Greg Harris: A Herbivorous New Year

Eating a good steak is almost like a religious experience for me.  It’s an occasion … such as a birthday dinner at a throw-back steakhouse whose environment encourages even the most effete of men to talk like Goodfellas.

Cincinnati’s most well known restaurateur, Jeff Ruby, plays up this pageantry at his steakhouses.

The grand opening of one of his restaurants came in the form of an invite tied around the neck of a dead fish, playfully evoking the mafia intimidation tactic of sending would-be victims the message that they would soon be “sleeping with the fishes .”

Often outside Ruby’s restaurants you’ll see men awkwardly smoking a big cigar, trying to look the part, but perhaps tying a little too hard.  (I also enjoy an occasional good cigar, but smoke mine in private.)

My Grand Pa Leon became a well regarded restaurateur in Chicago after years as a kosher butcher.  He knew a good cut of meat, and never strayed from quality.  His restaurant, Frenkel’s, had the best corned beef and even earned a reference in a David Mamet play.  He actually looked the part of a gangster … a cigar aficionado who drove big Buicks and resembled a thicker, stronger version of Robert DeNiro. Yet his ethics and honesty were very much unlike that of a Mafioso. In his early years as a shop owner when the mafia came by for their take, he chased them out with a meat cleaver.   Year later, he abruptly left a thriving restaurant and nightclub in downtown Chicago when he learned his partner had mafia ties.  (No offense, Mr. Ruby and other would-be goodfellas, but I share my grandfather’s disdain for the mob and wannabe’s that glorify thieves and thugs.)

My father’s side of the family, all Texans, instilled in me a love of barbeque.  On many a Father’s Day, I will send my dad via mail order a brisket, ribs and hot links from Lockhart, TX, the bbq capital of the world, just so he can enjoy an authentic taste of his past (which is hard to come by in Illinois).  I recall the image of his father (my other Grand Pa)–with his cowboy hat and cigar likeness–manning a grill for hours over mesquite.

This summer I took my own grilling abilities to the next level, mastering how to give a steak a great sear and the art of grilling a flank steak (which can come out tough if not prepared just so).

For me, a good cut of meat, a good steak, the quest for that best hamburger or best corned beef in town … it’s practically in my DNA, and in some ways linked to my notions of masculinity.

So what’s this have to do with Rosh Hashanah and my New Year’s resolution?  I’m gonna give it all up … the meat and the traditions that go with it.

Perhaps the seed was planted a couple years ago when I read Fast Food Nation, and came away outraged with the treatment of factory-farmed animals and the factory workers, or my follow up read, The Carnivore’s Dilemma, which looked at the rise of harmful industries and costly subsidies that accommodate a fast food nation.  Perhaps it was one too many animal cruelty videos sent to me from PETA-loving friends.  Perhaps it’s a cholesterol rate that is too high for my age.  Perhaps it was what I thought was a picture of strawberry soft serve ice cream I saw in a magazine that turned out to be the “stuff” used to make Chicken McNuggets. Perhaps it’s all the deforestation and ozone depletion that occurs to accomodate expanding demand for meat.

Perhaps it’s the veal cattle kept cooped up in dim light, made deliberately anemic so his meat will be tender when it reaches someone’s plate, or the torturously over-fed goose whose life is lived for the cause of becoming foie gras at a fancy restaurant. Perhaps it’s that freighted cow that escaped from a stockade line a few years ago and was on the loose in Cincinnati for several days, or the fact that pigs are more intelligent than dogs, and it would be nightmarish to imagine my dogs (I have three) in a scenario of being raised the way a pig is reared for slaughter. Perhaps it’s all these things . . . they cumulatively planted many a seed.

Intellectually I’ve come around to the idea that eating meat is unnecessary and excessive.  Emotionally, I’ve come around to not liking the idea of animals living torturous lives so I can enjoy a Big Mac.  Health-wise, I’ve come to dislike the new addition to my physique … a belly that makes me appear as if I’m entering second trimester, or the prospects that I wouldn’t be around for my own kids when they enter adulthood—and knowing how much I’ve needed my own parents in adulthood and dearly value the relationship.

Yet all of these seeds somehow weren’t enough.  The icing on the cake, I think, came this summer from examples set by other men.  When I read a few months ago that Mike Tyson became a vegan, I wondered what it was in his violent life that led to this new path, and thought it strange, for whatever reason, that a “tough guy” would go vegan.  I think my image of a male vegan was more akin to what Robert Bly termed “soft male”—well meaning, humanitarian progressive types who, at the same time, lacked vitality.

At a farmer’s market a shortwhile later, I ran into Paul Hackett.  Hackett gained fame as the Marine who returned from Irag and ran against now-Congresswoman Jean Schmidt in a special election to replace (now Senator) Rob Portman, who resigned his congressional seat to join W’s cabinet as Budget director.  Hackett’s political message was raw, courageous honest and anti-war.  Yet in a right-wing, redder than red district, Hackett almost won—indeed, led most the evening until the very end.  He quickly became a national celebrity.  I was surprised to learn he’s now a vegan, and I had a great conversation with him about how he adapted and why.

In August I saw Paul McCartney perform a tour-de-force 3-hour concert.  I was in awe of the energy and charisma of a 69 year old man, and how it filled the rafters of Cincinnati Reds’ stadium.  Sir Paul is vegan, and I couldn’t help to think this must have something to do with his incredible vitality.  Perhaps most surprising, shortly after that concert I read that even BUBBA has gone vegan!  Yes, William Jefferson Clinton, worshipper of the Big Mac, is now vegan.  He’s dropped 20 pounds and feeling better than ever.

All these examples had an effect on me . . . and led to my new year’s resolution:  I’m going to try it. I’m gonna try to go vegan.

Based on my research, the diet isn’t as restrictive as I thought …. Many breads, tortillas, cereals & even bagels, etc, contain no mile or egg.  I love fruit, and can see myself eating a lot more of it.  I could simply start with vegetarian, but I  fear—given unfortunate dietary habits—that this may not prove a health benefit for me.  Afterall, I could hypothetically down a large cheese pizza and potato chips and a Dairy Queen Oreo blizzard for desert and still be a vegetarian.

I came upon a business that delivers vegan meals for free, and just ordered a week’s worth to help my transition.  I hope this works.  I think I will be a healthier person who helps make the planet a little more humane.  So here’s hoping and praying the year 5772 will be the year I stopped eating meat.

A series of instances have led me to this point, but I think it was the examples of a few men I admire that helped convince me to become not a goodfella, but just a good guy.  It’s a new year, and a good time to start new traditions.

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