When Vegetarians Eat Meat

Dr. Cocktail #7 at Spoonbar restaurant in Healdsburg. (Photo by Heather Irwin)
His Holiness, meat-eater

The Dalai Lama eats meat because his doctors tell him to. My wife was a lacto-ovo vegetarian for many years, until she got pregnant and we went to Paris for lunch; now, she’ll eat meat, but only from animals that she would kill with her own hands. My father’s wife will taste meat, but only very rarely, and even then with a whispered apology and a tear. And I’ve already told you how I made my eldest daughter cry over the young goat whose shanks I braised for dinner, but did I tell you that the same child gleefully clamors “Wilbur tastes good!”, whenever I serve bacon with her eggs?

Pork belly biscuits with maple glaze and pickled onion is served at the Chalkboard Restaurant in Healdsburg on Tuesday, June 11, 2013. (Conner Jay/The Press Democrat)
"Disembodied" frog steak

It all makes me wonder what we mean when we say, “I’m a vegetarian”, or “I don’t eat meat”. Such statements are logically and morally complex, and force us to ask uncomfortable questions about the where and why of the lines we draw, about who and what we’re willing to watch die for our dinner. But what has been niggling me, ever since I read this post, is that I’m no longer sure what the word “vegetarian” even means, now that we have the technology to grow what amounts, at the cellular level, to meat without a body.

That may sound bizarre, and it is, but it is not an abstraction, nor is it particularly new: A former resident at the Tissue Engineering & Organ Fabrication Laboratory at Harvard Medical School produced, in 2003, a disturbing work of technology and art dubbed the “victimless steak”, a hunk of animal protein grown in the lab and external to other living creatures. I’m not a biologist, and I can’t tell you that I fully understand the project – the authors refer to it by the very creepy and cryptic-sounding “disembodied cuisine” – but I do get the gist of it: The artists are asking us what it means to eat meat, what it means to be a victim of the food chain, perhaps no less than what it means to be “alive”.

A few days ago, prior to reading that post on Envo, I’d have sided with my Shorter OED, Volume 2:

Vegetarian, noun. A person who on principle abstains from animal food.

Because, etymologically speaking, that seems clear enough. But now these characters at the Tissue Culture and Art Project at the University of Western Australia have gone and seriously messed with my head, and I’m really not sure what to think.