Garbanzo Beans for Breakfast
When I was sixteen, I told my best friend that I could never become a vegetarian because I loved steak too much. I understand the allure of red meat, the chewy toughness, like slightly worn out gum, dripping and juicy, pressed and grinding in your jaw. My father used to grill steaks out in the summer, and I remember vividly jamming toothpicks between my teeth after those July meals, grey-black steaks peppery and flavored with nothing more than the juice caught up in the muscle of the animal, corn on the cob dripping with butter and salt. The stringy tendrils of silk and shreds of flesh caught in my mouth. So, I get it. Meat tastes good. Do we really have to give it up?
What if, instead of thinking of this as sacrifice, we think of it simply as cutting back? And cutting back to only once a week, which is not exactly a rarity. This barely even makes steak night a treat. Once a week, red meat becomes a habit rather than an extravagance. What if we remember that, with every extra bacon-double cheeseburger, we are slowly killing ourselves?
This is what I began to remember in Ghana, feeling the familiar stirring in the pit of my stomach. The sensation of helplessness and rage and obligation that combines to form activism. I remembered that I lived in a world of gross inequality. I began to feel and sound, I know, like the girl with the lip piercings again. What I learned in Africa was that, shaved head or no, there are some things worth fighting for. I am not willing to live in a world where some people die from consuming too much meat and others die from not consuming enough. I can still love steak and only eat it once a week.
Bushmeat & McDonalds’ Drive-Thrus
A Biological Anthropology Approach to Understanding the Evolution of Differing Human Dietary Needs
One of the most charming things about being a vegetarian is the angry folk—the people who, for some reason, are so outraged that a person would ever voluntarily give up eating meat that they seek to engage you in constant argument about why that was a really bad decision on your part. I heard a lot of complaints over seven years: I was putting America’s farmers out of business, I was an elitist and a snob, that soy is really bad for people, that I couldn’t possibly be getting my necessary amounts of protein, iron, vitamin b-12, omega-3 fatty acids. But one of my favorites was, and still is, the claim that humans are meant to eat meat.
Senior year of college. As a writing major, I had a lot of friends who were the artsy creative type, so we often spent our weekends cheering for each other at comedy open-mics, enduring painful karaoke bars, posing in each other’s photo shoots, and starring in each other’s student films. Which is how I ended up spending an entire, excruciating weekend, at my friend Jess’s childhood home in New Jersey, listening to lectures from my co-star, Bob, who had grown up on a cattle ranch in North Dakota. When we ordered dinner Saturday night, writing a list for Jess’s mom who was driving to the local sub shop for sandwiches, I asked for the veggie sub. Bob, all freckles and curly blonde hair, six feet Midwestern tall, squinted his blue eyes at me and said, “Please. Tell me you’re not a vegetarian.”
I was. And so I had to endure a half hour of Bob’s sermon on the American culture of ranching and the nutritional benefits of meat-eating. I knew that Bob was from a ranch, and I knew that ranches in the United States were suffering, and I knew that Bob was just reacting emotionally, viscerally, to the idea that I was robbing his family of some much-needed business. So I listened to his diatribe, annoyed but silent, until he shrugged and said, “Whatever. You’re going to die younger. Humans are biologically programmed to eat meat.”
I had had enough. “Bob,” I said, “aside from it being incredibly rude to tell someone they’re going to die, that’s not true.” I told Bob I’d done my research and the human body, in its current incarnation of evolutionary progress, with the resources for alternative protein sources currently available, does not need meat to survive.
What I learned in Ghana, what I’ve learned in the years since that conversation, is that nothing is that simple.
Biological anthropologists study the evolution of modern humans by examining both hominid fossils and modern human populations, trying to draw connections from past to present. They hypothesize, because of what they know about bones and brain size, about bipedalism and cranial anatomy, that modern humans still inhabit prehistoric bodies. So, the nutritional requirements of modern humans were probably established at some point in our past, as part of an endless cycle of evolution. The food we ate dictated how and in what ways our bodies were able to grow and change, and our new bodies affected our ability to gather, prepare and eat new foods.
But complications arise when examining the diets of early hominids, in order to determine which diet might best fit our existing bodies, because early hominids ate many different types of diets over the last five million years or so. Australopithecines of Africa were scavengers, eating a mixed diet of animal protein killed by other animals, plants and nuts. Homo erectus was a hunter who used stone tools and developed the ability to cook or roast animal flesh, who also ate plants extensively. Neanderthals hunted large game in cold climates, relying on fruits and nuts during the coldest months when access to animal game was limited. And the earliest incarnations of Homo sapiens hunted small mammals, dug and foraged plants, and picked berries. Importantly, these early humans—who would not look out of place if they walked among us today—developed the ability to gather wild grains to grind and bake into breads or cakes. Later, descendants of the same species, our most recent chronological ancestors, ate a fully mixed diet: roots, fruits, leafy vegetables, nuts, and a small proportion of animal fat, smaller than during periods earlier in human history.
So the question is not only what did our ancestors eat but also who are our ancestors?