Vegetarian turns to meat

Vegans, fruitarians, flexitarians — we're all familiar with the labels. But what happens when a lifelong vegetarian is forced to go over to the dark side? Health issues prompted Tara Austen Weaver's holistic doctor to suggest that her hummus-loving patient eat some, shhh, chicken — or maybe a steak.

The resulting plunge into the world of butchers, bacon and chicken stock brought Weaver, a San Francisco food writer back to balance and health. Or it did, when she accompanied the flank steak with a fresh kale salad, washed down with a glass of pureed green stuff.

By turns hilarious, poignant and politically aware, Weaver's new memoir, "The Butcher and the Vegetarian" (Rodale, 228 pp., $23.99), shares the realizations and revelations of that journey. Among the insights: that barbecued bacon is amazing, that "meat hangovers" exist — but green juice and raw foods cure all — and that we are all much too quick to slap disparaging labels on fellow diners.

Last week, Weaver took a break to answer questions between book signing gigs in San Francisco and Seattle, her second home.

Q: Omnivores, fruitarians and vegetarians-who-make-an-exception-for-bacon — why are we so quick to categorize?

A: When you label something, it's easier to dismiss. Spending time now in the meat world, I've heard some pretty brutal dismissals of vegetarians and vegans. These are people making a personal choice based on their values. What is to be gained by making fun of them? Then again, there are a lot of vegans and vegetarians going off on meat-eaters and saying they're bloody murderers. I'm all about getting everyone to the table and making sure everyone is happy and satisfied.

Q: How did your vegetarian family take the news that you'd visited a, you know, butcher?

A: I think it was a little hard for my mother. I'd kept it to myself — I'd eat in restaurants and at other people's houses. When I started cooking (meat) at home, she referred to my freezer as a graveyard, because it had animals in it.

Q: You've spent time on both halves of the battlefield — I'm thinking, of course, about the Oakland barbecue fest you describe as Meat Henge.

A: Not having grown up in that culture, I didn't realize how passionate meat eaters are. There's an almost primal relationship to it. It sticks to your ribs in a way that a lot of other things don't. It's a security thing: I'm full now, so I don't have to worry about gathering my food or going to the store. It speaks to our Neanderthal nature.

Q: What do you make of the resurgence of interest in carnivorous dining?

A: A lot of people became vegetarians because of the industrial meat system. They didn't want to support that. Now we're having a bit of a meat renaissance with ethical meat eating. There are people doing it better and doing it small-scale and doing it in a way that's humane — although there are vegetarians who say, killing is not humane. At the end of the day, the more people who know what goes into their food and how it comes to their plate, the better off we are.

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