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If you're going on my plate, I don't want to know your name

Our strange relationship with meat

Susan Reimer

9:58 AM EDT, June 3, 2013

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I have been able to buy eggs and cheese at my farmers market for a couple of summers now, in addition to the herbs, flowers, breads, fruits and vegetables.

But I can buy meat now, too.

The vendors sit behind a cash box on a table with a cooler next to them keeping the meat frozen. There is a price list (this kind of meat is really, really expensive) and a diagram of a cow or a pig, labeled with the various cuts.

There are pictures, too. Of the cows. And they are labeled with the cows' names. I have been afraid to ask whether "Daisy" produced the milk for the cheese, or whether that is part of Daisy there in the cooler. I don't want to know.

In any event, the pictures tend to show the animals in an idyllic pasture, where they eat the grass God intended them to eat instead of being force-fed grain, which they cannot properly digest and which require them to be pumped full of antibiotics. That's to let you know they lived a very happy life before they ended up in the cooler.

The end result of this photographic evidence of sustainability and humane treatment is this: I move to the next booth and buy more vegetables.

I am already vaguely uncomfortable with the idea of slaughtering living creatures so I can have a nice, juicy steak. I sure don't want to get to know them by their first names and see their family photo albums first.

I mean, I had a hard time eating the crabs I caught last summer on my first ever pre-dawn crabbing trip. I don't want a personal relationship with my food, with the stuff that keeps me alive by dying. It is too confusing.

Add to this mix the planned purchase — announced last week — of Smithfield Foods, one of this country's biggest pork producers, by one of China's biggest meat producers. The $4.7 billion deal has brought howls of protest from meat eaters who mistakenly fear that we will be importing pork from China, where food safety is a scandal.

The fact is, we will be shipping our pork to China, which has an increasing appetite for meat. The problem is, much of China's pork is still produced on family farms (do their pigs have names, and are there photos?) and that's no way to satisfy the demands of more than a billion people.

If that isn't ironic, it is at least an amusing coincidence.

I haven't eaten veal since I saw the films of those poor little calves trapped in crates and force-fed milk decades ago. And one look at the crowded lives the chickens live on those factory farms on Maryland's Eastern Shore will put you off your feed, excuse the pun.

Learning the names behind those big brown eyes only makes me want to grill more zucchini this summer, not more steak. My sentimentality is probably good news for my cholesterol levels, anyway.

The truth is, I prepare less and less meat at mealtime, and it is often the side dish, not the main course. An ingredient, not the centerpiece. For years, this freed up money in the budget for things I thought my kids needed more — a math tutor or swim lessons. Now, it is the acceptable behavior. Everybody I know talks about how they are eating less meat.

I almost wish I could go back to the days when eating meat was a budget decision, not one that entangled me in the personal narrative of a cow. When the only controversy around the Sunday ham was whether to bake it with brown sugar or pineapple rings.

A time when dinner wasn't a matter of conscience.

Susan Reimer's column runs Mondays and Thursdays. She can be reached at susan.reimer@baltsun.com and @SusanReimer on Twitter.com.