Confessions of a Former Vegetarian 

How I stopped worrying (sort of) and learned to eat meat again

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The strength of a seven-week-old piglet is real and, in all likelihood, a bit more intense than you'd guess. When you grab one, especially when it's around some panicked contemporaries, the li'l animal's going to buck and wriggle, it's going to squeal in a high pitch that you've never quite heard before and it's going to attempt to shake your grip through sheer force of will. A piglet, even one born as recently as the very last days of 2015, has a power that you don't fully understand until you have couple dozen pounds of live Missouri pork dangling in your arms.

A few weekends back, I was with Maddie Earnest, the co-owner of Local Harvest Grocery, in the middle of a pen full of piglets, each of them getting two vaccinations, exactingly given by Katie Geisert. The wife of the eponymous owner of Todd Geisert Farms, Katie Geisert sat on a bale of straw, a needle in each hand, tasked with a difficult job. Because of earlier cold weather, the shots were coming as a pair, rather than being spaced out over a couple of weeks. It was important to get the second vaccination done on this beautiful mid-winter morning, as the piglets were passing their sixth week of age; both shots were key inoculations during the first month-and-a-half of their lives, and two-thirds of what they'd need in total during their stay on this farm.

Expertly, Geisert plunged each needle into the space just under the piglet's front legs, a mostly-hairless, quarter-sized patch of taut skin. To do this properly, she needed a still pig, one that wasn't going to flinch.

"Hold it between your knees," she said to me about three piglets into the experience, as one violently wrenched in my hands. "They'll be a lot more stable that way."

Sure enough, the piglet, writhing a moment before, let go a bit. Cinched between my knees, the animal relaxed a little; in essence, it was giving in to the inevitable, short-lived pain that was coming its way.

And then the needle hit the skin. With the animal tightly pressed to (and controlled by) my own body, I could feel the transfer and shift of that energy immediately as the piglet began its super-squirms. Then the screaming began. Each piglet had roughly the same response in the same sequence: the intense capture, as they were grabbed by the back, or front haunches; the pull up, to secure them by the forelegs; the short carry to the vaccination station; the shots, followed by their near-human cries; and then the final step, a drop of the piglet over a low fence, which gave it access to a vast, acres-large field and its momma.

"You can go ahead and put 'em over," an athletically-built college student/farmhand named Scooter told me. "As long as you don't drop them on their head, they'll be fine. They're really tough."

And so Maddie and I spent part of a morning working in a half-dozen member crew, catching, carrying and flipping piglets, patiently moving 70-something piglets from one field through the process, and then double that many from a second field. At one point before we started the second group, someone mentioned that the herd of sows and piglets would be moving "like a tornado" as they approached the holding pen, shushed along by the rest of the crew. And, sure enough, that's how it looked, the tiniest pigs flitting in and out of the way, running in a fast, frenzied, circular motion. Out of everything I saw that day, that's the image that sticks.

It was amusing to see that, really quite funny. Until, of course, that moment when you realize every animal in that field being treated so patiently is there for the purpose of being eaten.

click to enlarge In the writer's "Ax to Table" series, he participated in the slaughter of this rabbit. - PHOTO BY THOMAS CRONE
  • In the writer's "Ax to Table" series, he participated in the slaughter of this rabbit.

In March 1988, I took a bet from a fellow senior at Webster University, a writer for the campus newspaper about four years older than me and newly separated from an early marriage. Crushing hard, I would've done most anything she asked –- which, in this case, meant agreeing when she proposed we both go vegetarian.

My acquiescence came with the caveat that I'd need to see something to convince me. That afternoon, my family's German shepherd tore into a rabbit it had caught in our backyard; as omens go, it was enough to put me on a twenty-year-plus vegetarian streak.

If a crush, a dog and a rabbit conspired to make me a vegetarian, a neighbor, a house party's grill and a backyard full of Tibetan monks won me back to a meat-eating life last summer. Tibetan monks can and do eat meat; while some are vegetarian, others are as happy to eat a hot dog as a pad of tofu. During their visit to St. Louis, our neighbor, a grill wiz named Tabari Coleman, prepped so many pork steaks that a bag went into the fridge filled with five of them. By the first day looking at the steaks, I realized that the pigs in that baggie had been raised, harvested, butchered, packed, shipped and cooked. They weren't coming back. And with the monks still kicking around town, I enjoyed five straight pork steak lunches.

Pork steaks, by the by, are damned delicious.

My fall wasn't quite so precipitous; I'd been thinking about returning to meat for quite some time. In late 2014, I'd pitched a project to my editor at Feast (who is now, perhaps not so coincidentally, my editor at the RFT). I'd thought that perhaps I could eat meat again, but, mindful of the act of killing, I only wanted to eat meat that I'd personally had a hand in slaughtering. It felt like a way of acknowledging how serious these choices are.

My first act in the "Ax to Table" series, as we dubbed it, was an ill-fated rifle experience, in which I scattered buckshot all over a shooting range, under the watchful eye of musician and civic agitator Jesse Irwin. While I later managed to kill some chickens, I winced on the rabbit challenge, suffered an emo-filled breakdown on the pig harvest and caught some fish, though they were riddled with worms. By summer, I'd only killed that pair of chickens, those wormy catfish and some crawfish.

The idea of being a do-it-yourself carnivore was a good conceit for a series. And for life. But I wasn't able to execute the ideas in the field (blame nerves, lack of skill, lack of a killer instinct). And since I was dependent on the kindness of acquaintances with pig farms, or rabbit hutches, my options were limited, with offers coming in only to fold as swiftly and certainly as cheap tents. Part of the problem, surely, was that I didn't have the stomach to do the slaughtering – but an even bigger problem may have been that, like most city dwellers, I just didn't have the resources to do it consistently, either.

But once I'd tasted some meat – in the form of chicken offals, of all things – I knew that I'd created a problem. I wanted meat in my diet. Wanted it a little more all the time. And there was no way to explain that to friends and family, many of whom were also vegetarian. There's a stigma to changing, especially when you've read all about modern farming.

I am, after all, well-acquainted with the omnivore's dilemma. The intensity of water usage for raising animals instead of crops. The conditions of factory farms. The hidden costs of transporting meats, even if raised free-range and organic.

And then there was the whole killing thing. I didn't have the right stuff to do it; was it wrong to still indulge in the fruits of someone else's slaughter?

We all come to the decisions of life differently. Talking about the commonalities and variants of these choices are what make us real.

click to enlarge Maddie Earnest, co-founder of Local Harvest Grocery - PHOTO BY MABEL SUEN
  • Maddie Earnest, co-founder of Local Harvest Grocery

Maddie Earnest had a perfectly good reason to begin eating meat again after living as a vegetarian her entire adult life: She sells it, professionally. With Patrick Horine, she founded Tower Grove's Local Harvest Grocery, a store dedicated to selling meats brought to market with dignity and compassion, but also taste and nutrition.

As we drove to Geisert's farm with my partner, who works in marketing and events for Baileys' Restaurants, we chatted about Earnest's transition to eating meat, knowing that her job calls for more than a passing bit of knowledge on the subject.

As she tells it, she reintroduced meat into her diet soon after her son's arrival.

Ten weeks, or maybe a few months, after being pregnant, she says, "I felt like my body was falling apart. I've done a lot of research on things like Omega Threes in your body, the healthy benefits of meat, and that's research I'd been doing over years. I mainly started with fish, sardines. I just felt like my body was craving it, so I gave into it."

But she was uniquely positioned to make sure she was doing it with an eye toward ethics and humane practices. The farmers she worked with at Local Harvest, she recalls, "answered every single question I had. These farmers were caring, not causing environmental damage and were producing in a way that benefitted the land. It really came down to whether I wanted to eat the animal. And I guess it came down to 'Yes, I do.'

"Some days, you become used to the idea of eating another being. You're biting into it! And some days, it grosses you out at the same time."

For a lot of folks, vegetarianism comes from a time of intense study, whether that's regarding your own health or place in the world. Maybe, it comes from that gift of a Michael Pollan book, or a desire to shed a few pounds naturally.

The knock, always heard by vegetarians, is that you're riding a trend, like the college kid who gets really into the Grateful Dead for a couple of semesters. In reality, there are plenty of reasons for making the change to a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle; there are just as many for going the other direction.

And many people do try it, only to quit. According to the Humane Research Council, "There are more than five times as many former vegetarians/vegans than there are current vegetarians/vegans." An extensive study by the group found that 84 percent of herbivores ultimately abandon their diet. In the U.S. population as a whole, they suggest there are 24 million former vegetarians/vegans and less 5 million current vegetarians/vegans – that's about two percent of the population.

Earnest says, "There's no science behind what I'm saying that I know of, but it's my opinion that at different points in your life, your body seems to need different things. My in-laws became vegan a couple of years ago. It's a wonderful life change and it's doing a lot of great things for their lives. At this point, they have a lots of time to cook. They make everything from scratch. It works for them now. I wouldn't doubt there's a time in my life to cut down on meat again. I'm just not as fixed in my thinking as I used to be."

Earnest is quick to note that she has access to good meat, the best stuff you can find around this region, really. And her access is second to none, having co-written the book Missouri Harvest: A Guide to Growers and Producers in the Show-Me State.

Still, she says, coming to terms with the ethics of food production can be "a struggle, an experiment."

"How lucky am I that this is what I get to think about?" she asks. "Are you kidding me? Most people don't get a choice of three things to eat. I have a constant abundance."

She adds, "Something I'd like to do more with cooking is using meat as a condiment, using it as flavoring, so that you can still get a lot of the benefit." But that isn't logistically as simple as it sounds: "When you buy it frozen, you might thaw out a pound of pork and have so long to use it. As a condiment, I haven't exactly figured that out, yet. But I like the idea. And I very much support the idea of people paying more for good, quality meat, but eating a lot less of it."

I'd been a Judgey Judgerson, myself. I specifically remember Earnest telling me that she'd transitioned to eating bison and beef, regionally-raised and grass-fed, and took it as a punch to the gut. As a vegetarian, news that a friend's "turned" is always a bit upsetting and personal, despite not really being any of your business.

I found out that the flipside is true, too, as people you've known forever look shocked as you order a tri-tip sandwich at the Shaved Duck or a chicken liver báhn mi at Byrd & Barrel. It's funny, as friends have even tried to argue against my new idea, wondering how someone could lose their way this late in life, even as they rip into their own duck taco.

I wondered that myself in 2016.

click to enlarge Pigs live in comfort at Todd Geisert Farms, complete with heated living units. - PHOTO BY KELLY GLUECK
  • Pigs live in comfort at Todd Geisert Farms, complete with heated living units.

Leaving Geisert's farm on that Saturday morning, I again forgot about the most basic elements of the farm-to-table experience. Even though the hundreds of pigs at Geisert are moved through the process in a way unheard of at factory farms, it's not as if Earnest and I were heading there to select and harvest a pig on our own. We weren't going to shoot one and butcher it on site. We weren't going to sit down and dine with the farm crew. We weren't going to walk out of there with, let's say, a raw ribcage or leg in a styrofoam cooler of ice.

Instead, we were there to tackle a couple of very, very basic steps in the process. And after that, we'd get to buy some goods from the roadside display cases out front. But first came the work.

On that Saturday morning, twenty pigs were going to be pulled from the biggest of the pig lots. Each animal was going to go through a pen, with females ready for their next round of mating getting a bright orange checkmark on their backs. They had a reprieve.

It was the males, on this morning, who were the targets. Twenty of them were going to be hustled into one particular chute, where they'd be funneled in a holding pen until Monday morning. And then, on Monday, they'd be slaughtered.

Holding large wooden boards, we chirped at the herd and formed something of a solid wall, forcing the animals into a single direction –- or at least that was idea, broken by the occasional, individualistic, extremely willful pig.

When our work was done with the Group of Twenty, the pigs were lying around that holding pen in no particular order. Some crashed out on hay bales. Others poked around the fence line. A few bantered with us, or each other. None of them, of course, had the mental capacity to realize they were heading to the butcher on Monday, or that three of them would make their way to the kitchen of the Rooster Savory Commissary, a sixteen-person operation in the back of the second, larger iteration of the Baileys' Restaurants' Rooster concept, on South Grand.

I joined them on Wednesday. There, only a few days after lolling around that holding pen on Geisert's farm, the pigs were being literally broken down into sections by commissary lead cook Jeff Schembri: bellies, tenderloins, loins, shanks for osso bucco. Some would be served on-site, while more would be sent off from this kitchen to the other Baileys' restaurants around the city.

My moment of almost-dumbstruck awe (those Washington County pigs were these St. Louis City cuts of meat) wasn't laughed away by Baileys' executive chef, Stephen Trouvere.

For Trouvere, the "aha" moment came early in his career, while working with a primitive animal indeed: the lobster.

Potting them in boiling water, "I realized the discomfort was very personal in those moments," he says. "How am I going to be OK with this? First, everything dies. The death that I'm offering is as quick and painless as these things can be. If I'm going to kill it, I thank it first, as a willing agent in this exchange."

While we conversed about his theories on meat production and usage, he cooked for me. My part of the process was passive: buying a four-pack of pork burgers and a pound of bacon from Geisert's stand. From there, Trouvere fired up a large oven in the commissary and proceeded to slowly make me a fairly delicious pork burger, dropping on a third slice of bacon "because, why not?"

Trouvere says that working for Baileys, which employs meats from farms such as Geisert's and Rain Crow Ranch, is essential to him having the stomach, so to speak, to work in the profession. He suggests that most of the applications he receives come from people who want to work with food that's as local, organic and low-impact-in-creation as possible. That goes for plants, grains, meats.

With Geisert's hogs being ground, sliced, chopped and diced nearby, Trouvere said that you don't consider "the process of death until you see it in the anatomy. Being able to reconcile it all is part of a human, intelligent process. I'm comfortable with buying from someone like Todd; it's far-and-away better than buying from Hormel. And I don't have enough data to answer whether or not guests are informed about our practices. But my hunch is 'yes.'"

click to enlarge Stephen Trouvere: "First, everything dies." - PHOTO BY THOMAS CRONE
  • Stephen Trouvere: "First, everything dies."

Once, maybe twice a week, my partner and I while away an hour of lunch at the Mud House. The cafe and coffeeshop on the eastern, antique-y end of Cherokee Street has become a go-to place for fresh sandwiches and artisan coffee, especially on the weekends, when the line wraps onto neighboring Illinois. It's got something of a serious foodie vibe, but not at the expense of a bit of whimsy; witness a bathroom decorated, floor to ceiling, in vintage game boards, or the small shrine that sells the antique-of-the-week.

The kitchen, partially exposed, is staffed by a good number of musicians and a larger number of personalities, which is proven by some of the conversations that spill out from that bustling back room.

Overseeing the madness of a Saturday or Sunday lunch rush is Tara Lansangan. A million years ago, we worked together at a martini bar called Pablo's, where she cooked in a micro-kitchen that doubled as the walk-through to the patio. After an experience like that, she could be forgiven for never wanting to cook again. Luckily, Lansangan's no quitter, and she and her crew are killing it at the Mud House.

On a regular basis, a small truck bearing the likeness of Todd Geisert rolls down Cherokee from Jefferson. Arriving at the Mud House, out jumps the man himself, delivering some of the pork that the Mud House uses, though not exclusively. Like any business, even one that wishes to source as locally and healthily as possible, finances enter the equation, and Geisert isn't cheap, so other farms fill in the balance of their needs.

"I started using Todd Geisert's products about three years ago when I came to the Mud House," she says. "We use his ham, bacon sausage and pork shoulder on a regular basis and some of his other offerings occasionally on specials. The great thing is having an ongoing relationship with the person who sees the whole process though: from raising the animals, processing them, to personally delivering our orders every week. He's a very busy guy, but he genuinely cares about his customers; he even texts me if I forget to order!"

Knowing some of his go-to jokes and quips by heart, Lansangan adds, "He's affable and really seems to love what he does, which certainly shows in the quality and taste of the final product. It's important to me as a chef that the meat on my menu is local, raised on an actual farm, not in a factory, and is antibiotic- free. We are very lucky to have him close by."

In my world, brunches at Mud House suddenly include more options. For a year straight, I had ordered the Mud Slinger, a beans-and-potatoes-and-eggs concoction that can energize you for a whole day. Putting that in your system is akin to fueling up; it feels good to finish a meal with those ingredients and the evident care put into it. Lately, though, the Mud Slinger's forgotten, kicked to the Cherokee curb by the club sandwich. I did not remember turkey being this good; on this sandwich it's nothing like the processed birds I vaguely recall eating in the 1970s and '80s.

While Trouvere may thank the animal products he uses before putting them under the knife, myself, I forget. Already, I'm become assumptive. I'm still in the honeymoon phase of eating any animal that comes across my favorite menus, but it already feels like second nature.

There's no small amount of self-trickery involved in this. A year back, having tasted nothing more than chicken, I figured that I'd eat meat, but only the self-harvested kind. Unrealistic, that choice; so then came a bit of ethically-grown meat, free of hormones and cages. What inevitably follows is a random sandwich at a friend's house or a knee-buckling trip to a Blues City Deli. Then, there's a quick buy at the market. A "why not?" order at an old favorite. Next, you're dreaming of a plastic package of corporate bologna, "just to see if I remember the taste from 1976." The slope becomes slippery and the choices become more varied and ethically challenging.

I've been regularly experiencing meals that open my eyes, even as they blow my mind. The club sandwich that stands out alongside the Mud House's is that of Union Loafers. That was a stupendous, eyes-closed type of meal. My first steak came from Retreat, the new gastropub on the edge of the Central West End; far from the enormous, plate-sized half-cows served by chain steak shops, this steak was a half-dozen cuts of little perfection, causing me to nearly weep to my server. And the Cuban! Oh, the Cuban sandwich. This is something I didn't know I missed, which I now do daily, having enjoyed a phonebook-thick version at the Schlafly Tap Room one recent weekend night. Game. Changed.

My meat bender's not going to slow soon, and an experience in February drove that point home. I found myself invited to a Sunday night crab-and-crawfish boil, with the critters fetched from the nearby and uber-funky Universal Market on South Broadway.

Over a door-turned-table at the home of a popular south-city alderman, a group of about twenty folks intermittently cracked and scooped shellfish over opened newspapers, drinking wine or Stags, talking about anything but politics. The afternoon stretched past sundown and as folks headed out into the snow, others arrived.

They call this kind of thing a dinner party. It was solid, inviting, warm. Death on the table, much life all around it.

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