I was a New Yorker, straight from Park Slope, when I met my husband, a cattle farmer in Wisconsin.

On our first date, he cooked for me. A hamburger on a plate. No vegetable, no garnish, no fork. He told me he knew I was vegetarian so he made the hamburger small.

I met him through my blog – he sent fan mail and invited me to his farm. I got a lot of dates from my blog. I had lots of dates with bankers who wooed me in planes stocked with vegetarian snacks. But I fell in love with my husband the first moment I saw him, so I ate the hamburger, in about 500 small bites.

I had diarrhea the next day. And for most of that month while I was going to the farm and eating increasingly larger pieces of meat.

The difference between farm life and city life is so pronounced that you could never understand it without living in both places. Consider how people scoff at New Yorkers eating every meal out. You don’t understand a life you have never been a part of.

There is a rhythm on a farm that makes me certain that eating animals is good for the earth. The cattle on our farm graze all day long. They are calm, they are happy, and I’m not kidding when I tell you that my husband cannot be happy if his animals are not happy.

When we were dating, my husband woke up in the middle of the night, in a thunderstorm. He said a calf was lost in the rain.

What? How do you know.

I hear the mom looking for the calf.

What are you going to do?

Go out and bring the calf to the mom. The calf might die.

I follow him to the door. I can’t believe he’s going outside. I ask, “How much money will you lose if the calf dies?”

“About $200. That’s my profit from a grown animal.”

“I’ll give you the $200 so you don’t have to go outside.”

He went out that night, and got the calf.

In the morning, he broke up with me. “You don’t understand anything but money,” he told me.

I got him back by working hard to understand agrarian life.

The animals graze the grass, they poop on the grass, they move to another section and the grass grows well because of their poop. My husband analyzes his soil constantly to make sure the grass contains the best nutrients for the cattle.

We always have a cow in our freezer in the basement. Cut up, of course. If you think cattle farmers eat steaks all the time, you don’t understand what makes meat eating ethical. We eat the whole cow. I know how to cook every single piece of the cow. The tail makes great soup.

To watch the lifecycle on a farm – mother to baby, poop to the earth, green grass to brown. If you see all that, you love the cows and the earth so much that it feels natural to be a part of it and eat the meat that comes from the process.

If you pay a lot of money for your meat, you eat meat like my husband’s. He gets the highest prices in Wisconsin and he sells direct to consumers.

If you don’t pay enough to buy ethically produced meat, then your meat eating is probably not ethical.

33 replies
  1. christian ward
    christian ward says:

    Really? That is the best you can come up with? There is something to be admired in your husband’s authentic approach to gently raising and caring for the animals he then has slaughtered. It appears humane. But ethical?
    I also went vegetarian a number of years ago, albeit for a belief that it is better for one’s health than eating meat rather than for any animal rights reasons. Since, however, I have come to believe that it is more ethical not to eat meat.
    But I am agnostic (couldn’t find a better word) on this issue: I’m not certain there is an absolute right answer. Still I expected more from you on this issue. Your passionate dissension on the value of grad school has been way more eloquent than this argument. As always, thank you for your post. I always enjoy your writing. Even when I disagree with your point of view.

  2. Amy Parmenter
    Amy Parmenter says:

    So, I get it. But what if you didn’t have the cows…and just planted vegetables, and checked the soil and made the best vegetables? Do you think eating the cows helps nourish your soul because they have soul too?? I”m not being smart, I’m being serious. I eat meat. I get the rhythm thing that you are describing…but I was just wondering if you could get the same rhythm on a farm of fruits, grains and/or vegetables. Of course it’s unlikely the tomatoes would wonder off in the night…

    Amy Parmenter
    The ParmFarm.com (a blog..not a farm…)

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      You do get the same rhythm from growing fruits and vegetables. But it’s not as intense as animals. It’s like people who treat their pets like their children – pets are not nearly as intense an experience as children.


    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Thanks, I fixed it.
      It wouldn’t be a genuine Penelope post without a typo, would it?


  3. Rachel
    Rachel says:

    Vegerables don’t poop and replenish the earth, so the cycle would end. That’s why it’s not the same as with animals. In fact, without the work of living creatures, like bugs and bacteria, there would be no rich soil for the vegetables and fruit to grow. Vegetarians are actually elitists, who only protect large creatures.

    • diana
      diana says:

      not so. vegetables do have poop, of sorts. It’s about taking the scraps from the garden, turning it onto the compost pile, and enriching the soil with the compost. The more vegetable “poop” you throw into the compost, and compost to garden, the healthier the veggies for next year.
      yes. veggie-poop.

  4. PK
    PK says:

    Weak. I doubt the cows would be persuaded by this essay. Some slave owners were humane, but that didn’t make them ethical.

  5. KellyGreen
    KellyGreen says:

    Great article!

    For those people who do not eat meat because it is a living thing, feels pain, has a soul, blah blah, I have a question – why did you decide that vegetables and fruit are less of a life? Vegetable and fruits are also “alive” – they grow, reproduce, and who is to say they, too, don’t experience “pain” or “fear” when being cut, ripped into, stacked on a truck, sliced, and diced?

      • Taylor
        Taylor says:

        Way to be an asshole to a stranger just because she wasn’t profound enough for you, Katie. You’ve contributed a little something to the world today. Won’t your mother be proud.

  6. Sarah
    Sarah says:

    So, it seems that the logic of your piece hinges on two points:

    1. “…you don’t understand what makes meat eating ethical. We eat the whole cow.”

    2. “…you love the cows and the earth so much that it feels natural to be a part of it and eat the meat that comes from the process.”

    So, it’s ethical because you don’t waste any of it, and because when you are “grounded”, intimately in touch with the rhythms of the earth, then you no longer find eating meat to be strange. (Implication may be: The people who find it strange are those who are “divorced” from the earth and their food.)

    I think eating meat is ethical, but the reasons go deeper than these. These reasons are dispatched with such arguments as this: “I doubt the cows would be persuaded by this essay. Some slave owners were humane, but that didn’t make them ethical.”

  7. emily
    emily says:

    But did you ever think eating meat wasn’t ethical? I’m wondering because you start with the idea that you came from Park Slope. So I think that what you’re getting at is that people pick sides of an issue without knowing much about the issue at all.

    This is really an essay about you, right? How you changed your mind to think for yourself, rather than think through someone else’s park slopified version of the world. So that’s what’s most ethical: coming up with a value system that works for you.

    Good vegetarians don’t really tell other people not to eat meat. They simply have another set of rules about ethics: unless ethics is really a conversation that’s about rational thought. Is it?

    (just bumping up your comments one more unit up to 100. also, i’d love this page if it had less on it. like a special issue – with just a header, like a letter. and then maybe you could mass send them printed out to the first 100 people who comment)

  8. Wendy
    Wendy says:

    Great post. I’ve been pondering a blog post of my own on the relationship between 20th century auto-centred metropolitan development and “pink slime” in meat (that is, really poor quality meat filled with chemicals being sold in big chain supermarkets).

    Recently a new butcher shop opened 2 blocks from my house, called “Pasture to Plate” which contains only meat from animals raised on a ranch about 400 miles away. There are pictures of happy-looking cows, pigs, chickens and other animals wandering around. The cows eat grass. It’s probably like a larger version of your farm.

    The meat tastes better than anything I can buy at a chain supermarket, but is at least 2X the price, and often more.

    And, the business is thriving. I’m thinking it’s in part because so many people in my walkable neighbourhood near downtown can get by with minimal driving (or without a car), they can spend the savings on good quality food.

    Anyone else think there is a relationship between car-driving habits and industrial, poor-quality food? are they mutually re-inforcing?

  9. Alan Y
    Alan Y says:

    Seriously eating meat can’t be ethical, but I think you entered to win not to proof some people wrong.

    If your audience is the majority of the meat eater, it makes sense to share/experiment the same wavelength.

    As a vegan myself I can’t agree with eating meat being ethical but at a business perspective it did shifted my emotion for a second.

    *at times I do eat meat when someone cooks for me without knowing me being a vegan, & it’s the only time I felt I’m being ethical to eat than to reject.

    • CJ
      CJ says:

      Alan, thank you for bringing this up. My mother enthusiastically said she would not make a ham for Easter since we were visiting and she knows we do not eat cow or pig. It was very thoughtful of her.

      So she made a pork roast.

      My husband and kids and I had a secret family meeting in the bathroom: “we will all eat the roast and say our thank yous, nobody talk about the pig” My mother was so joy filled to have us all together and cooked all day with a smile. We smiled and feasted in return.

      Good manners are the height of good ethics, even when it gives you a tummy ache!

  10. Jessica Rudder
    Jessica Rudder says:

    For a NYT essay on ethics, it’s fine.

    If it were a real ethical exploration though, it would need to start by trying to establish the ethical framework you’re working in.

    In fact, you’d probably spend 90% establishing the framework and then 10% seeing if meat consumption fit in that framework.

    As it is, your argument seems to hinge on “this feels more right than my previous way of doing things so this must be ethical”. If your ethical system is “if it feels right it is right” that works, otherwise, it’s not a well thought through argument.

    • Brad
      Brad says:

      Exactly. An ethical argument about eating meat has to establish WHY it is acceptable to do things to cows that cannot be done to people. You could argue that the food chain is ethically neutral, although most people don’t need to eat meat for survival. Penelope doesn’t even make an argument. She merely claims relative moral superiority over other meat producers.

  11. zan
    zan says:

    well, jeez, we have to eat SOMETHING.

    i’ve been a vegan (’cause i lived with one), a vegetarian (’cause i became a yogi AND studied the ill effects of meat eating on our intestinal system and meat production on our ecological system), and an atkinsian mega-meateater (’cause i was told my hypoglycemic body needed more animal protein). now, i’ve landed on a diet of fish and vegetables and a little whole grain. and the occasional chocolate.

    but that’s right for ME.

    i’m weary of people telling each other what’s right for them is right for everyone. to quote my north carolina grandmother nellie (who grew vegetables and raised animals during the depression and killed many a critter in her 100 years to feed her 9 children and her hard-working self) — “hush up and eat.”

  12. karelys
    karelys says:

    It seems to me that most people’s idea that meat eating is unethical comes from the inhumane treatment of animals.

    In a selfish retoric I’d want to treat animals very well so that they won’t be stressed so that meat that goes in my body doesn’t wreck havoc in my hormonal balance.

    Living in poverty for the majority of your life affords you a perspective you can’t unsee later on; even if you become rich. Like how animals are not of higher value than people. Treating animals better just for the sake of being humane, without any benefit whatsoever to human, is odd.

    And then people go about donating money to save bunnies and dogs, plaster their naked bodies on billboards trying to encourage you to go vegetarian or whatever because it’s humane. Then not even half way around the globe people are dying of starvation, fetuses have more rights and personhood than their mothers, rape kits are back logged, etc.

    It’s a mess.

    So hard to compare slave owners who were humane to cattle owners/consumers who are humane.

    If there is going to be an essay that presents the idea that meat eating can be ethical and humane it is one that shows the owner respecting nature’s cycle and getting up in the middle of the night in a storm to go rescue a baby cow, or spend more money (while profits are not huge) to make nice apartments for pigs to give birth and who is anal about not letting anyone walk into the farm with other animals’ poop in your soles lest you are bioweapon.

    I like this essay because if you are to persuade, it’s got the emotional punch to get the reader thinking from this perspective. It’s got a point about money and respect of nature and customer relationships. I thought it’d be packed with scientific research and statistics and such.

    I almost didn’t read it because of that assumption. It just becomes white noise after a while. Maybe it’s because I’m annoyed at people who treat animals oh so humanely but humans who are not kin or friends like scum.

  13. Anita Junttila
    Anita Junttila says:

    I agree with your ‘argument’ completely! I was raised a vegetarian. My sisters and parents still don’t eat meat. I do. I love it. I live in a town surrounded my farms. I get some of the best grass raised, ‘loved’ beef around. The chicken too. Yum. I can also get a really nice locally grown organic wine too . . . Right now we are eating a moose my husband and his son killed this past winter. We are running low and I’m looking forward to this winter having the freezer stocked again with the leanest, most delicious moose meat. The elitest attitude of some of the vegans and veggies out here make me a little crazy. I hear about it from my family a lot. I live on the west coast. Full of granola munching vegetarians. There are times when I want to move to Calgary. I would be so at home . . . turned this comment into a bit of a rant . . .yikes!

  14. CJ
    CJ says:

    I really enjoyed this essay. I agree with those that don’t find it to be so much or enough of an ethical piece but I do see it as a beginning to a great story. Have you read the Dirty Life by Kristen Kimbal? I can see you relating to her story in a big way, but you have a unique perspective with your work/business/travel life, coupled with the homeschooling. I hope your savvy editor nudges you to write this as a book.

  15. John
    John says:

    Great essay, Penelope.

    But I wish you’d turned the comments off for this post.

    The vegans are so smug and so boring.

  16. CN
    CN says:

    Cute, I guess. I also (mostly) agree with you. But I think this an essay about “Macbeth” without discussing Macbeth. Vegetarians like me don’t eat meat because it has become industrialized, and because it is industrialized, it is not ethical. Therein lies the global problem – affecting the environment, exploiting workers, and yes, mistreating animals.

  17. Sandy
    Sandy says:

    IMO, being born an omnivore makes it ethical to eat other animals. I’m not religious, but if God made me this way, then so be it. We were all born omnivores, but I think it is part of your own personal belief system to choose to be vegetarian or vegan – like giving up meat on Fridays for Lent if you are Catholic. But here is a question I have always wondered: What do ethics-based vegans or vegetarians feed their dogs and cats? Isn’t most pet food made from animal protein? Are the animals that go into pet food treated humanely? I doubt it.

  18. gradalis
    gradalis says:

    Penelope, it is very borderline to fall in love with a person who cooks you meat on the first date while knowing you’re vegetarian. This has nothing to do with ethics of meat-eating.
    Non-borderlines would hear alarm bells from all over the place, and would never come back. Quite right too.
    I am borderline too, though mildly. I’m also a vegetarian. I like to believe that, in a situation like that, i would run for my life. But i wouldn’t bet on it.

  19. Jason
    Jason says:

    It all begins with our food, what we eat is sacred and should be considered with the highest wisdom. We are what we eat and from our food our thoughts and actions arise. Where does your food come from and what is the TRUE cost of it getting this to your plate? Think about being kind to animals and stop eating them. If you do this a whole new world of food and health will open up for you.

  20. Elizabeth R
    Elizabeth R says:

    This needs a stronger argument. What about the methane gas pollution and what happens to the meat when it leaves the farm? Does it get sprayed with ammonia and get the pink slime? What about making this more personal to you and talk about how your health changed since eating meat or cooking for yourself? How does the farmer feel when the cows go off to slaughter? How does your family talk about vegetarians or about McDonalds? Give us something more interesting!

  21. Jason
    Jason says:

    Well, I believe, we have to eat something to survive, and everything we can eat on the entire planet has LIFE, so it does not make much of difference whether it is plants or animals. Does it?


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