According to Wikipedia, the American Dialect Society voted flexitarian as 2003’s most useful word. It is certainly a good catch-all to describe my current dietary habits, but if I really think about what I eat everyday it starts to become less and less straightforward.
When I was 11 years old I started reading books about animal rights. I grew up on a farm and so when I began to question my eating habits, it was not too warmly received. I initially became vegetarian on a trial basis – I made a bet with my best friend at the time to see who could last the longest without meat, and for twelve years, I didn’t look back. I was pretty strict too, and it wasn’t always easy.
Once, a different friend gave me spring rolls, which I discovered contained shrimp, and I promptly threw up. (At the time, I blamed the shellfish, but looking back, the cheap cider might have had more to do with it!) I also had individually prepared meals at Christmas and special occasions, and my Mum invested in a lot of vegetarian cookbooks. As time went by, it became more and more socially acceptable and ‘normal’ to eat a meat free diet, and it was just part of who I was. I didn’t really question it, and I felt secure in the knowledge that my diet was ethical, cruelty free, and better for the environment.
In 2015, I was preparing to go to Ghana for three months to carry out fieldwork research for my MA in anthropology. I was going to study food systems and agriculture in a rural village in the North of Ghana. As I read more and more, I realised that I would be speaking to people with very little, and I also realised that if I was to live in such a setting, I would need to be adaptable. I thought long and hard about it, and decided I would need to start eating meat again. After all, how could I study food and try and assimilate myself in the culture if I refused to eat half of the local dishes?
So, I made baby steps. My first (intentional) non-vegetarian meal was sushi with Dave. I had had it before, of course (Dave is a huge sushi fan!) but I had always stuck to the veggie rolls – egg, avocado, cucumber. These are nice, but I hadn’t realised what I’d been missing when I tried my first salmon maki! I was completely won over, and even had some eel nigiri. My journey into flexitarianism had begun, and it was even enjoyable! I was still careful to try and eat meat that I knew had come from sustainable sources, like free-range chicken and sustainable fish, and I didn’t eat a lot. But what I did notice was that suddenly I could share food more easily, I could be adventurous, and I wasn’t closed off to certain new experiences.
When I got to Ghana, I found that in restaurants meat was usually an expected part of a meal, but while I was living with my hosts Baba and Mavis, meat was rarely on the menu. In fact, more often than not we ate dried fish from the nearby river, caught by hand (and about as local as you could get.) However, a week into my stay, Baba announced that they would sacrifice a chicken in my honour. They killed, plucked and cooked the bird right in front of me, and handed me a slightly charred piece of (what I think was) intestine, to eat. I took a deep breath, and ate it. (It didn’t taste of much – but it was pretty chewy!)
At that point, I knew I had made the right choice. I could eat the offering no problem, I didn’t refuse it or throw up (both of which might have been bad omens, for all I knew), the bird’s life was honoured by eating every available part, and I had caused my hosts no offence or suspicion.
There were a few other occasions in Ghana where I was grateful I had practised eating meat before I left. I tried Guinea Fowl, after these beautiful ladies gifted two to me before I left.
Safiya and I with aforementioned guinea fowls
…and the lovely Aziyewo
Since then I have enjoyed tapas in Spain, roast turkey at Christmas, amazing street food in Thailand, and countless home-cooked meals from friends. I don’t tend to buy meat when I do my grocery shopping, but if I do, I always make sure it’s as free-range as possible.
However, I confess, it’s not always easy to be sure when I’m further afield. How did I know that chicken kebab on the street corner in Chiang Mai was free range? How did I know where the salmon came from in my breakfast bagel? Well, honestly, I didn’t. I’m definitely not perfect in that regard, and I do sometimes wonder if my diet was more ethical when I was strictly veggie. But then I think back to those experiences where I was able to share and enjoy meals with friends, to not have to refuse food that had been made with love, or killed for the occasion. I think of my friends who at times lived on French fries and plain rice for days, because they couldn’t eat anything else. As an anthropologist, I always aim to try new things and immerse myself in the local culture as much as possible, and sometimes, for me, that means eating a kebab or two.
I recently took part in a Monk Chat at a temple in Chiang Mai, and I was surprised to learn that Buddhist monks eat meat – if it is given to them. (Interestingly though, they cannot see or hear the animal being killed.) Buddhists are generally vegetarian, but monks are not – because they cannot refuse food that is given to them. They are also forbidden from asking for food, confusingly. I am not, of course, comparing myself to a monk – but I do find it interesting that these holy beings (automatically of a higher spiritual status than laymen like you or I), are able to eat meat because refusing food given in good-will is less ethical than eating a dead animal. Now, moral codes are of course far from black and white, but it certainly gave me pause for thought.
That being said, I definitely do not eat meat with every meal – far from it, in fact. I usually pick a veggie option if it’s available, and I don’t generally eat pork or beef or lamb. I also try and eat vegan when possible, and I think one day that might be something I will try on a longer term basis, when I am in more control of my own diet (i.e. not travelling, able to understand the language, and buying and cooking my own food again.) When we do return home, I will at the very least go veggie for a while, to offset the meat I’ll have eaten while travelling.
For now though, I do try and give thanks for the life that’s been sacrificed so that I can eat, and I am mindful of what goes into me. This is not meant to be a judgment on anyone’s diet, by the way – I think nutrition is such a personal thing and different things work for different people, at different stages in their lives. I am still not sure which way is best in terms of ethics – your own health is obviously important, and I personally think being able to share meals with friends, accept home-cooked meat-based meals given in kindness, and appreciate the energy that has gone into your food, are all vitally important. Selfishly, I also want to embrace new experiences as much as possible – which in SE Asia, means street food!
For me, being flexible is a vital part of travelling – not just in your daily plans (like when your bus is 3 hours late), but in your mentality too. Keeping an open mind is to me the most important thing, and flexitarianism allows me to do that, at least for now.
Getting stuck in!
What are your thoughts on eating meat and animal products? Did you ever struggle while travelling to keep to your usual diet? Join the discussion by leaving a comment!