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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Everything is Copy: The food chain

Once, when I lived in North Carolina, I brought Emma to a pig-pickin’.

A pig-pickin’ is as Southern as sweetened tea, invasive kudzu vines and the handy gender-inclusive construction “y’all.” At a pig-pickin’ an entire hog is roasted and pieces of meat are chopped or pulled off. Inevitably, many tasty morsels fall to the ground beneath the grill.

That’s where my plus-one planted herself.

While I was mingling, Emma ignored people who were mostly delighted – and a little shocked – to see her there and snarfed up so much pork she had to go lie down in the shade, belly distended and moan.

So I stashed her in the car while I said my goodbyes. In those few moments, she rooted around in my purse, gnawed on a tube of pricey lipstick, and smeared it all over the front seat.

Emma, you may have already deduced, was a handful.

She was also a pig.

The 50-pound Vietnamese pot-bellied porker was smarter than most 3-year-old children, slept in the bed between the sheets and ate bacon whenever she got the chance and without qualms.

Emma lived, in fact, a qualm-free existence.

She was an exemplar of the “Me” generation, a Master of the Universe like the Wall Street honchos who made “Greed is good” their motto in the ’80s. The pig had no moral center. Like many politicians and some Supreme Court justices, she never showed a whiff of shame about her bad behavior.

As unprincipled as Emma was, she also made me rethink my vegetarianism. I’d decided to stop eating meat some years before she came into my life, and I had to figure out what would be OK to consume. Only plants? Nothing with a face? No one who runs away?

At the time, in the throes of a midlife crisis, I had decided after a career in publishing to apply to medical school (I got in but came to my senses before matriculating). While taking a required pre-med course in biology, I came up with my dietary answer: I would not eat my relatives.

I proclaimed myself an invertebratarian and consumed only living things not in my phylum: spendy shellfish like shrimp, scallops and lobster.

This worked for a while until I began running so many miles I was always anemic. I thought to prescribe myself an occasional “medicinal steak” – because, you see, my body needed iron. Not because, when cooked medium rare and accompanied by a loaded baked potato and cheesy broccoli, a NY strip is the world’s most delicious meal.

Plus, there was the example of Emma. That little porkchop wolfed down flesh of all kinds. Since pot-bellied pigs are prone to obesity, I kept her on a strict diet and took her on forced marches. Left to her own devices, she would have eaten everything in sight. No one could deny she was at the top of the food chain. Me, too.

For the past two decades, I’ve eaten meat. Worthless in the kitchen, I never cook at home. And, as an introverted neurotic, I rarely go out. So, I don’t eat much meat, but I sure enjoy it when I get the chance. (Cheeseburgers!)

I delight in being able to say, when asked about my food restrictions, that I’ve got none (save a slight distaste for avocados and kale, which I find a tad self-righteous). I’m pro-gluten, lactose-positive and a carnivore. Each fall when I visit friends in Montana my first question is, “Got anything yet?” I love elk when it comes on a plate, though I avert my eyes from hunting porn photos of people posed with dead critters. I have long cherished my hypocrisy.

Recently, one of my friends was excited to see octopus on a menu. Another in our group said, “I can’t do octopus. Too smart.”

It pained me to acknowledge that I had been thinking the same thing. Even a shallow dive into knowledge of these beings can leave you feeling that eating them would be worse than dining with the Donner Party.

Then, sadly, I kept thinking. If you ever have to give a talk, try practicing on a bunch of cows. They pay closer attention than most of my students. Pigs love to be scratched on their sides and will keel over in bliss. There are more pet chickens than dogs in my neighborhood. Not long ago I published a book about rats – the smartest and sweetest of creatures. Animals have always been my people.

But more important, I thought about the fact that sources I find entirely credible say climate change is going to take us all out, sooner rather than later. While not quite as self-indulgent and environmentally hostile an act as booking a suborbital joy-ride, chowing down on commercially raised meat is contributing to the destruction of our ailing planet.

I would prefer not to be a vegetarian. (Cheeseburgers!)

But, unlike my beloved Emma, I am at heart a moral creature.

This means I must think about what I eat, where it came from, and how it got to my plate.

Rachel Toor is a professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University. She is the author of one novel and five books of nonfiction.

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