Sunday, March 15, 2009

A Vegetarian's Encounter with Meat

Yes, as you may have assumed from the title, my 6 year vegetarian streak has come to an end, well, more like a temporary pause. I’ll give you a few moments to re-read what I have just written, let out a gasp of horror, or for some (many)- a yelp of excitement…….Yes, it is indeed the truth, I had finally eaten a whole meal with meat being the main course (picture shown is not a meat dish). Let me explain myself. My decision to become vegetarian began the summer of 2003, after falling victim to horrific propaganda delivered by the infamous animal activist group PETA. Upon seeing photo after photo of half slaughtered cattle hanging by rusty hooks and pigs being beaten over the head with cement blocks, I made the decision to stop eating meat…cold turkey (pun intended). Following my initial exposure to the realities of meat production, I began looking deeper into this area of American consumerism only to discover that this rabbit-hole only gets more disturbing. Not only is our decision to eat meat at the animals expense, but it also comes with the cost of numerous environmental factors, dozens of health risks, and innumerable societal consequences. There’s an entire web of oppression hung over the unquestionable packaged meat sitting in the coolers at the local Wal-Mart. And to ignore these truths only means to perpetuate the problem. Besides the practical reasons to adopt such a lifestyle, there also developed more latent reasons in support of my decision, these being related to morality, simplicity, and a deeper appreciation for life. There’s a quote that states: “If we have the ability to evoke change, we then have a responsibility to evoke change.” Sometimes, ignorance indeed is bliss, but in this case, it’s not so easy to forget- to “un-learn” what you have learned. And so, for six years I have chosen the vegetable medley over the pork sirloin cutlet. Until now.
Poland continues to fascinate me. It’s an unexplainable difference, Poland from the United States. I could certainly tell of examples, of everyday differences, applicable differences. For example, their appreciation for the environment seems to be stronger than the average American. Many stores encourage individuals to bring their own bags, and most all do, they understand the concept of “plastic bags = no decomposition”. It’s appropriate to hold the fork in your left hand and the knife in your right, and it’s common for the men to buy the groceries AND cook dinner. The television isn’t what brings people together, it’s actual human interactions (imagine that), and before eating its common to hear the polish word “Smacznego”, meaning “Bon Appétit” in Italian, or perhaps “Enjoy” in English. This brings us to the topic of food, don’t worry, my tasty encounter with meat is coming soon.
There’s a beautiful authenticity in the Polish food, one that must be experienced, tasted, to be understood. There’s a freshness that’s not so easy to find in America, and an originality that’s quite unique. The bread is baked fresh daily at the multiple bakeries scattered around towns, there’s tiny shops dedicated solely to baking and preparing polish ‘cakes’ or ‘sweets’ that range anywhere from fruit-filled pastries, to chocolate pies. The apples are not uniformly shaped or preserved with a waxy gloss, instead they vary in size and texture, many still with their leaves and bruises. The eggs are mostly brown, and it’s normal to find little pieces of chicken feathers in the cartons. Milk and juice is served in 1 liter boxes, neither needing to be refrigerated until opening. And the meat, well, surprisingly, it’s just meat, nothing else. Locally grown, organic, antibiotic and steroid free- meat. When I explain my reasons for choosing to be a vegetarian to the Poles, to them, a questionable piece of meat is unimaginable, this just doesn’t happen. I agreed to give it a try, but with no guarantees.
They started me off slowly, letting me try the salami they put on a Zapiekanki – to us it would be a form of pizza bread (made with ketchup on top instead of tomato sauce). Then, the next step, a whole meal. I met up with my friend, Cegla (pronounced Segwa), after he returned from the store with ingredients for dinner. Out of his backpack he pulled vegetables, 5 pounds of potatoes, and a bag of meat- looks like I was about to eat chicken. For the next hour we prepared dinner for four, I helped by peeling the potatoes and mashing them to perfection. Cegla worked on preparing the chicken, which he breaded and fried, and steamed the vegetables with flour and water. Before we ate, one of his roommates gave me a cup of traditional beet soup called “barszcz”. It was a tasty soup, one that I would never have thought to try in America. Then it was time to eat. Cutting the chicken I wondered if this was a good idea.. ”What does this mean?” “Is this…right?” But after the first bite, It defiantly was right. I don’t ever remember chicken tasting so good. After eating everything on my plate, I felt content, satisfied, happy. I don’t know if it was actually the quality of the meat that made it so good as much as it was the meaning, the action of preparing it, the time put into it. I really appreciated what I was eating, and I appreciated the dedication and willingness of the people I met to introduce me to their way of life. I appreciated the farmer who got up early every morning to feed his animals. I appreciated the time and energy it took to deliver the food. I appreciated the simple exchange from farmer to store owner, (no middle man). And I appreciated the fact that I was sharing a meal with friends from half way around the world. Will I continue to eat meat while in Poland? I’m not sure, but I do know that my American way of thinking is slowly changing and I’m excited to see in what direction it chooses to go. Until then, I’ll continue my usual vegetarian options, with a few exceptions… as they say in Poland, ““Smacznego!”

1 comment:

  1. I liked this. A lot. My vegetarianism has been fairly lenient in a lot of ways, for example when I eat chicken I try very hard to make sure it's free range and natural. I also often employ what friends of mine call a "hospitality clause" meaning if someone cooks for me, I will do my best to eat whatever they have prepared, instead of complaining about the injustice involved in their meal. There are other times for those conversations. I'm glad you get to experience a culture where one doesn't have to be convicted every time they consider a meal, because you know exactly where everything in the meal came from. I long to change my lifestyle enough in the USA that I can say that.