Not for readers of a sensitive disposition, nor those whom are feeling peckish.
I am an animal lover.
I am also a food lover.
Therefore I have an enduring dilemma that most of the time I try to ignore, but certain recent situations here in Peru have brought the issue again to the fore: Is vegetarianism the way forward?
I love all food, so I wouldn’t go short if I was veggie. In fact, I veer towards veggie options anyway as they’re always more interesting than the same old meat dishes – vegetable lasagne I find is more flavoursome than an average beef one; and a typical sausage contains less than 30% pork. So would I really be missing much if I went meat-free?
Let’s face facts – it’s a dead animal, who 100% for sure would’ve suffered miserably at some point on its journey to my plate. Following years spent in the divine company of furred and feathered creatures, I have every evidence that animals possess individual personalities. When I eat a bit of one, I deny all knowledge that it was once a living, breathing, feeling being.
When I was on a contemplative walk recently, I sat down to rest in the shade on a country road. No one else was around, but suddenly I had company – a beautiful brown horned bullock appeared at the top of a ledge up the mountainside above me. He was tethered, but had managed to stretch so that he could peer over and nose at who was at the side of his land. We sat and looked into each others’ eyes for some time, enjoying the unusual companionship. Then spontaneously, tears began to roll down my cheeks. It hit me hard that this animal who – just like me, was enjoying the sunshine of this beautiful day – would soon be slaughtered and butchered just to fill someone’s burger.
The shops and markets in this valley do not hide or disguise where our dinners come from. In a busy shopping street in Cusco, I saw a chicken being pulled from its cage and its neck wrung fresh for the customer. Previous victims lay, beaks agape and legs akimbo, awaiting selection. In a major supermarket in Lima, an entire vaccum-packed piglet in the freezer section startled the life out of me. And in Urubamba’s market, cows’ heads sit staring eyelessly on the meat-sellers’ counters.
Last Sunday, I went with friends to buy beef for a big roast dinner. The shopkeeper and her daughter were conveniently in the middle of sawing bits off a cow’s leg balanced on wooden stool in the middle of the shop. She slapped a chunk of thigh on the scales to price up for us, taking our money and giving us the change with the same, unwiped, bare hands she had handled the flesh with.
It embarrasses me how I flinch and shudder at these sights in front of my Peruvian friends – after all, I eat all this meat as much as they do – and I know where it comes from. I should not be so surprised to see it outside of an unrecognisable shape and colour in a plastic tray inside a pretty cardboard package, but that’s just what I’ve had all my life. I wonder if meat was displayed as crudely as this in the UK and the US, whether we would still be such ravenous carnivores.
Then there was the other night, when I went for a special birthday dinner in a lovely restaurant in Ollantaytambo. After a couple of months of budget eating, this was my chance to treat myself. The speciality was 300g prime steak. With creamy sweet potato mash. And blue cheese sauce.
It was amazing.
Wish me luck.