My Nani – my Italian-American grandmother – was brought up during the Great Depression. She used to tell the story of how her immigrant father would walk miles to his dangerous job building bridges on the outskirts of the small town where she was brought up. “His greatest pride,” she would say while adding a third baseball-sized meatball to my mound of spaghetti and sauce, “was that he could provide meat for his family every Sunday.” Meat, for her, was part of her culture and represented more than merely nutrition.
Eating meat was a given when I was growing up in an Italian-American household in Western New York. I was brought up to believe that it was necessary for health, yes, but it was also a sign of hospitality, of prosperity, and of the culture my grandparents left behind in Italy to help ensure that their children and grandchildren would have more opportunities than they had growing up – a story recounted in many variations across the United States and around the world. Nani has been gone now almost twenty years, and what I remember most about her is that she showed her love through food – and plain pasta and sauce was never enough. No meal, large or small, was complete without the offer of meat, whether it was beef bracciole or veal meatballs or seven fishes on Christmas Eve. Nani was by many standards a highly ethical woman – she attended church regularly, offered those less fortunate many forms of charity, and exhibited great compassion, moderation and a strong work ethic. While she may not have used the term “ethical” to describe her choice to eat meat, I believe she would have argued that her primary concern was for her fellow humans – and to feed them in what manner she knew how (for her ultimate show of love and caring was to cook a true Italian meal for another) would be the most ethical decision she could make.
I have had the opportunity to travel to southern Italy where my extended family is from, and to disparate locations around the world. I have found in each place that I have learned more about the people and culture through shared meals than in any other way. And I am hard pressed to remember a meal that did not include meat. Most definitions of “ethics” are reflective of cultural values and moral conduct in a strong human society. My ethics include finding ways to relate to and understand my fellow humans; I have been brought up to believe, and have also found through experience, that relating through food and food culture is often the quickest route to greater understanding and empathy.
I eat meat for a variety of reasons – in part because my body truly feels healthier when I consume it in moderation at least once a day – and I strive to source all of my meat and dairy sustainably. But no matter where I am, whether I am in someone’s home in this country or visiting a local restaurant halfway around the globe, I will eat what is served to me or choose a meal that represents the local culture, whether or not it contains meat, and without questioning the providence of the ingredients. For I believe that my ethical obligations lie first with my fellow humans. To take part in the most telling of human interactions, and one of the most intimate: the sharing of a meal that represents one’s culture and beliefs – is the best way to honor that.