I have to confess that the tatabra was not the first bite of meat I’ve eaten since arriving in the Community. I have been able to (mostly) maintain my vegetarianism because we do most of our own cooking here. However, when visiting with our neighbors we are invariably offered food, and often it involves, besides the ubiquitous rice and beans, a big hunk of meat. Preceding FOR volunteers have been vegetarians, or even vegans, so a precedent has been set for refusing the meat, but sometimes, as those of you who have traveled in meat-centered countries know, declining a plate of food is not always a viable option. I admit to you all that I have succumbed a couple times.
When going on accompaniment trips like the recent one to La Esperanza I described here, it’s expected that we bring some food that the women in the house where we stay will cook for us. On that first visit to La Esperanza, however, we apparently didn’t bring enough food, so it was decided (unbeknownst to me) that we would pay for a chicken and the women would make sancocho, a traditional soup with meat and plantain, potato and/or yucca. In the morning, therefore, I awoke to the women plucking feathers off of the already-dead chickens, and throughout the morning witnessed the whole elaborate process or making sancocho. The finished product was ready at 10:30 am, though, so even though we had finished breakfast just a couple hours before, we were served a full bowl of sancocho and an arepa (sort of like a biscuit or fat tortilla made of fresh cornmeal) at that early hour. Learning of the chicken-buying arrangement as the plate was handed to me, whispered in English by my teammate Chris who had made the transaction, I had no choice but to eat. Luckily, there were plenty of hungry dogs around more than willing to devour the leftover meat and bone I couldn’t manage to finish.
Just because the community members have seen plenty of vegetarians around here doesn’t mean they understand or ever really accept it. The campesinos here are a strong an example of the power of food culture: they barely understand how we can possibly eat salad or stir fry or any of the comida gringa that we make, let alone how we could get by without a single bit of meat. Anytime someone finds out we’re vegetarian, they’ll ask WHY? – often, the same person will ask on several occasions, as if they still can’t quite believe it.
My reasons for being vegetarian are many, and varied, and include the fact that I haven’t been a meat eater since I was 8 years old, so 18 years later I really don’t have a desire to sit down with a steak. Not wanting to eat meat is incomprehensible here, however, so I typically talk about how full of chemicals, industrialized, and politically problematic meat production is in the U.S. Their response tends to be “well our meat is clean here!” Which is true, since they grow nearly all of the meat they eat, not to mention the corn that feeds their chickens. So then I am sent back to my argument about just not have a desire to eat the meat, and am stuck once again.
Besides, when confronted with the argument that the home-grown meat here is good and clean, it’s tough to disagree. It’s even tougher to disagree when someone questions my desire to get to know the food and culture here. The first time I ate meat here – it was duck – was right after just such a conversation, and I was feeling chastised by comments about closing myself off. I went to visit one of the beautiful and loving abuelas (grandmothers) of the community, and she offered me a steaming plate of duck in a wonderful-smelling tomato and collard sauce, with a fresh arepa to accompany it. I wanted to accept this gift; I saw that this meat really was completely outside of the industrial agriculture system I protest with my vegetarianism; the abuela’s smile was so sweet: I couldn’t refuse. I definitely don’t intend to make meat-eating a habit, however!