BY JOHN NATION
I grew up on a small family ranch on the prairies of southern Oklahoma. We kept about 25 range cows, and every fall we sold the excess on the cattle market. The animals were what today would be called “grass-fed beef” — a term we never heard of. The cattle received supplemental feedings of alfalfa hay in the winter. Not one ever got a shot of antibiotics or growth hormones.
Each year, we’d keep one of the market steers for ourselves. It would come back to us as about 200 pounds of beef wrapped in white paper, labeled either “HB” (for hamburger) or “Stake” in black grease pencil — the local butcher couldn’t spell.
Together with potatoes and other vegetables from the garden and an occasional chicken dinner from my grandmother’s flock of 20 or so birds, this was mainly what my family had to eat. We couldn’t eat the prairie grass, but our cattle could. It was a classic case of life feeding on life.
I left the prairies in my early 30s, exchanging my range pony for a sailboat that I lived on for the next 20 years, cruising the Atlantic Seaboard and the Bahamas. The “stake” in my diet changed to fish. I didn’t have much money, but I soon discovered that a 20-pound bag of rice costs about $4 the world over. Fish and rice made as fine a meal as one could want. But the discovery of rice — cowboys don’t eat it, except in rice pudding — began an adventure into new ways of cooking and eating.
Came a day that, just as I’d left the prairie more than two decades before, I now moved to the mountains of Western North Carolina. There I fell in with a family of vegetarians. It was tough at first, and I kept a can of Hormel chili under my bed for emergencies. But as time went on, I found that my desire for meat was fading, and today I don’t willingly eat, or feel the desire to eat, meat of any kind.
Part of this came from meeting my new sweetie, who was on the same path away from meat that I was. We never made an issue of it; we never called ourselves “vegetarians.” People staying with us were free to bring meat into the house and cook it. We also understood that when we accepted friends’ dinner invitations, it would likely involve eating meat.
But both my friend and I like to cook, and we soon began experimenting with foods, primarily nonmeat dishes from around the world. It was, well, a “new world” of flavors, textures, colors.
Seven months into 2015, I’ve eaten four servings of meat — and none at home.
I’ve read that “life’s a journey,” and I’m still pondering the fact that my own journey began as a cowboy on the prairies raising market cattle, yet, within five decades, I’ve traveled far enough that now, I never even peer into the local market’s meat department. Knowing what I know about how pieces of dead animals end up in those refrigerated cases, I’d rather just walk on by.
So when I read an article on “craft butchery” and “artisan meat cutting,” I think, “Well, this is Asheville, and Asheville is trendy.” Next, I suppose, we’ll get “craft concentration camps” and “artisanal prisons.”
This is how the human mind works; it can move quickly and easily from killing animals to killing people. Killing to eat is a bloody business: Anyone who enjoys it is not mentally well.
Meat eating isn’t natural to primates. Anthropologists tell us, though, that there was a time in prehistory when our fruit-loving ancestors had to become carnivores or perish. That time has now passed, however: Today, in most instances, eating meat is simply laziness or habit.
So all you cows out there, all you piggy-wigs and chickens, listen up:
You don’t have to fear me anymore. Do whatever you want to do. Lead your lives according to your nature, and I’ll do the same.
Self-described “half-assed vegetarian and former Oklahoma cowboy” John Nation is based in Asheville.