Last week, I happened upon a Facebook video that gave me pause.
Until a few years ago, I'd always eaten meat. I love a good hamburger, a steak, turkey breast, salmon, grilled chicken. And I'd always been aware that I was indirectly killing a sentient creature. But, I thought, I'm also an animal, and other animals eat animals. I could hunt for my food if I had to.
In April, 2014, a rogue case of food poisoning radically changed my diet - and my life.
The culprit was a salad from a neighborhood restaurant I'd frequently visited. That particular day, I noticed that none of the counter staff and none of the cooks looked familiar. They were all new employees, but I ordered my usual Cobb salad with chicken anyway, figuring that this was a simple dish anyone could put together.
One of these inexperienced workers, however, must have contaminated the greens with the raw meat. The result: salmonella dressing.
The ensuing food poisoning episode didn't seem severe, and by the second day I was feeling reasonably well and ready to start eating again. But my body's defense system had other ideas.
My enteric nervous system - the "second brain" that guides the process of digestion and elimination - responded like a traumatized person does to a re-traumatizing event.
To protect me from being poisoned again, it flagged every food group in the salad as "dangerous." The effect was an almost immediate, powerful, painful reaction very similar to food poisoning when I tried to eat any of the food groups in the salad.
No longer on the list of permitted foods were meats, cheeses and other dairy products, eggs, raw vegetables, and also nuts and seeds (because they were in the granola bar I'd had for dessert). My enteric nervous system was trying to keep me safe, but it came pretty close to starving me, during the first few weeks.
Since then, eating has become a sustained practice in patience.
Initially, I could eat almost nothing, and I lost about 20 pounds in four weeks. Gradually, by taking tiny bites of different food types and waiting to see if they made me ill, I've been able to train my stomach to tolerate more nourishment.
Each food I've re-introduced took a couple of months of gradually increasing the amount of a forbidden food until my stomach no longer reacted defensively. Over time, raw vegetables, grains, and legumes returned. After about six months, I reached a sub-vegan diet, where I remained for two and a half years.
In the last two years, nuts and yogurt came back, followed by cheese, and, this summer, other dairy products and eggs. Now I am an ovo-lacto vegetarian.
My final food frontier is meat, and eating it again has, as I mentioned, given me pause.
For medical reasons, I need to add more protein to my diet that does not also contain carbohydrates, and after health-damaging trips to Hong Kong and Seattle, where I had less control over what I could find to eat, I've come to see, reluctantly, that meat is the best choice.
I've started with beef jerky because I can eat a tiny bit at a time, spreading the reacclimation process out over weeks, without wasting any meat due to spoilage.
With each bite of this tough, chewy - and, I admit, tasty - food, I think about the cow it once was part of. As a slowly chew, I reflect on how an animal not unlike the cow in the video died, and I am eating it.
I think about how we play fetch with dogs and they are our best friends, while even when we play fetch with our cows, they are still our dinner.
And I wonder what it means about us and for us that we raise animals so that we can slaughter and consume them. And what it would mean about us and for us if we chose not to.
What effect, I ask myself, has domesticating and enslaving animals had on our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors toward our own species? Have the psychological tricks that allow us to eat a playful cow also hardened us to the harm we do to our fellow human beings?
As I chew another piece of beef jerky, I wonder, What were we like before we became carnivores? Did we have slaves? Was there a class system that divided haves and have nots? Did we poison each others' watering holes? Did we commit murder or wage war?
If we'd grown up regarding all sentient life as sacred, could we have slaves? Could we murder? Wage war? Commit suicide? Could we comfortably eat our dinners while others starved?
Would any of us find it in our hearts to dump toxic substances into the air and water? Would it even occur to us to manufacturer or consume products such as cigarettes, alcohol, and junk food, knowing they would ultimately lead to illnesses and deaths?
Would we tolerate even the "acceptable risks" of stepping behind the wheel of a car, getting into an airplane, riding a train, as these vehicles are constructed today? Or would we naturally gravitate toward the safest possible means of transportation, minimizing the risks to as close to zero before we adopted new technologies?
Maybe the traits that led us to dominate other species and to strive to dominate each other are simply part of our wiring.
Maybe that cannot change.
But then again, maybe it can.
I have no answers, but these are the questions I ask myself with each bite of beef jerky.
Copyright 2018, David J. Bookbinder
Nonfiction by David J. Bookbinder
The Art of Balance: Staying Sane in an Insane World on Amazon.com
The Art of Balance: Staying Sane in an Insane World on Amazon.co.uk