This happens to me like clockwork around the start of summer, when the weekend air is pregnant with the fumes of grills and charred hamburgers. You don’t really want it, I tell myself; sometimes I’ll even linger in front of the meat displays at Findlay Market, a stomach-twister on command: no, no, no. This is why. That always works.
But sometimes, I’ll wake up in the morning with the recollection of feverish hallucinations in which I aptly pick up a thick, dripping hamburger around a full picnic table and work it down my gullet without any hint of remorse.
The problem is that when I can momentarily block all the implications behind it, meat smells good. It just does. And, from the blurry chimeras of my life pre-herbivore, I think back fondly on the experiences in which I’d really, really want to eat meat: picnics, seafood on the ocean, grill-outs, mom’s chicken noodle soup when I’m sick.
The promise of an ocean trip this summer had me drooling at the idea of cracking open lobster legs like I did years ago with my family, and the idea was almost persuasive enough for me to convince myself maybe it was OK to eat a lobster. Just one. Just once.
I don’t have the slightest recollection of what lobster tastes like, but there’s an allure in gathering around a table where everyone has their own greasy bib and bowl of butter, which makes for this communal, carnal eating experience that, to me, looks and feels like memory-making.
No vegetarian will ever look back on that trip to the coast and say, “Remember that time you guys all ate that lobster together and I had that bowl of limp iceberg lettuce? Yea, that was the greatest.”
So I’ve been a little fixated lately on the idea of that experience — eating is a huge part of our culture (I wholeheartedly approve), but there is a part of that culture I fondly remember that I am now and forever missing, since just about all of the important people in my life are meat-eaters.
Grocery store lobsters were once a welcome diversion for me when my mom would tug me along with her. Like a little pet store, left there just to entertain all of us bored, wayward grocery store kids. I guess the aquariums were just far enough from the display cases of twinkly iced chum that my young brain didn’t quite grapple the parallels between the two.
That section and I haven’t crossed paths for years, but I caught myself lingering in front of the lobster tanks recently, a scene much different than what I remembered as a child.
The same rubber bands used to hold together the celery stalks in my cart were the ones fettered around stacked pairs of lobster claws. The sight of them feebly piled atop one another, moving with no aim or purpose, was enough to remind me why I pick the salads now.
I held out the dream a little longer when a friend tried to convince me that lobsters don’t actually feel pain, which almost made sense to me for a second: If we, as a society, are OK with boiling an animal alive, maybe we know it’s not as inhumane as it sounds.
But that’s not true either, I’ve learned. Those primordial lobster brains don’t have complex thoughts and emotions like humans, but if you put a lobster in a boiling pot of water you will watch it thrash while it is very, very aware that what is happening to it is terribly wrong. Pain not as we feel it as humans, but the most extreme, barbaric infliction of some kind of pain we’ll never quite understand, but dismiss — for our temporary eating pleasure. For the memories.
We, as humans, convince ourselves that because we are the only creatures we consider to have consciousness — the highest level of awareness of our surroundings and emotions and thoughts — that only the human experience of physical pain is one we should deliberately avoid.
There’s a video of a 3-year-old Portuguese boy that just went viral in which he’s asking his mother why he needs to eat his octopus gnocchi for dinner when eating it means the octopus has been killed just for him. His words, innocent and pure, resonate: Perhaps we, as humans, with our sophisticated thoughts and feelings, aren’t by nature geared toward this culture in which it is OK to hurt anything that is not one of us. That is what this little boy tells me. But we will keep boiling our lobsters anyway. That’ll never go away.
So I guess my meat fantasies won’t, either.
CONTACT HANNAH MCCARTNEY: firstname.lastname@example.org