I was one of those raving converts to non-vegetarian food that one hears about but never wants to meet, because, well, eating meat is great but it really doesn’t need to be a religion. It has enough going for it already.
I was born in a Brahmin, vegetarian family and was skinny as a child with no great appreciation of food. After meandering with the “veg vs. non-veg” ethical debate for years, I realized that whether I ate veg or non-veg, I was putting cruelty into my mouth, wearing it, talking to it, working for it, living under its roof anyway. The prominent sight of chickens in cages, raised under the inhuman conditions of battery farming, seems to have created tunnel vision for us. We don’t care as much about the extinction of other species of wild rice in favour of the one we’re eating, about the suicidal farmers growing the cotton we wear, or the quality of life of crops grown in pesticide and sterility. Plants don’t flap around cutely on wings, squawk when killed or peer pitifully out of transport boxes. And the thing we don’t see most of all is the human-to-human cruelty intrinsic to an economy that will bring commodities right to your doorstep for a few pieces of paper or zeroes on a computer screen.
So I decided I would try meat some day. But, having a sadly dramatic temperament, I couldn’t just prosaically walk into a restaurant and order chicken, oh no. At 20, I spent a week in an NGO which worked with lower-castes. I was welcomed warmly by the employees and vegetarian food was cooked especially for me. So here’s where I must sheepishly admit I overrode their consideration and ate my very first chicken out of what I thought was caste-based political correctness.
The response to my first meal of chicken seemed to come more from my body than from my tongue. To my tongue it simply tasted vaguely better than eggs. The texture, however, was brand new. The fibrous, soft and satisfyingly chewy meat told me my days of feeling skinny and invisible were over. This was solider food, closer to my body, than any plant- or fungus-derived food I’d ever eaten. This kind of texture felt like cavalry reinforcements after a long battle using infantry.
At my next few meals, the long-suffering NGO workers guided me through several dishes of chicken and mutton: “That’s right, eat the heart,” they’d say, “It’s good for you.” My brain would balk at the word (I have a heart, but no leaves or roots) but my body didn’t feel any revulsion, and I soon got over the anatomy, even welcomed the knowledge.
When I returned from the NGO like Moses from Mount Sinai, it was with the euphoria of the newly converted. I fancied I was raging with a hunger born of generations of vegetarianism, and blamed my caste and ancestors. My parents received the news equanimously, but outside the family I was teased: One friend said “Snakes on a Plane” should really be “Brahmins eating meat”. Another meat-eating lady told me deadpan that my villi – finger-like things lining the intestines to absorb nutrients – had been spoilt by 20 years of roughage so I could never be a true meat-eater. And I spent weeks picturing and worrying about my poor abraded villi.
A whole new community brought itself to my attention. Family friends took me out to a Konkan seafood restaurant for the first time and showed me how to eat fish (for years I was a single-minded and ponderous bone-picker, taking hours to eat fish). The fish we ordered was really closer to vegetarian food than chicken, being soft and not in the least chewy, but here the taste really showed itself. I instinctively knew it didn’t need the masala it had been served in. What could be more naturally tangy, spicy and tasty than fish? The answer came in the next course: prawns. When I fell instantly in love with prawns, I started wondering why our predecessors ever wanted to migrate from the ocean to land. Maybe that’s why seafood has a special place in every meat-eater’s heart. I was invited to stay in a friend’s house, where her mother cooked pork and beef, which I also loved. The fatty bits in pork are my favourite kind of non-veg to this day, six years later. Beef, of course, was the culmination of my sense of a reinforced physical confidence. (Here I may be giving the impression that this was the main reason I liked meat. It was one of the reasons. But more than that, for me, meat was lust for life embodied, and it gave me something non-intellectual to be passionate about, at a time when I desperately needed both.)
I did relax in a couple of years, though. I used my mouth to eat meat rather than talk about it. And when I went abroad, it seemed the most natural thing in the world to eat it every day, which I hadn’t done before. The Turkish Döner kebabs being cheap and delicious, I ate lamb every day. In four weeks the protein had made my hair grow a few inches longer and a bit thicker, and my nails were shining. When I made social rounds and was asked if there was anything I didn’t eat, I replied proudly, “Humans”. A friend’s husband cooked my first venison, and even my inexperienced palette could tell the solid yet melty cutlets were very special. Having had a hunting license since the time when he had no choice but to hunt for food during the collapse of East Germany, he showed me a hunting book, pointing out the exact kind of deer I was eating. Their East German neighbour dropped in to tell us how he recently saw roadkill while driving, thought to himself, “Mm, tasty!” and took it home for dinner, much to his daughter’s mortification, since she’d grown up in unified Germany and hadn’t known that kind of food scarcity.
The morning after that dinner I was given bread, jam and butter to eat for breakfast. My hostess also produced a bowl of some brown, salty, chunky spread. I put some on my bread to be polite and tried it, and it was simply fantastic. The little bits just melted in my mouth; I wanted to finish off the whole box without bread. When asked about it, my hostess said airily, “Oh that’s octopus! But don’t tell anyone I eat it, they’ll think I’m pregnant.” Naturally not worried about immaculate conception, I ate that octopus the entire weekend, and loved every morsel.
A few days later I arrived at an NRI friend’s house and stuffed my face gratefully with home-cooked sambar rice, curd rice and dosa. Imagine my surprise (or maybe not) when I woke up the next morning to an upset stomach! If I hadn’t been groaning on a toilet I think I could’ve safely said that my conversion was complete. But the journey wasn’t over. I was going to taste camel and squid two years later, and now my list still has snake, rabbit, pigeon, duck, monkey, dog…