I can still taste my last full cheeseburger.
It was 1993, I was at a friend’s house for a sleepover, and we were eating burgers from In-N-Out—because when you’re a teenager at a Southern California sleepover, that’s what you eat. I had recently seen the documentary Faces of Death and its explicit slaughterhouse footage; perhaps that’s why I made the decision that night that the burger—a near-perfect grilled beef patty spread thick with secret sauce oozing into a bed of hand-leafed lettuce—would be my last. After several bad incidents thereafter with too-dry chicken getting stuck in my esophagus (long story) and the realization that my 15-year-old self really wanted an aquarium, and that eating my aquarium’s relatives for dinner wasn’t exactly P.C., poultry and fish were out, too. I became a strict vegetarian. And somehow, it stuck.
Until last summer. By then I was a so-called pescatarian (no more aquarium dreams), I’d fallen in love with a serious meat-eater and, little by little, my teenage pledge had begun to dissipate. Pieces of bacon began finding their way onto my breakfast plate. Whatever little piglet or lamb had died in the name of an entrée was already dead, I argued to myself. So what if I tried a bite? I wasn’t adding to the demand; I was simply helping to make sure the supply didn’t die in vain. So when, on a trip to Milwaukee, my friend asked if I’d like to try his locally raised beef burger smothered in Wisconsin cheddar, my reply, after only a moment’s hesitation, was, “Yes. Yes, I would.” And it was delicious.
The bigger picture, of course, is that sometime between my angsty teenagedom and the rise of Top Chef, America’s portrayal of the meat production industry began to change—and that industry began to change as a result. On the heels of Fast Food Nation, Super Size Me and Food, Inc. came a mass-production backlash that on some level mirrors the one jump-started by Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle more than a century ago. Upscale restaurants began name-dropping the farms on which their entrées were raised. Grass-fed beef worked its way into America’s lingo. Most recently, Willie Nelson sang in a video in support of family farming; the clip boasted Chipotle Mexican Grill’s “naturally raised” meat (defined in that instance as open-range and antibiotic-free), and one Coldplay cover later everyone was misty-eyed over barbacoa burritos.
These trends are the primary reason I no longer feel guilty about hankering for protein with a face. For many of us who chose to go vegetarian more than a decade ago, the rationale for abstaining from meat is no longer relevant—especially in Chicago, where the phrase ethically raised is used almost as often as lake effect. According to the National Restaurant Association’s 2012 food and menu forecasting (based on 2011 chef surveys), the No. 1 full-service (read: sit-down) restaurant trend is “locally sourced meats and seafood.” No. 5? “Sustainability.” Especially here in the heartland, it’s more than likely that any good restaurant is doing its damndest to make sure that nature’s circle of life is being carried out in the most humane way possible. Many are certified via Chicago’s Guaranteed Green program, which recognizes local restaurants that meet strict ethical and environmental guidelines for meat, dairy and produce. Among them: Big Jones, the Publican and Frontera Grill. Countless others (Lula Cafe, Prasino) boast ethically raised meat on their menus, guaranteed to be hormone- and antibiotic-free and raised with room to graze.
I cooked my first pork chop last month, and it was delicious. But I still haven’t touched a Quarter Pounder since the 1980s, and don’t plan to anytime soon. By the same token, I’m proud to say that in my nearly two decades on the other side of the cafeteria, I did not (knowingly, at least) consume fake meat. “Smart Bacon” is dumb. “Soyrizo” is an oxymoron. Vegan cheese has about as much dignity as nonalcoholic beer. Attention non–meat eaters who opt to consume processed-food products modeled after the real deal: Put down your Tofurky Jerky and ask yourself why you still can’t shake a flavor that, for whatever reason, you refuse to digest in its natural state.
Go ahead, call me a hypocrite. Tell me I’m falling prey to a dining trend, drinking the proverbial demi-glace of the responsibly raised meat market available in this epicuriously blessed hamlet of the Midwest. I’ll tell you this: If the Publican’s Paul Kahan has the cojones to make Quality the middle name of his new butcher shop in the original “Jungle,” you can bet your Boca Burger it’s okay to eat.
[Editor's note: Read Books editor Jonathan Messinger's contrarian-to-the-contrarian response here.]