February 17, 2012

On Meat and Judgment: A New Kind of Social Anxiety

It’s uncomfortable for me to go over to a friend’s house for dinner to eat chicken. I don’t want to ask about the chicken, because I feel like a snob. And I don’t want to explain why I don’t want to eat their meat from the store because I don’t want them to think I think I’m better than them because I buy different meat than their meat.

So I always just feel uncomfortable and eat the chicken.

Chicken Dinner on Dining Room Table

Sometimes I lie and tell people who don’t know me very well that I’m a vegetarian because it makes things a lot simpler. And it only takes one word—“vegetarian” —to explain what you eat, and people get it. OK. No meat. It’s easy. It’s like when Jewish people say they don’t eat pork, and no one thinks too much about it. OK. Hold the bacon.

Even though “I only eat meat when I know where it comes from, and feel good about it” is only 16 words, for some reason it feels like a mountain compared with the clear-cut “vegetarian” explanation of what’s cool and what’s not for a dinner menu. There are one-word explanations that people have come up with to describe a kind of eating preference similar to mine. “Ecotarian” is one of them, but no one would know what the hell I was talking about if I told them I was one of those. “We’re having roasted chicken and mashed potatoes.” “Sure. And you realize I’m an ecotarian, right?” That would cement things pretty clearly when it came to people thinking I’m a snob.

And that’s the thing. I don’t want to be a snob. And I hate the thought of people thinking I’m a snob. So what’s the protocol?

I’ve heard of vegetarians taking trips to other countries and eating meat when they were guests in locals’ homes. They did this because they didn’t want to offend anyone. It’s not exactly the same thing, but this is always the story I tell myself when I’m keeping my mouth shut and eating the chicken (or the beef or the pork or the turkey—whatever the case may be): that I’m being humble and joining the customs and general practices of the household. I’m gratefully accepting what’s been prepared for me, even if I am worried that the animals lived horrible lives and ate nothing but feed full of pesticides or that the burger has pink slime and ammonia in it or that the chicken was soaked in bleach. It’s the right thing to do to just eat it, right?

At restaurants, I have no problem asking about meat sourcing. Sometimes I can tell people think I’m being stuck up because of the way they look at me or the way they seem annoyed when they tell me they’ll go ask the chef. (I think sometimes the server takes a bathroom break after telling me this, and then comes back and gives me some vague answer about the meat.)

Mean Waiter in Restaurant

But I don’t care what they think, because I don’t know them. With friends, it’s harder. With family, it might be hardest of all. It seems if you were close enough with someone, you could talk candidly about food issues without too much anxiety and without judgment on either side. But I haven’t figured out quite how to do it yet. If I say something, I usually feel like a jackass. If I don’t say anything, I feel uncomfortable and feel mad at myself for not having more confidence.

A few years ago, if I’d had friends over for a chicken dinner, the chicken most certainly would have come from the regular old grocery store. And I’m trying to imagine how I would have reacted if a guest would have questioned the ethics involved in my meat. Would I have gotten defensive? Would I have thought twice before having this person over again very soon?

Food is personal. Our food choices—whether they have to do with ethics or calories or health or the environment or any other factors—are personal. So it’s tough to think that by questioning what someone else serves on their table, they wouldn’t take it personally.

What are your thoughts?

Photos from Flickr/Creative Commons