The goat was tied to a tree nearby. He foraged around the short grasses near his hooves, tearing at the dry grasses and enjoying his meal. He didn’t seem to care that I was there. I didn’t venture closer to him, even though I wanted to stroke his forehead between his horns and say hello. Instead, I let him go about his meal and observed him from a short distance. His nonchalance and ease made me feel at peace – well, for the moment at least. I didn’t realize that meeting him would be impetus for a significant change in my life – both in how I lived and in the direction my path would take.
It was only later that I would learn why he was tied to the tree: he was to be our meal for the evening. I was studying abroad in Tanzania and my group was staying in a remote area in the north of the country with some of the fascinating and remarkable Maasai people.
Those few days among them were some of the most interesting and strange of my life. I lived in a small thatched hut with a woman my age and her three children. It was so hot there that the children would blow on me, concerned at the volume of sweat I was able to produce. Hell, I was concerned about it too – but I did survive and adapt, as we learn to do. It was such a different life than the one I knew – stepping into it for a few days was a privilege and one that I will carry with me always.
My time in Tanzania was significant – and I will speak about it in the detail it deserves at a later date; now we must go back to the goat. Later that evening Baba Jack (the head of the program) told us that we would have the opportunity to watch the goat being sacrificed in a special ritual. My heart fell what felt like a million miles down into my gut, and in that moment some things came together in my mind that never had before.
I had eaten – and very much enjoyed – goat meat many times during that trip. However, I had never before met the animal that I was to be eating. In our sterile supermarkets in the United States, everything is cut, cleaned, packaged and ready to be cooked – those slabs of meat and fillets of fish hardly resembling the animal that they were once a part of. Most of us are so disconnected from the entire process of raising an animal from birth to slaughter and through meat processing that we don’t even think that the meat we are cooking was once a living, breathing force. Honestly, I don’t think that most of us even want to bring that thought into our consciousness.
Now, before I continue, let me say that I am not here to preach about vegetarianism. I am (most of the time) a rational human being and I fully realize that it would be foolish for me to believe that every person on the planet would become a vegetarian. Everyone must make their own choice based on their own life experiences, opinions and feelings. So please know that I’m not about to demonize omnivores as blood-thirsty beasts. I’m just sharing my own experience.
The goat was sacrificed that night. Needless to say, I did not attend his death. I told Baba Jack that I respectfully declined to participate, which was thankfully not an issue. I did not wish to offend the Maasai people in their sharing of a ritual with us; however, I knew that I could not watch an animal being killed. I remained in my tent, quiet and thoughtful – trying to process the events of that day. It was one of the most sobering and contemplative moments in my memory – the world seemed very quiet in that short hour.
The other students enjoyed the ritual – they had embraced the process fully. I will admit that at first I felt a bit ashamed that I was unable to participate, although I knew that it would have changed me in a way I truly did not want. I had no desire to watch something suffer and die for my benefit. I also knew that regardless of not participating in the ritual, something had still fundamentally changed within me. I decided to embrace it.
The next day soup was made from the meat and the blood of the goat. It looked like exactly what it sounds like – chunks of meat floating in a pool of blood. I don’t think I have to tell you that I did not eat it, though I tried my best not to show my aversion out of respect for my Maasai hosts.
I did not immediately become a vegetarian after this event. In Tanzania I reduced my meat intake, which I continued after I returned home for the holidays. During this time I educated myself on large factory farming practices in the United States. I can say that I have hardly read more horrifying things in my life. I will not detail them here. The documentation – both written, photographed and videoed – are all widely available if you wish to educate yourself (please note that I realize that there are many farmers who take great care of the their animals and produce meat humanely; however, they tend to be the exception and not the rule). However, my taste for meat declined to the point where I could no longer eat it with pleasure. Within a few weeks, I cut all meat and seafood out of my diet. It had been over ten years ago since I have (consciously) tasted meat and I can say with great honesty that I have not regretted that choice for a single second.
I will admit that it was a bit difficult at first as I didn’t really know what to eat. However, that’s where the magic truly began. I had always enjoyed cooking, but only as a way to fill my belly – I had not yet discovered the pleasure that it could bring, not only from the results, but from the process as well. Over the next few years I moved from from frozen meat replacements to whole, real foods. I began to read – cookbooks, blogs and studies on food and how it affected our environment, communities and health. I went from following recipes to the letter to modifying them to my taste and, finally, creating some of my own.
I moved from shopping at the supermarket to the farmer’s market whenever possible – fully enjoying the wonderful bounty that local farmers and producers were able to bring forth from the soil around us. Food became such a major part of my life that I eventually began to slowly transition my career towards it. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted that career to be, but I realized that the meandering path that began ten years ago with the goat was the path I was meant to tread and that following it had brought so much more to my life than just lovely meals.
I am now fortunate enough to be spending some time in Bra, Italy. Nearby there is a small university dedicated to the study of slow food, which I will be attending for the next year. The ideas here are all about quality over quantity, community over mass production, affordability of good food for all, fair wages and conditions for food workers and sustainable practices to protect the environment. Life here is centered around food and community and I already feel very much at home. A decade ago I would never have guessed that contemplating the life of a goat tied to a tree thousands of miles away would lead me here. Nor would I have supposed that ‘limiting’ my diet would open it up so much more and begin a passion that has never ceased, but only grown.
There is something powerful about grabbing onto moments that move you and pull you into a new life. If it feels right, don’t resist it. Let it take you where you need to go. It could take a moment or a decade or a lifetime – but you’ll end up where you need to be.
I’d love to share a favorite vegetarian recipe with you, so that you can see how lovely vegetarian cuisine can be. If you are curious, please see my recipe for Eggplant Pizza with Mozzarella & Basil.