The Conscientious Omnivore

For a few years of my early twenties, I was “vegetarian”. This happened because I was on a game drive in the Kruger National Park, eating biltong while watching a small family of kudu cross the road. I suddenly realised that the meat in my hands and my mouth had once been an animal just like the one I was observing. Flicking it’s cute ears. Stamping its cute hooves and licking its cute flanks. I remember thinking “I could not kill that animal and I do not deserve to be eating its flesh”. So I stopped. No cow or kudu or pig passed my lips. I took less of a generous attitude with fish or fowl, the former which I enjoyed catching from a boat and the latter which I felt I could probably kill myself. So when I craved meat, I’d have seafood or chicken without a twinge of guilt.
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I then read two incredible books, namely: ‘My Year of Meats’ by Ruth L Ozeki and ‘Eating Animals’ by Jonathan Safran Foer. The first is a fantastic story with powerful characters, based on the semi-fictional horror of meat growing and meat-eating in the United States. The second is not-even-vaguely-fictional horror. Now, there are undoubtedly mounds of literature on the subject but these were the two that shoved me wide-eyed and blinking into a new world of understanding. Knowledge that cannot be unknown. I was suddenly very aware of my own hypocrisy – happily eating chickens that had been battery farmed just because they weren’t as pretty as moo-cows or piggy wigglies. It was the first time I became aware of my role in perpetuating suffering. Every time I spent money on meat, I was voting in favour of the system that grew it, killed it and packaged it. Those two books were written about that process in the States and I realised that I needed to do everything in my power to prevent that from happening in South Africa. But how?

I put my money where my mouth is.

Despite being a ‘poor’ student, I started buying meat again. Expensive meat that came from small butchers or the farmers themselves. This involved being extremely organised (something I am frustratingly inept at), because the farmers would bring their lamb or pork to a select few markets, and when it was finished it was finished. At my tiny butcher, if you wanted a chicken you would have to order it in advance, because the suppliers were a scattering of nearby farmers who would kill an animal only once there was a request for it. Knowing this, collecting the meat from my butcher was always quite a surreal experience. I would hand over little pieces of paper and coins, and in exchange they would give me a dead animal. A free-range chicken that had squawked and pecked and done chickeny things until it had been killed because I’d asked.

I would make roast chicken for my housemates in our binary oven (either ‘off’ or ‘hot as the surface of the sun’). Leftovers would provide lunch for us as well as our cleaner. Bones would be boiled for stock, which would later become chicken soup or risotto. Nothing was wasted. Ultimately, a few humans were provided with protein a few times. But more importantly, a nearby farmer was given money in thanks for raising an indigenous breed chicken to adulthood. Producing meat this way is more expensive because it costs more to grow an animal than it is to turn caged chicks to cling-wrapped meat in under 6 weeks. Every time I handed over paper and coin, I voted for the practise of actual animal husbandry to continue. Did Rainbow Chicken, South Africa’s biggest supplier of battery-raised hens (4-million birds per week), notice that my money was now going elsewhere? Probably not. As a poor student I was still earning more than my average fellow South African and cheap protein is the best protein. Do I despise battery farming of chickens or pigs, or cattle feedlots? Yes. Because I can afford to step aside and say I will not be part of that suffering. The operative word there is ‘afford’.

But I hope Kauai noticed that I stopped buying lunch there once I saw their supplier was Rainbow Chicken. I suspect places like Woolworths noticed that I would spend more on their indigenous breed, free-range eggs. In a rather short space of time, their baked products made with free-range eggs multiplied and their meat section increasingly boasted free-range, local meats. I’m not saying Woolworths are perfect, but they had my attention and I had started to shop there more as a result, despite the expense.

When I moved to Scotland for my Ph.D. I struggled for months to find a ‘foodie’ comfort zone. The major stores here were overwhelming in scale and sheer variety, and being sceptical of how ‘free range’ the free range brands were, I stuck to a vegetarian diet. Now that I know more, I realise I am actually quite spoilt for choice in St. Andrews, with really lovely organic farms like Pillars of Hercules a short drive away. However, my favourite is Balgove – by a country mile. Recently, the owner kindly sat down with me over a cup of coffee and explained how they raise their cows and pigs, and how they stock their butchery. I learned about local breeds and deer stalking and how clever their pigs are. And I’ll write it all up this week in a separate post, because it’s worthy of its very own.

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