Adventures on the Elliptical, Part I: Where’s the Beef?

Abundant Table
Walking the Stations of the Cross at the Abundant Table Food Project in Oxnard, CA.

By Tommy Airey, co-editor of

*This post kicks-off a new series on Wednesdays exploring the movement of Spirit during mealtime.  

Give us meat for our food.
Numbers 11:13

Sometimes I sneak inside the local gym here in Ypsilanti and spend thirty minutes on the elliptical. The AC is on and a half dozen TVs are right in front of me.  A few weeks ago, I was sweating to a sports talk show host lamenting his wife’s newfound veganism. It is the oldest, most tiring go-to in the counterfeit masculinity playbook. I knew exactly what he was going to say next: “I just want to go out and have a steak with my guy friends.” And then he droned on about the whole pathetic ordeal for the entire segment.

Seven years ago, Lindsay and I became vegetarians after watching the Academy Award winning documentary Food, Inc. and then reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals.  I attribute this conversion mostly to Michael Smith, a former traveling salesmen now living in Iceland snapping photos of the Northern Lights with his girlfriend Inga.  I was Michael’s freshman basketball coach.  I taught him how to ball fake and skip pass.  Now he feeds me the latest on the state of the heavily corporatized meat and dairy industries.  I got the better end of the bargain.  

I was triggered by the talk show bro because I, too, feared my imperial masculinity was at stake when I gave up meat.  For a long time, I felt less full, which made me feel less strong, which has been a litmus test for my manhood since early adolescence.  I grew up in Southern California jock-and-beach culture. Clothing was optional.  Biceps were mandatory.  The nail in the coffin was the day I walked into the gym my sophomore year in high school and the star point guard on the varsity team jabbed, “I thought muscles were required in order to wear tank tops?”  My coach chuckled.  No one was around to script an alternative, more authentic manhood.  The rest is history.

I eventually became a vegetarian because Jesus said, “In as much as you did it to the very least of these, you did it unto me.” I could no longer remain oblivious to how the workers, the animals and the land were intimately related to my burger. Boycotting meat is my [very small] act of solidarity with the poor and marginalized, hired to do the shit work for shit pay in the soul-eroding animal-slaughtering industry.  Meat will eternally be associated with empire, just as it was for those manna-eating, wilderness-wandering Israelites.

Vegetarianism can be extreme and puritanical.  Even fundamentalist.  This is a turn-off for many, myself included.  I support concepts like “flexatarianism” and “less meatatarianism.”  If we all made robust commitments to eating a lot less meat, we would inhabit a more just and sustainable world.   Consider Mark Bittman’s book title Vegan Before Six. He is totally vegan until 6pm. For supper (on occasion), he’ll eat animal.

True confession: I’m easily talked into belly-flopping off the wagon.  Whether it is Erinn coaxing me into a trip to Sweetwater Tavern in downtown Detroit or Jyarland  passing over her plate of half-eaten appetizers.  “Get behind me, Satan!”  I flex every Christmas Eve when I go hog wild on Buffalo wings. It’s the one thing I really miss. I actually do it because St. Francis told me to. He reportedly preached, “Even the walls eat meat on Christmas.”

Meat, however, is more than just delicious. It has intersectional implications.  In The Sexual Politics of Meat, Carol Adams makes a key connection between meat-eating and patriarchy. In the book, which took her years to research and write, she introduced the concept of the absent referent.  From the factory to the plate, every trace of the living animal disappears.  The animal is absent, transformed into “meat.” In order to cleanse the consumer’s conscience while devouring the double cheeseburger, new language is necessary to erase any living memory of the cow.

Adams’ powerful thesis proposes that our society does the same thing to women.  Consider the men who go to “Hooters” to eat chicken wings.  The franchise logo is an owl, but everybody knows it is actually referring to the large breasts of a woman (who serves the food wearing a shirt two sizes too small).  While eating, men moan in orgasm.  Women are always present, but never overtly mentioned.  They are symbolically consumed and objectified.  Samples abound.

Adams compellingly proposes that, in our culture, manhood is constructed, in part, by access to meat eating and control of other bodies. In order to recognize the exploitation of the reproductive processes of female animals, Adams calls milk and eggs feminized protein–that is, protein that was produced by a female body. Adams laments that animals are doubly exploited: both when they are alive, caged and/or controlled, and then when they are killed. They are literally female pieces of meat.

All of this has everything to do with what the author of the book of James calls “real religion.” Addressed to the scattered churches resisting empire, the end of the letter gets heated (literally):

Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts on a day of slaughter. (James 5:4-5)

The lifestyles of the rich and famous naturally result in their own punishment. They are cattle grazing on greed and hoarding. But they are soon to be dead meat. And God is hosting the barbecue.  It’s a divine tailgate party and those who usually attend the game are now on the grill.   This is horrifying to our “civilized” ears. And that’s the point. James’ apocalyptic drama attempts to shock readers into a conversion of the imagination. In God’s heavenly order, the absent referent is no longer the woman or the animal. It is the rich: the only folks, in that era, who could afford to eat meat.

Let’s not get too carried away.  Abstaining from eating animals is a simple spiritual practice, not a secret handshake into the heavenly realm.  Lifestyle activism is always just a start.  Policy work, protests, hours of community organizing and more creative resistance beckon.  But the choices we make about eating do affect everything else.  We are caught in a web of mutuality.  Autonomy, like the absent referent, is just a silly game we humans play to convince ourselves that our lives are not as important as they actually are.

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