The Vegetarian’s Guide to Eating Meat opens in a slaughterhouse.
In a breathtaking whirl of blades and bones and blood, the … crew descended on the body, to create from a whole dead steer a pile of component parts: two longs slabs of side body for processing into butcher cuts; hooves and horns and hard parts for grinding; liver and heart and tongue for offal; skinned skull on a meat hook, to be boiled later for head cheese.
This scene takes place at Black Earth Meats in Wisconsin, where former vegetarian Marissa Landrigan has come to witness slaughter and its aftermath. In unflinching, clear-eyed prose, Landrigan describes the whole process, ending the passage with the question that will drive the whole book: “How the hell did I get here?”
To answer this question, Landrigan begins by returning to childhood. She recounts the clamor of full-scale pasta making sessions with three generations of her Italian American family. In the simplest sense, The Vegetarian’s Guide to Eating Meat is a food memoir. But as Landrigan moves through the chronology of her relationship to eating and cooking meat, she tackles the big questions inherent to looking closely at our food: where does it come from? What are the consequences of our choices? What does it mean to eat ethically?
Landrigan writes that she always felt out of place in the kitchen as a child. Lacking the seemingly natural culinary abilities of women in her family, she was quick to retreat to her hiding place under the kitchen table. In college, she becomes a vegetarian after an encounter with a sobering PETA film on factory farming. Throughout her early twenties, as she moves from upstate New York to Washington, D.C. to Montana following jobs and a boyfriend, she subsists mainly on microwaved meat substitutes and vegetarian pot pies. Then she ends up in California and begins to learn that the produce and meat free products she’d thought of as “safe” come at a high human and environmental cost.
As Landrigan becomes aware of the hazardous conditions and abysmal pay that largely unprotected migrant and immigrant farmworkers are subjected to, the moral high ground of her dietary choices begins to crumble. She also learns that many of the organic brands she’s come to rely on are owned by parent companies that operate the feedlots and industrial slaughterhouses she was trying to avoid in the first place. This knowledge leaves her with a powerful desire to find a better way to eat.
From there, Landrigan begins the work of getting intimate with her food. Crisscrossing the country in several more moves for school and work, she embraces farmers markets and spends time working on a small organic farm. And yes, she revisits meat. The turning point comes when she meets a farmer named Cindy Madsen at a farmers market in Ames, Iowa. Landrigan initially recoils at the bloody cuts of meat in Madsen’s cooler, but soon comes around. “Maybe, instead of opting out, I could find a way in,” she writes. “I could insert myself into a positive, beneficial food community. I could participate. At the Ames market, I had discovered a way to make the difference I had wanted to make when I became a vegetarian.”
She begins eating meat again and soon buys a whole chicken from Madsen. “I had to lose hope in my brand of vegetarianism in order to take the action that was going to do the good I truly believed in,” she writes. This point, which she makes in several places, can feel overstated. The book is at its best when Landrigan is in descriptive mode. She builds vivid, sensorial scenes of her first time deboning a chicken, her visit to the slaughterhouse, and even her trips to the grocery store. A particularly memorable passage details a failed attempt at making chicken pot pie from scratch—a debacle that leads Landrigan to reflect on her internalized biases surrounding cooking, femininity, feminism and the culinary traditions of her own family.
In a food landscape often fraught with contention, even among those who oppose industrial meat production, Landrigan is careful to stick to “I” statements. The book is grounded in her own sense of discovery and is honest about the complex messiness of eating well. Landrigan is quick to acknowledge her privileged position: she has the resources to make choices and the ability to investigate them.
Like all great writing situated in the personal, The Vegetarian’s Guide to Eating Meat encourages introspection. As Landrigan plumbs the depths of her food history and its social and environmental implications, it’s hard not to do the same. Perhaps the most succinct distillation of the book’s value comes from a fly fisherman Landrigan meets on a trip to Montana. “We all kill a little,” he says. “The least you can do is look at it.”
The Vegetarian’s Guide to Eating Meat: A Young Woman’s Search for Ethical Food
by Marissa Landrigan is due out from Greystone Books on April 29, 2017.
Molly Jean Bennett is a writer and multimedia producer based in New York City. Her essays, poems, and strongly worded letters have appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Atlas Obscura, VICE, and elsewhere.