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Evan Handler

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I Eat Meat

Posted: 01/22/08 08:17 PM ET

I'm a meat eater. Not necessarily red meat. In fact, I only rarely eat beef, and when I do, it's almost always a hamburger. I haven't eaten steak in years, except to take a small bite when someone says I have to. You know how that goes: "Oh, my God...this is so good. Do you want to try it?"

"No."
"Oh, you have to."
And, so, you do.

But I do eat flesh. And the sorry fact is, I feel I need it. I did once live for some very few years as a strict vegetarian. A more precise reckoning of "some very few years" actually comes to precisely nine-and-a-half-months. A more precise reckoning of "strict vegetarian" means I was a macrobiotic. I suppose there will be those readers who don't know what that term means, and to that I reply that no one does. It has something to do with eating only produce that can be grown locally -- though it doesn't have to actually have been grown locally. It also has something to do with avoiding alcohol and other stimulants -- though coffee and cigarettes are somehow justified. Macrobiotics believe in eating only vegetables and grains... unless, of course, you crave fish, with the primary emphasis on a diet centered on the complete protein concocted out of beans and brown rice. This is also a wildly misunderstood stricture, however, and there have been several deaths reported due to malnutrition among those who insisted on believing that the true, pure nutritional necessities of humans could be met by ingesting only rice -- and the fewest grains of rice imaginable at that. In the complex, ever-changing world of dietary recommendations, an easy mistake to make.

Macrobiotics is further defined by the delicate balance of yin and yang. Certain foods, as any fool might gather, possess the qualities of yin, while other foods, it goes without saying, are decidedly yang. I investigated the distinction between the two enthusiastically when I was adhering to The Macrobiotic Way. I wanted to be able to discern, without the aid of a book titled with that same phrase, just which foods fell into which camp. I read extensively, and spoke with several devotees. The answers I received in print were declarative, yet unenlightening. The answers I received verbally were delivered impatiently, and divided all edible substances into degrees of heat and coolness that had nothing to do with their temperature. My final conclusion was that in order to be considered yin, an entrée must be of interest to the editors of Interview magazine; to be yang, of interest to Vanity Fair.

I was led into macrobiotics in my mid-twenties as a result of a diagnosis of acute leukemia, an excuse that could serve for crimes much more severe than following the vague, capricious dietary notions of a chain smoking Japanese mystic. My bet is I could have murdered the human being of my choice at the time and not suffered one moment of state sanctioned punishment. Looking back, which I do far too often, I'm amazed -- and not slightly disappointed -- that I didn't take advantage of my misfortune a great deal more. Cursed is he who dwells on missed opportunities.

But now, I eat meat. Regularly. Though, I suppose, in the current climate, even that statement requires clarification. There are those fantastically misguided souls -- vegetarians by their own definitions -- who don't consider the muscular tissue of fish or fowl to be "meat". Salmon, tuna, chicken, duck, oysters, mussels, guinea hen. It makes no difference to them. As long as it had wings or gills, or perhaps no face, it can safely be classified as a vegetable. Go figure.

I'm no vegetarian. Rare is the day I don't eat a piece of chicken. If I don't, it's a good bet I've consumed some shrimp, beef, fish, clams, snails, pork, goose, rabbit, goat, or snake. I've actually never eaten snake, but if none of the others were available, I just might. It's just that, somehow, I've come under the impression that I lack a degree of physical strength without animal protein. But I can trace the feeling back only as far as the illness, I'm afraid, and it's a poor reference point. Quite simply, vegetarianism never occurred to me before it, and was adhered to afterwards only out of the most primal fear. Take that as my statement on the bravery of the survivor.

For years after I recovered from leukemia I was plagued (I still am, really, I just can't stand to admit it other than in an aside) by seemingly constant upper respiratory infections. Sore throats, head colds, chest colds, pneumonia once. Somewhere between thirty and fifty percent of my time is spent not feeling very well. And the way I've soothed myself, the avenue I've chosen to compensate for the pleasures denied me during my repetitive echoed convalescences, is to eat rich foods. Again, not the most daring rebuttal to deprivation. Why I haven't sought comfort in constant sexual indulgences, unbridled spending sprees, constant sexual indulgences, or constant sexual indulgences is a disgrace to desperate souls everywhere. I suppose I lack the joie de vivre of the truly tormented.

When I lived downtown in New York's East Village, I'd head over to the Second Avenue Deli. It was, in its way, a bold choice for someone suffering from his seventh severe flu of the season. Most restaurants in the neighborhood boasted of free delivery, but not the famed shrine of Kosher cholesterol. I'd wrap myself in sweaters and scarves and brave the winds for the six block journey, spurred on by the promise of a sandwich made of brisket of beef on soggy, doubly-mustarded rye bread. In addition to this I'd bring home a tray of potato kugel that I'd heat in a filthy toaster oven, and I'd imagine I was somehow fortifying myself against the microscopic tormenters of my tissues as I devoured the roasted tissues of another creature, even less fortunate than myself. Now that I've written it down, I can see that perhaps my unconscious motivation was simply to spread my misery around.

My meat eating, however, was thrown into crisis some years ago in the city called San Francisco. I'd never been to the city by the bay before, and the Japanese restaurant I strayed into was equally foreign to me. I was in California on a book tour, reading in bookstores from the memoir I wrote about my illness and unexpected recovery. While most of my experiences on that tour were enjoyable -- after all, traveling the country as an author, on someone else's dime, being interviewed and treated as someone with opinions worth heeding is a heady adventure -- the fun of the actual bookstore appearances often could be equated with that of chemotherapy. I read to over a hundred who laughed and cried appropriately in Manhattan. Then, in Chicago, while hundreds of African-American women hauled their children to the Borders across the street to listen to Toni Morrison, I sat on the second floor of Barnes and Noble reading to two strangers, Lisa and Tom, both bone marrow transplant recipients, accompanied by Lisa's husband, Mike, and Tom's grandmother, Judith. Imagine the Q and A interplay afterwards. To end my tour I landed in Los Angeles, a city in which I have nearly as many friends as I do in New York. However, on the night of my elegant party at Rizzoli in Santa Monica it rained. Angelenos responded to the light precipitation as they always do: by locking themselves in their storm cellars. The platters of food -- chosen to sate carnivores and vegans alike -- remained untouched.

At Hiro, the Japanese restaurant on State Street in San Francisco, I ordered salmon teriyaki. A modest choice, by most standards. I don't eat sushi. Though I've had few qualms about eating creatures over the years, I do insist that they be cooked. Thoroughly. The "few qualms" I do have preclude me from hunting or fishing for my own meals. Firstly, I can't abide the cruelty of directly causing the animal's death. In addition, I suppose I fear that the hunting of an animal makes me fairer game to be hunted by one in return. While being eaten by a beast does seem, in an ecological sense, to be an honorable death, I'm intent on avoiding it nonetheless. One of my other qualms has to do with a more superstitious concern: fear of retribution. I won't eat raw fish, shellfish, crustaceans or other flesh due to concern that I'll be more susceptible to the karmic punishment of a heaping bacterial infection or parasitic attack. Yes, I live in fear. Then again, such things do happen.

I enjoy salmon cooked teriyaki style. But, as with all meats, I insist it be cooked well. Japanese restaurants are ideal in this respect, because it doesn't require special instructions to the chef. While the current recipe de rigueur in regard to seafood is to cook it until barely heated through, I've found that most Japanese restaurants cook their salmon to within an inch of incineration. Since most of these establishments also offer sushi, I find it an interesting juxtaposition of extremes. Fish either raw, or, in the eyes of most other-ly oriented gourmands, destroyed by fire. Perhaps the reason salmon teriyaki is so well cooked in Japanese restaurants is that the chefs know the only customers ordering it are the ones who are afraid of sushi.

Let me state right away, or, at least, right away now that we've gotten this far, that the flavor of the salmon was fine. I cast no aspersions on the freshness of the fish, or its preparation. But from the first bite I had a sensation that has troubled me to this day. As I chewed my meal and swallowed, as I enjoyed the crisp outer crust of caramelized sugars and animal fat, as I sat alone in San Francisco and wondered who might show up later to listen to an unknown author read from his rabidly angry tome about every detail of his bouts with acute leukemia, I had the disturbing impression that I could taste the personality of the fish.

What do I mean by this? I don't exactly know. What does a personality -- particularly the personality of a fish -- taste like? I don't know this either. But as I sat chewing; alternating between fish, steamed broccoli, and rice; cutting the meal with sips of mediocre white wine; every taste bud registered the presence of a being stunned and frightened to be caught in a net. I knew I was ingesting someone who had hoped for nothing other than to escape and reach home. I knew, as I chewed, that as his terror increased, his hope became simply to somehow send word back to those he loved of how he was taken and to where he'd disappeared. I know he thought of his family and his friends, and felt distraught over the panic they were sure to experience when he didn't return. His agony was indescribable, his frustration unbearable, as he imagined their imaginings of his choice to flee and never come back.

"They'll think I've rejected them", the fish feared. "They'll think I didn't want to ever see them again."

He thought of who his mate might find to replace him. Wondered if she'd grow old alone.

He worried for the safety of his offspring, if they'd come to love someone else as they'd loved him.

He worried if the pain of death would be unbearable, if there were fish he knew nearby who might witness the un-heroic panic with which he was to meet his end. If there was ever a reason to have done any of the things he'd done, or to have ever hoped for anything more than what was being given him right now.

And I chewed the fish. I ate him, and he tasted good.

There is no way I can prove the truth of what I felt that night, but I know it to be real. I tasted his terror, his pride, and the extinguishing of his will. I tasted his final realization that he would not be saved, and I tasted the exhaustion that is too often attributed to acceptance of one's fate.

And I swallowed, and I nourished myself with him. And he tasted good.

I left that restaurant in San Francisco haunted by what I'd taken inside myself, and I've remained somewhat haunted to this day. I made my way to the "Clean, Well Lighted Place" bookstore and read to a smattering of souls about my own narrowly avoided death. I can't quite categorize what I experienced that night, or what I've come to know as a result since then. I'm not sure I can put such knowledge into words. I have examined it, and wondered if there were more emotional distortions at work than I've been willing to admit. After all, if the aphorism says we are what we eat, who's to say we don't turn what we eat into us? Most likely, what I tasted in my salmon teriyaki that night were all the feelings I remember having back when I though I was destined for that fish's fate. But then, of course, no one would have eaten me. Anyway, after all the horrible shit they ran through my veins, I doubt I would have passed USDA inspection.

But, if I know the taste of that fish's terror -- from both inside and out -- how is it that I still eat meat? Is it as simple as what I felt in the hospital when they'd wheel a tightly wrapped corpse down the hallway on its way to the morgue? Sure, I'd be shocked and terrified at the undeniability of the possibility of my own demise. But, for the most part, my feeling then was "better him than me." As far as I could see at the time, every one who fell around me statistically increased my own chances for survival. In a strange and horrible way - decidedly divorced from the individuals involved and my feelings for them - I was rooting against every one of them, because that was the same as rooting for myself. It's not that I'm incapable of feeling for the soul whose life was stolen in order to nourish my own. In fact, for some reason, I've come to taste it in every bite. But, alongside each gram of sadness I feel for my part in the bargain is the increased assurance of my own existence I get with every swallow. It takes the death of another for me to survive. And, someday, I'll be taken to make room for someone, or something, else. Like it or not, that's the way of the world -- at least the one I walk in. And, having once felt that net closing around me, having barely made it back to where I insisted I belonged, the chapter where I don't make it out is the one I plan to keep unwritten for as close to forever as my mind can fathom. Until then, Bon Appétit.

 
 
 

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