The Butcher and the Vegetarian: One Woman's Romp through a World of Men, Meat, and Moral Crisis
Food writer Tara Austen Weaver was raised in a vegetarian home since her birth. As an adult, she unexpectedly gets diagnosed with thyroid disease. What’s she to do? Fast for forty days? No. Go macrobiotic? Nope, not that either. Instead, Weaver must eat meat—by doctor’s order. So she turns to a carnivorous diet. What unfolds is part chick lit-cookbook and part treatise on farm animal rights.
Weaver’s introduction to the world of animal flesh brings her into contact with many meat-industry types. Some she casts in an ethical light. These include kind butchers and organic cattle ranchers. She also comes to know a charming meat blogger. Readers may object to the notion of ethical, caring cattle ranchers and butchers, but I can assure you these characters would cause anyone to re-examine their assumptions.
Throughout the The Butcher and the Vegetarian, Weaver’s writing is lively and clever. Readers will enjoy her wit and keen use of hyperbole. At one point she describes a Holy Grail-like experience wherein she smothers her steak in a rapturous chimichurri sauce.
The Butcher and the Vegetarian’s cover art depicts tiny hearts and cute cartoon characters, but the book offers up several dark and unexpected twists. One minute I was reading about pork tenderloin; the next thing I know, Weaver is describing how her mother's boyfriend molested her when she was thirteen and her two subsequent suicide attempts. Woah! Hold it right there, meat lady. I need a minute to digest!
Although surprised by the confession, I appreciate Weaver's honesty and think the topic of abuse deserves a place in the book. Weaver's relationship with meat mirrors her relationship with men. To her, meat is a very masculine experience.
In passing, Weaver mentions that she doesn't consider fish to be meat. And as for chickens, I was equally shocked to find out she puts them in the category of "almost not a meat." Still, The Butcher and the Vegetarian shares some good information about the treatment of farm animals and the truth about our (and their) sources of food. These facts are of great value to readers.
Although once a vegetarian, Weaver is no activist, and she also makes her preference for food over animal welfare transparent from the beginning. It does strike me as suspicious, however, that someone so horrified at eating a steak and so knowledgeable about the farming industry would be okay with consuming eggs and dairy. I wonder if she doesn't recognize the incongruity.
Personally, I could care less about how to prepare meat; it’s simply not part of my life. Though The Butcher and the Vegetarian is well written, Weaver lost me at each mention of fine cuts of X or a special preparation of Y. What I did find fascinating (and thoroughly graphic) was Weaver’s research visit to the farm where she witnesses the process of slaughter. She writes that seeing this occur repeatedly has a desensitizing effect, that it becomes ordinary, or even "normalized."
In my experience, there was nothing normal about it. When I was in veterinary school, I witnessed the slaughtering process several times, and the blood of those poor cows still floods my nightmares. Maybe that makes me overly critical. But it’s the truth.