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Woman, Meat and Morality : What's in a name? A carnivore takes a second look at that which we call barbecued ribs and filet mignon.

September 29, 1993|ELIZABETH WONG | Elizabeth Wong's play, "Letters to a Student Revolutionary," will have its West Coast premiere at East West Players in May, 1994.

I told my mother what happened to me in the supermarket recently, and she told me a story.

When she was a little girl in China, she and her mother were in the marketplace shopping for dinner. My grandmother decided to prepare a delicacy, so she approached the live monkey cages.

My grandmother considered the hairy one, the thin one and the one with the runny nose. Finally, she pointed at the fat one.

"The monkey started throwing other monkeys in front of it," Mom recalled. "It was like the monkey was trying to say, 'Take them instead. Don't take me.' The monkey was so smart. It knew the meaning of grandma's pointed finger. I was sick. I couldn't eat the dinner after that."

The event, ostensibly, was traumatic for her. Her own plate, from then on, was always piled high with greens or other vegetables. But time soon dulled her horror, converting the memory into a quaint story.

Growing up, ours was a meat-eating household. We loved that prime rib. Steak was always rare to medium well. Ribs were charbroiled and smothered in barbecue sauce. With no apologies.

But, one day recently, I blithely picked up a package of boneless breast of chicken, wrapped neatly in cellophane, in a Styrofoam tray, and I was hit with the image of a live animal, with a squawking voice and kicking legs and down feathers. I saw birds crammed into wire cages, their beaks cut off to prevent pecking. I saw them injected with antibiotics and hormones. I saw them plucked and eviscerated.

I moved on. I tried the 1.8 pounds of ground sirloin, extra lean, on sale. But it happened again. I heard the lowing of the cow, the blinking of vacant eyes, the gentle chomping of grasslands. I saw frightened cattle prodded in a killing room, some fully conscious when the knives and shears descended to do their jobs.

I bought the meats and went home. But the feeling of disconnection was gone. The necessary distance between the commodity and the creature, gone. I was left to confront the reality of my happy, unconcerned years at the altar of animal sacrifice.

The blood was always on someone else's hands. In fact, it has always been hard for me to see the connection between the animal and the meat, unrecognizable in its deboned, grill-ready, fileted supermarket presentation.

In the past, I have felt some pangs of guilt, especially when my food resembled the creature. I remember dining once in a restaurant in Beijing where turtle was the soup du jour. I was willing to try the disguised turtle, masquerading as little bite-sized bits. But nothing could get me past the sight of a whole foot clunking about the bottom of my bowl.

Yet, despite the turtle experience, my denial was profound. As a confused, perhaps lapsed meat-eater, I went to the bookstore to do research. Among other things, I read "Diet for a New America," by John Robbins, founder of the EarthSave Foundation and Baskin-Robbins heir, and I began to see the political and environmental ramifications of eating meat.

I looked in the newspaper, and read that less meat may be served in the nation's federally funded school-lunch programs. The school-lunch programs had been flooded with beef when the Agriculture Department's 1985 herd-buyout program to reduce milk prices went awry; nowadays, the USDA says eating less meat is a health issue.

I discussed my supermarket epiphany with my friends Pat, who is a vegetarian, and Jane, who is not. Pat doesn't eat meat primarily for health reasons. She also suggested a spiritual reason, resonating from American-Indian lore. "It's said that, every time you eat meat, because the animals were frightened and suffering, you eat their pain and suffering, you take it into yourself," Pat said.

Jane disagreed. "We eat meat because it's our animal nature. Lots of animals are frightened as they are being chased by other animals in the hunt. We are made to eat meat. That's what my teeth are for."

But as a consumer, aren't we too gentle with ourselves? We call the innards of dead disemboweled baby lambs sweetbreads. We say veal when we talk about dead anemic baby calves. A dead pig is a pork roast. A dead cow is a filet mignon.

The euphemisms made it easy, as Robbins contends. In my mind, I was a consumer, not a killer.

I had stopped seeing the connections. I wanted to revere life, with a capital L, but I ate dead animal flesh. I never questioned the necessity or the sanctity of the little dumb lives offered up to sustain my own important one. But why am I entitled?

Lately, when I plunk down my money, I know my action sanctions a questionable notion, that animals are commodities to be used and farmed for my benefit.

"For whatever happens to the beasts soon happens to man. All things are connected."--Chief Seattle.

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