around these new terms, none of which sounded appetizing.
Then she told me about other documentaries she’d been watching that showed the brutality of the food industry. She talked about sad and abused animals, chickens that could hardly walk, living in heaping piles of their own shit, sad and abused pigs, cows being fed corn mixed with steroids rather than hay. What she described sounded very different from my grandfathers’ farm. Sometimes he called the cows, “worthless sacks of shit” or “dirty bitches” out of frustration. And once I watched him hit a cow with his truck when it wouldn’t get out of the road. But he never pumped them full of steroids and antibiotics. Only hay. For the most part, they seemed to live normal cow lives, wandering about, grazing, and pooping. Suddenly we had very different images of how meat was produced and what it meant. Steak made me think of tractor rides with my grandfather, grilling with my friends, and mornings with my father, while it now made Mel think about cows being filled with hormones and then trapped in a pen, something similar to how Wolverine was created in X-men.
I got scared and I let out the republican. “This sounds like a bunch of rhetoric,” I said. “Let’s cook some bacon and make love. You know. Like we used to.”
She didn’t laugh. I knew she was serious.
We sat in silence for a while. And I will admit, I was emotional. I knew that if Mel became a vegetarian, I would wind up eating far less meat. I assumed that Mel would be cooking far less meaty dinners, and over the years I’d begun to really enjoy her meat cooking abilities. I took in a deep breath, and I thought about how difficult it would be for Mel to stick to this diet. We had meat with nearly every meal. This would be a huge shift in her life. I really doubted she could stick with it.

Mel broke the silence. “How about you do it with me?”
I laughed, long and hard, with my hand over my stomach. I took a breath, and I laughed some more. “I’ve put meat in my mouth.” I said. “It’s delicious. There’s no way.”
“You might change your mind if you watched Forks over Knives,” She said. “It’s really moving. I want you to watch it with me.”
“Are you crazy?” I asked. “Look what it did to you? No. No. I’d rather not.”
Then Mel gave me the look. Her eyes got a little soft as she tucked in her lower lip. She only makes this face when I’m being an ass. I thought about her supporting my return to college. I thought about how she let me do a study abroad in London when Tristan was only one year old.
“Fine. Ok. I’m sorry. I was being a jerk. If this is what you want, I will support you.”
Burger King Whopper with 1050 pieces Of bacon
Which was only half true. I ate the meals she cooked. And I tried not to complain when she made me a dried out stick of chicken to go with her vegetarian meals. However, what I did do was try to tempt her. Our evening conversations started with “It’s too bad you are a vegetarian, because…” and then I’d go on to describe amazing lunches I’d had with my coworkers. “We went to this Mexican place and the chicken taco was so amazing my head exploded!” or “The burger I ate for lunch had seven strips of bacon. I’ve decided that bacon is the heroin of meat.” Or “They opened a Buffalo Wild Wing in Corvallis. You would have loved the new sauces.” I always held a tone of remorse, almost like I was talking about someone who’d died. This was not something intentional; it just came out that way. And I suppose, it felt that way, too. Like the former meat eating woman I married almost a decade ago had died and been replaced by some stranger who proudly prepared quinoa with black beans and asked me which veggie burger sounded more appealing. “I don’t know.” I said. “I feel like you are asking me to pick between two different types of poo.”
Despite my tempting. Despite my remorseful tone. She stuck with it. Until I found her weakness. Bacon. 

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Clint Edwards is a tutor coordinator at Oregon State University. He is also the former co-host of the Weekly Reader on KMSU and a graduate of the MFA program at Minnesota State University. His writing has been listed as notable by Best American Essays, and has been published in The Baltimore Review, and through The University of North Dakota, Boston College, Emerson College, The University of South Carolina, and Minnesota State University. 


Jane Birch said...

Loved your essay!! I post stories of Mormon who have switched to a whole food, plant-based diet on my blog, Discovering the Word of Wisdom ( I'd love it if your wife was interested in sharing her story there!