One summer, I lived in an apartment in Boston with two college-aged guys and one of their girlfriends. Alberto was from Brazil. I always offered to share the beans and rice or sautéed asparagus, green beans or broccoli I made on a regular evening. Accustomed to hearing “no thanks,” one day I caught him staring from the kitchen doorway as I was making banana bread. He’d never had it before and was curious. Fruit… in bread? The finished product looked and smelled the opposite of appetizing to him. (Brown-buttered chocolate chunk cookies and fresh strawberry cupcakes, though, those were a different story.)
Alberto shared his preferred foods: meat. We just eat a lot of meat, he said. That’s when I laughed and explained my vegetarianism. It’s then that I remembered visiting a Brazilian restaurant on a family beach vacation. Servers drifted between tables, carrying large skewers of pork and beef. You just point to a cut, and they place it on your plate. The other option was salad: a combination of lettuce and tomato. Not necessarily my choice menu. But this food is part of Brazilian culture, I told myself. In Argentina, too, a nation with the romantic icon of the long-lost gaucho and the growth of cattle ranchers. And in Peru: open spaces, where guinea pig is a delicacy. Those South Americans. They eat so much meat.
I decided to study abroad in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and take a stab at living a vegetarian life far away from Boston’s Copley Square farmer’s market, Trader Joe’s, and the sweetgreen salad restaurant where I worked. Friends and family questioned what I’d eat for five months in the land of steak and red wine. (My answer: red wine.) A managing editor at the publishing company I interned with the previous semester thought she was taunting me, detailing the ways she loves to cook her steak, and later waved me goodbye, saying, “Enjoy a juicy filet for me!” In what she undoubtedly intended as good fun seemed more like waving a pack of Marlboros in the face of a former smoker. A former smoker who just worked for you for 4 months… for free.
In Buenos Aires, I learned of a few vegetarian and vegan restaurants that had sprouted up in the Palermo neighborhood in the last decade. And Time Out Buenos Aires served as my bible in seeking them out. But for the most part, living in a residencia, the main courses involved the national dish, milanesa, a thin-cut, breaded sliver of beef or chicken, baked or fried; beef and potato stew; chicken and saffron rice; or ham and potato torta. Meat appeared at every meal. The main difference was, everyone ate less.
The U.S. population consumes more meat than any other nation in history. The average person’s meat consumption is measured in pounds/person/year. For an estadounidense, this number reaches 270 pounds, nearly three times the global average. Brazilians eat, on average, 174 pounds of meat per year, and Argentines, 216. Sure, numbers can be numbers. But anything previously mentioned is easier to digest than the number of individual, whole animals we will consume in a lifetime: 21,000 per person.
When one of my Argentine roommates asked what constitutes a normal breakfast in the U.S., she was sipping English Breakfast Tea with milk in the comedor. I detailed the construction of a “breakfast sandwich,” from the toasted bagel, crispy on the outside, soft and warm on the inside, to the gooey fried egg and melt-y cheese—oh, and a lot of people add bacon, too—served with coffee and maybe an orange juice, to go. She nearly vomited from the thought.
Asado is perhaps the most traditional Argentine meal. The beef is prepared over a parilla, an open-air grill, similar to BBQ. It’s part of a larger social event, sitting with friends and drinking wine. When I went to my first parilla in Mendoza, Argentina’s wine country, a vegetarian German couple joined us. I tasted the freshest, most flavorful grilled vegetables I might ever come across: endless supplies of eggplant, tomatoes, sweet potato, and corn, grown on the same farm where we shared the meal. We three veg-heads experienced the full parilla gathering, complete with a bit of guitara and songs late into the night, without a bite of flesh. But even for those enjoying the free-range raised meat, it wasn’t just an average cookout. Asado is a treat, not an item on the everyday national diet.
In the U.S., we eat more meat (and dairy, and eggs) because we can. More meat, more dessert, more sugar, more salt. Taking a bite from a wax-papered bundle while commuting to work. Consuming meat, without a thought. It’s one of the obvious abilities that comes along with developed nationhood. Comfort dissolves into gluttony as it’s deep-fried in a vat of more, more, more. And unreasonably low prices allow us to eat more chicken, in particular. The cost of living rises generationally, while meat prices stay the same, and chicken is an appropriate snack at any time of the day. Chicken breakfast sandwich? Nugget snack box, anyone? We have the power to eat any amount of meat (no matter how economically, environmentally, and nutritionally destructive), so we do it.
When it comes to a varied national diet, our wide-range of imports provides options for any palate. U.S. residents have most of the world’s food options open to them, regardless of season or distance traveled. It’s easier to eat out of preference, avoiding a meat-and-potatoes mentality of necessity. But of all of these sources of flavors, we stick to what we think we want: only 0.25% of the world’s edible foods.*
*See page one of Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer, and just read on from there.