Kelly Sutherland

Continuing Education

A Matter of Meat

I grill it, flip it and serve it, all to perfection. But my reasons for not eating it are less global change and more personal challenge

By Curtis Gillespie, '85 BA(Spec)

July 25, 2022 •

I was standing at the barbecue the other day overseeing the grill, paying close attention, as I always do, to the varied cooking preferences of immediate and extended family members. When you grill beef, chicken and salmon and everyone likes theirs cooked differently, you’ve got to be on your game. Luckily, I have two intrinsic talents, universally acknowledged as flawless. One is loading the dishwasher in a breathtakingly logical manner; the other is grilling meats perfectly. Anyway, while at the grill admiring my skill, a small chunk of beef fell into the flames, where it sizzled and charred, the smoky scent rising. The sense of smell connects profoundly to memory, and that scorched bit of beef shot me straight back to growing up in northwest Calgary in the 1970s.

I was brought up in a liberal household, rare for that place in that time. It’s too easy to satirize it as a kind of socio-cultural desert. There were few restaurants, no coffee shops, a marginal arts scene. There were some local writers, such as W.O. Mitchell, but the literary landscape was shallower than a prairie slough. It was a uniform world: you worked in the oilpatch, voted Conservative and your life moved between straight, white lines. 

That wasn’t the case in my house. My dad ran his own glass and trim company. My parents were the only two Liberal voters in Calgary and my mother had a thing for Pierre Trudeau. Their friends three doors down had a gay brother from Copenhagen whom my parents befriended and visited in the 1980s. We had Austrian neighbours across the alley attuned to the joys of sunbathing alfresco. Our house was full of great works of literature and all kinds of music. I’m sure my mother was the only adult in the neighbourhood who bought Pink Floyd’s The Wall for herself. She even got us kids to practise meditation — a failure, but it showed a willingness to entertain ideas outside the mainstream. We kids had a rich and open upbringing on every front. 

Well, except for one. 

There was one cultural stance so far outside the norms of 1970s Calgary that neither my liberal parents nor our eclectic friends could imagine it. The practice was so unusual that it wasn’t until well into adulthood that I realized there were people who adhered to this custom. When I first learned of it in university, I was skeptical, then incredulous. 

I speak, of course, of vegetarianism. 

Don’t get me wrong. I suppose we did eat some vegetables when I was growing up. Or at least a vegetable. Mashed potatoes with gravy, boiled potatoes with gravy, roast potatoes with gravy. A potato is technically a vegetable, but to us it was something you covered with meat juice. We had celery with Cheez Whiz, so I guess that counts, and by that metric so would the lettuce on a taco or a jalapeño on nachos. I’m sure my mother will contest this reading of our nutritional history, but I don’t have a single memory of eating a brussels sprout, a stick of asparagus or a yellow pepper. If she’d put bok choy in front of me I might not have even recognized it as a food. 

It was a carnivorous time, and there was nothing that celebrated it more than the battle for the top piece of our Sunday roast. My mother would coat the roast liberally with salt and pepper and when it came out of the oven, the aroma of meat filled the house so deliciously that the only way to properly honour the scent was to score the top piece. 

With five bloodthirsty siblings, it took cunning to secure that top piece. You had to observe shopping patterns, take stock of the freezer’s contents, sometimes hide the frozen roast under french fries and fish sticks. Disinformation campaigns and fake menu reports often worked. Waking times were vital. My mother’s, that is. Sunday was both church and roast day (one of which we welcomed). There was a rule that you couldn’t call top piece until roast day, so there was often a contest on Sunday mornings to time one’s rising to coincide with that of my mother, who was the final arbiter on top-piece calling. She had to hear you call it or it didn’t count. Which meant you had to get to her early. Waiting until the roast was in the oven was pointless, since the scent drew siblings like zombies to a fresh corpse. 

Once you secured top piece, even church wouldn’t seem so bad. Then would come dinner and that roast would come out of the oven. My father would slice the top piece and place it on your plate, at which point you would admire its crispy, gluey, semi-burntness, while your siblings looked on jealously. The best days were when we had puffy Yorkshire pudding with dinner, purpose-built to hold gravy and meat bits.

Such were the flesh-eating habits of my upbringing. I share this partly out of remembrance but partly to demonstrate how deeply embedded are my childhood memories of meat. Eating meat seems connected with just about every major recollection, from Sunday roast to Saturday steak and tater tots (which accompanied Hockey Night in Canada) to pans of crispy bacon on holiday mornings to watching my dad barbecue hamburgers in the backyard to cooking hot dogs over open fires while we camped at Gull Lake. Meat wasn’t just food, it was our life. It never occurred to me that a life could be lived without it. 

You know where I’m going with this. 

Several years ago, a couple of vegetarian friends (an oxymoron until then) began badgering me, relentlessly pointing out that meat wasn’t essential and that one’s nutritional needs could be met without it. To quiet them down, I thought I’d dip my toe into the waters of vegetarianism. Just for a few weeks, just to see what happened. 

The first days were lost in a fog of confusion about what, precisely, I was supposed to eat. My wife and daughters weren’t helpful. They were and remain apex predator omnivores. I was on my own, scrambling for pasta sauces, bean dishes, curries. I was so busy trying to figure out what to cook that it wasn’t until a few weeks later that something hit me. 

I wasn’t craving meat. 

Weeks passed, then months, through a long Edmonton winter. I knew the test would come with barbecue season. Tossing a few chunks of chicken into a stew is a much different sensory experience than tending a steak on the grill. Late May came and my wife and daughters were keen to barbecue, so one night, they got some steaks. I was out there in the backyard, watching the smoke rise, smelling the admittedly delicious aroma. I poked, prodded, turned and basted as usual. When the meat was done, I took it inside and we had dinner — I don’t remember what I ate, but the steaks looked and smelled pretty good. What surprised me was that my body didn’t crave the meat. 

Now, I have to make clear that I am not the strictest vegetarian, for two reasons. The first is that I still sometimes eat fish. That was just the bargain I made with myself long ago, that I’d give up land animals but still have the rare piece of fish. The second reason is that when we go to someone’s house for dinner and they serve meat, I just eat it. I’d rather not make a fuss. My goal isn’t to pass a purity test but to have a lighter footprint. 

What has been the result after nearly 10 years of not eating meat? You’d be warranted to expect a physical change. In fact, my wife has commented that I’m now “ripped” and that my physique makes her want to … oh wait, sorry … that’s the fantasy novel I’m working on. Truthfully, I haven’t noticed significant physical changes. When I was a slavering caveman gnawing on charred ribs, I was not particularly muscly and had a bit of a belly. Now that I nibble on lettuce and carrots, I am not particularly muscly and have a bit of a belly. 

Nor do I claim to be a better person, so look elsewhere for an anti-meat diatribe. The reasons for not eating meat become more obvious the longer you adhere to them, and meat ultimately becomes less about food than logic. Why eat it when you don’t need to? 

So, if you are what you eat, what am I? Someone who made a change I never thought I’d make. I’ve learned how much we can change if we want to and, conversely, what we don’t change because it’s a routine or a childhood holdover. I’ve realized that we’re more flexible than we credit ourselves with. And it’s clear that the pleasure we draw from what we consume is more about variety than habit. I’m proof. Just recently, to test my ability to effect significant change, I had my martini with an olive instead of a twist. 

So there I was the other day, standing at the barbecue, grilling a selection of meats even though I don’t partake. I’m like an atheist offering communion at church. We humans have an amazing capacity for change and adjustment. Despite the sensory experiences that grilling invokes and despite my childhood memories, I know that although I’ll grill the meat, tend the meat, serve the meat and be happy that others enjoy it, one thing I won’t do is eat the meat.

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