Confessions of a Former Vegetarian 

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

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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.

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