When I was seventeen and faced with nasty conflicts between my parents, often involving my brother and myself, I would take long walks. I would usually go up to the top of a hill where I could look out over a barbed-wire fence on some meadows with a few trees. There I would commune silently with God, whom I imagined lived by the willow-thronged creek sequestered in the distant valley. But on occasion I would wander further afield. On one particularly fraught evening I went up Smith Road towards Moore's Pike and told my troubles to a group of surprisingly attentive cows. In return, I made them a promise: I would never eat one of them again.
It was far easier for me to keep kosher after that. My family had never bothered about keeping kosher, and getting kosher meat in a non-kosher family at the age of seventeen would have been a struggle. So I just stopped eating meat altogether. I kept my real reasons to myself--if anyone asked, I just said I felt sorry for the poor animals.
But in 2008, after reading Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, I realized that if we didn't eat cows, there would hardly be any, and the same went for sheep, chickens, and turkeys. As Pollan puts it, "Most domesticated animals can't survive in the wild; in fact, without us eating them they wouldn't exist at all!" Not only the existence of the cows I talked to, but their happiness, their comfort, also depended on my eating them. To quote Pollan once again, "At least for the domestic animal . . . the good life, if we can call it that, simply doesn't exist, cannot be achieved, apart from humans--apart from our farms and therefore from our meat eating. . . . Domestication took place when a handful of especially opportunistic species discovered, through Darwinian trial and error, that they were more likely to survive and prosper in an alliance with humans than on their own."
That said, I did not want to eat any animals from factory farms. When I eat out, I am still a vegetarian, unless I come across meat on the menu that I know was raised in a humane way (for example, bison or goat, since these animals are almost always raised humanely, or beef or chicken sourced from a local farm, or meat labeled organic). When I cook, though, I cook a lot of meat, which I buy from local farmers, either at a farmer's market or through Bruno's Organics, an Indiana company that delivers locally grown meat to Chicago.
As for keeping kosher, that's no longer so important to me. The injunction against boiling a calf in its mothers milk does not imply, to me, that you shouldn't eat chicken with butter. What gets more difficult is the commandment not to eat the blood with the flesh (Leviticus 17:10-14). One should slaughter an animal so that most of its blood runs out--traditionally with a fast and virtuoso slit of its neck. This made a lot of sense in the ancient world: bloody meat will go bad far more quickly than meat without blood, and this method of slaughter is widely recognized as humane. Is this rule now as irrelevant and anachronistic as the rule against wearing clothing from a mixture of two kinds of material (Leviticus 19:19)? I don't know. Kosher meat is invariably far too salty for my taste, and it's not easy to obtain meat that's both organic and kosher. Yet Michael Lesy's The Forbidden Zone, an excellent investigation of the American way of death, convinced me that kosher slaughtering was far less painful than the alternatives.
So next time I buy meat directly from the farmer, I think I'll ask them about their slaughtering practices. Perhaps it will relieve my conscience to some degree. Or perhaps it will have the opposite effect.