There’s something about bacon that keeps bringing me back to meat. Throughout my life I’ve had many solid stints of vegetarianism thwarted by the smell and ultimately, the crumbling of my will to the scrumptious virtues of bacon.
I’ve taken to referring to bacon as my ‘gateway meat’. It always seems to happen that, well into a course of vegetarianism, I forget myself and and accept an invitation to dine with friends at a place with a breakfast buffet. There, I am tempted by row upon row of sausages, ham, and bacon. I look despondently at my plate of scrambled eggs, hash browns, and pancakes, as if staring at a photo of orphaned children pining for a family. Then, the seed of my undoing emerges: “a couple of strips of bacon won’t hurt, will it?”
The taste of bacon is the catalyst for a precipitous decline into a pork binge in the days that follow. Pork roasts, pork tenderloins, spare ribs, and pork chops for dinner. Ham sandwiches and smokies with sauerkraut for lunch. Pastas with chorizo, pancetta, prosciutto, or italian sausage, hold the peppers and peas. Breakfast with sausage, ham, and all varieties of bacon: back, peameal, side, maple, and hickory smoked.
In the span of a couple weeks, the goodness in all the legumes, nuts, greens and roots I once called a meal regimen is ruthlessly evicted from my body, pushed out by the invading masses of saturated fat I’ve mindlessly crammed in. With it, my bowels return to a steady-state of semi-constipation, a homeostasis far more at home to me than the constant bloatedness and the endless emptying I experience on a vegetarian diet; that leave me cursing my toilet and nursing my over-worked anus.
With vegetarianism on hiatus, the risk of ‘sharts’ and countless trips to the crapper a day are usually behind me. A moisture, suppleness, and colourful hue return to my hair, skin, and complexion. I don’t have to fight the onset of lethargy and burn out during intense workouts or runs longer than five kilometres. The idea of never staring down another plate of quinoa or bulgur wheat and uttering the lie “wow, looks great!” is liberating and keeps me running to the butcher. Soon enough, I’m eating steak, fish, and chicken for nearly every meal.
But the guilt and shame of my ethical failing quickly returns.
I am filled with anxiety when I look my yoga-enthusiast, buddhist, anti-animal cruelty friends in the eyes. Can their ayurvedic noses catch the whiff of pork-fat oozing from my pores? A one-time slip into savagery could be forgiven. I was raised in a family committed to the Tyrannosaurus Rex diet, where vegetables were a colourful but perfunctory accoutrement to the meat. The habit of tearing the flesh of sentient beings with my incisors is well-honed and hard to break.
But the subsequent heaps of unethically slaughtered, animal flesh that I willingly fill my palate after the lapse; that I crave like air? By my tenth ‘slip’ into eating meat, I’ve usually traded in my rice cooker for a new set of carving knives. Once I’ve ambled firmly down the carnivore path, paying good money for a meal of exotic vegetables in lieu of the succulent meat offerings on a restaurant menu seems tantamount to asking my doctor for a colonoscopy when a ‘smear-test’ will do.
So I avoid meal-time socializing with my vegetarian friends, at least until I get a good fix and get back on track. In the meantime, invites to barbecues are sheepishly accepted. Following a few words of contrition for any past sanctimony on my part, my hosts are delighted as I share in the main course of burgers, ribs, or steak they’ve prepared.
I don’t leave hungry and agitated because I’ve had to hash together a ‘meal’ out of potato salad, coleslaw, chips, or other side-dishes. I am spared the leathery, freezer-burnt insult of some veggie-oriented meat substitute liberated from several months of living a sad, anonymous existence buried at the bottom of the freezer beneath a constantly changing roster of roasts, ribs, chicken fingers, and ham. Instead, I leave with a good taste in my mouth, a satiated belly, and the contentment of strained friendships set right.
I struggle with the repeated turning away from vegetarianism. There are plenty of genuine reasons to disavow meat: e coli, salmonella, bovine spongiform encephalitis, irradiation, the spread of anti-biotic resistant diseases, colon cancer, enivironmental degradation, and so on. As a wealthy society, there are plenty of affordable options that make the elimination of meat from our diet altogether, or at least a dramatic reduction in our consumption of meat, a reasonable and viable option.
Then there is the ethical argument. We are raising domesticated beings for their ultimate slaughter and consumption. The slaughter of animals, whether mass produced or “free” range is horrifying and cruel. It couldn’t be otherwise. It would be more fair if we had to hunt our food and kill it with our own hands before we ate it, but we don’t. It’s bad karma to ignore what is involved in getting that steak to your plate, if you believe in that idea, which I do. I desperately want to be a vegetarian for these reasons.
It’s just that, well, meat is so bloody delectable, isn’t it? No vegetable will ever come close to delivering the full bodied bliss of a rib-eye steak done to perfection, or of fresh tuna sashimi. The best, most well-prepared vegetable dish will never rival the crappiest grade of bacon, if such a thing could even be said to exist.
Bacon is one of the simplest, cheapest, and most reckless choices in a carnivorous diet. It is laden with salt, saturated fats, cholesterol, and all the other horrendous byproducts of food produced for mass consumption. It takes only a few strips to approach the intake of calories and fat content of an entire meal.
Except, no lover of bacon eats just a few strips at a sitting, do they? That’d be like having just three kernels of buttery popcorn at the movies, or two Doritos from a bag, or four french fries from a carton. Who has that kind of self-restraint? Not me, that’s who. Every time I eat bacon it’s lots and lots of bacon; so much that I’m forced to eat lettuce and water for the rest of the day, or go for a four-hour workout to avoid racking up three days’ worth of fat and calories in a single day.
That’s not a complaint, by the way. It’s just a fact. The imposition is well worth it.
The irony that bacon is my gateway meat is not lost on me. My vegetarianism has never been thwarted by a tenderloin steak, or a succulent grilled mahi mahi, prime rib, or coq au vin. It’s always been bacon that lures me under the bus of moral turpitude.
It’s a troubling admission because pigs are filthy, grotesque, vile animals who live in mountains of their own dung and devour anything under the sun when hungry. It’s disturbing to think of how enjoyable it is to eat an animal whose bodily waste, if properly harnessed could power a city, but instead is left to poison metric tonnes of groundwater. The idea of eating a majestic horse, or a tropical bird seems more acceptable. Except it isn’t. Pork really does rule the culinary roost (forgive the mixing of metaphors).
There are plenty of religious sects whose adherents disavow eating pigs for these reasons. Assuming you subscribe to the nonsense that moral purity were within our grasp, it seems a reasonable edict that consuming a pig seriously undermines the project. Well, for twenty four hours at least, depending on your constitution. There are really no redeeming qualities of a pig – other than its flavour when grilled to warm, delectable perfection.
But I accept that I am a human possessed of endless avenues for moral depravity, a few genetic twists away from my evolutionary ancestors the caveman and the fish. I don’t steal gum from 7-11. I don’t fill up bags of goodies at the bulk section and eat it all up as I shop at the supermarket. I don’t cheat on my taxes and I never yell at my kids. I don’t honk my horn or flip the bird, even to really, really bad drivers, and I always let people cut into my lane if they need it. I think I’ve earned some kudos on the karmic scale. So I say “pass the ribs, please.” I never set out to be Jesus.
Because here’s the thing: bacon is porn for my palate. My tongue and taste buds moisten at the sight and smell of the stuff. A strip is all it takes to guarantee the ‘money shot’ in my mouth. It’s a difficult analogy for a heterosexual man like me to fathom, but it’s the most fitting in the circumstances. I willingly accept it as true for bacon. Well, also for pork roast, kielbasa, german sausage, and schnitzel. And pork sausages swimming in pools of maple syrup. Money shot, all of them.
And that is why I am still on hiatus from vegetarianism – four years after those fateful morsels of bacon put me on my current carnivorous path. My advice for those whose commitment to vegetarianism rests on a wobbly foundation: just say no to bacon. Unless it’s a vegetarian establishment, don’t even go into a restaurant at breakfast time if you can help it. You will regret it.