The Butcher and the Vegetarian: One Woman's Romp Through a World of Men, Meat, and Moral Crisis

The Butcher and the Vegetarian: One Woman's Romp Through a World of Men, Meat, and Moral Crisis

by Tara Austen Weaver

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Growing up in a family that kept jars of bean sprouts on its windowsill before such things were desirable or hip, Tara Austen Weaver never thought she'd stray from vegetarianism. But as an adult, she found herself in poor health, and, having tried cures of every kind, a doctor finally ordered her to eat meat. Warily, she ventured into the butcher shop, and as the man behind the counter wrapped up her first-ever chicken, she found herself charmed. Eventually, he dared her to cook her way through his meat counter.

As Tara navigates through this new world—grass-fed beef vs. grain-fed beef; finding chickens that are truly free-range—she's tempted to give up and go back to eating tempeh. The more she learns about meat and how it's produced, and the effects eating it has on the human body and the planet, the less she feels she knows. She embarks upon a sometimes hilarious, sometimes frightening whirlwind tour that takes her from slaughterhouse to chef's table, from urban farm to the hearthside of cow wranglers. Along the way, she meets an unforgettable cast of characters who all seem to take a vested interest in whether she opts for turnips or T-bones. The Butcher and the Vegetarian is the rollicking and relevant story of one woman's quest to reconcile a nontraditional upbringing with carnal desires.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781605291826
Publisher: Potter/Ten Speed/Harmony/Rodale
Publication date: 02/02/2010
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 240
File size: 315 KB

About the Author

TARA AUSTEN WEAVER, a freelance writer and developmental book editor, started her popular food blog, Tea&Cookies, in 2006 and writes daily for food media blog, She serves on the executive committee of Litquake, San Francisco's annual literary festival, and pioneered the wildly successful Lit Crawl, an event that draws more than 200 authors and crowds of more than 5,000. She lives in San Francisco and Seattle.

Read an Excerpt


A First Flirtation with Meat

It is the week before Saint Patrick's Day, and the butcher shop is awash in green. There are shamrocks decorating the walls, bags of Irish soda bread for sale, offers of free cabbage to go with your corned beef. As the butcher rings up my purchase, he looks up at me.

"Have you ordered your corned beef yet?"

I have never eaten corned beef in my life, but I hesitate to tell the butcher this. He seems so friendly, like a kindly uncle, and I don't want him to think less of me. What is corned beef anyway? I am fairly sure there is no actual corn involved, but you never can tell. I pause, not wanting to come out and say it, but at last I do.

The butcher doesn't say anything, he just stands there, staring at me. Into the gulf of silence between us I toss an excuse, inadequate and offered lamely.

"I'm not Irish?"

He laughs. "You don't have to be Irish to eat corned beef!"

I then begin my confession, the one I shamefacedly pull out in situations like this. "I grew up in a vegetarian household. I don't know what to do with large pieces of meat. They scare me." Understanding begins to dawn on his face.

"If you need any suggestions for how to cook things," he says, "I can help."

I laugh. Me--cook meat? The idea is actually funny.

"Maybe I'll just start at one end of the shop and cook my way to the other," I joke. "I could do a different cut each month." The butcher laughs too, but he is serious in his offer. The idea is terrifying and slightly ridiculous to me, but I realize that, as I leave the store, a seed has been planted.

Could I really learn to cook meat? Would I even want to?

The bigger question, of course, is how does a vegetarian find herself in a butcher shop in the first place? I can count on one hand the number of butcher shops I've been in--two, maybe three. There's never been a need. I don't buy or cook meat, it's as simple as that.

Unlike most vegetarians who adopt the lifestyle as adults or in an act of youthful rebellion, I was raised meat free from birth. My diet consisted of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and tofu, not a bit of flesh in sight. While our neighbors sat down to meat loaf, hot dogs, or fried chicken, my family was tucking into plates of steamed vegetables and brown rice. By the age of 10, I was an expert on millet, barley, and buckwheat. I know the technical difference between tofu and tempeh, but nothing in my background prepared me for blood or bones.

What am I doing in a butcher shop? I can answer that question in two words: doctor's orders. It certainly wasn't my idea.

The problems started when I was about 12--mild fatigue and weight gain after a childhood where I had been lean and active. The doctors diagnosed me as having a low-functioning thyroid gland and prescribed a supplement to correct it. My symptoms persisted, even on the medication. I woke up tired every morning and couldn't lose weight. Around this time I was given a questionnaire that asked: If you could spend a day doing anything in the world, what would it be? Other kids wrote horseback riding or Disneyland. My answer: sleep.

I continued to be active, as much as possible. I ran cross-country in the fall and swam laps before school. As I got older I worked as a backpacking instructor in the summers. I watched my diet as well. Despite plenty of broccoli and salads with no dressing, I remained plump, the only round member of the cross-country team.

My doctor didn't seem worried. Once I started on the thyroid medication my lab results returned to the normal range. According to the numbers, I was fine. The fact that I didn't feel fine seemed a lesser concern.

I muddled through as best I could, exercising and dieting the way they told me to in the magazines. I hoped that if I worked hard enough, I might look like the women I saw in those glossy pages: beautiful, sought after, smiling, happy. At the age of 12, I was waking up early to shower, don a leotard, and do calisthenics before sitting down to a breakfast of half a grapefruit and a slice of dry whole wheat toast.

Still my metabolism wouldn't cooperate. In high school I had a brush with anorexia that lasted about 4 hours. When I skipped breakfast and lunch and came close to fainting in my fourth-period journalism class, I realized that going without food wasn't an option for me. Eating healthfully seemed my best hope, though that didn't work either.

I continued to consult doctors. An endocrine specialist I saw after college told me to limit my carbohydrates and eat more protein. I was living in Japan at the time and horrified my friends and colleagues there by turning down bowls of rice. Instead I ate cartons of low-fat cottage cheese, blocks of tofu, and plenty of vegetables. I even ate fish, which I've never liked. Nothing made a difference. I was always tired, my weight 10 to 20 £ds over where the charts said I should be.

When I returned from Asia, I consulted a naturopathic doctor. He put me on a series of herbal tinctures ordered from Europe, daily doses of barley green powder and rice protein. There were endless tests: blood, saliva, and a hair sample sent off to a faraway lab to check for abnormal levels of heavy metals.

The results seemed to mystify my doctor. More than once he called the lab for confirmation because he had never seen anything like it. I had weird hormone levels, sky-high progesterone ("No wonder you can't lose weight," he said). Perhaps it was the shampoo I was using, he suggested, or a body lotion. I might be sensitive to such things. The lab said they had seen cases like it before.

I systematically discontinued and spoke with the manufacturer of every product that came in contact with my skin, to see if it might be the source of this excess progesterone. They all told me it couldn't possibly be their products making me sick.

Things got worse as time passed. I grew more and more exhausted. Some mornings I woke up and put on my running clothes, as usual, and walked the half block to Golden Gate Park and the beginning of my daily run. I'd stand at the corner waiting for the light to change, and I knew I didn't have it in me. My legs felt weak, my head was light. I couldn't even trust myself to walk the route. What if I passed out and some stranger found me unconscious and crumpled on the sidewalk? I turned around and shuffled the half block home, blinking back tears. I fell into bed, pulled the covers over me, and wept.

When a friend of mine recommended her acupuncturist, saying "She changed my life," it got my attention. Perhaps Chinese medicine held the key to my mysterious health problems. What did I have to lose? I made an appointment.

That afternoon my pulses were timed, my tongue inspected. The acupuncturist told me that my system was weak. This, of course, was no surprise to me.

I should avoid raw foods, she told me, they are hard to digest. Ginseng tea with ginger should be drunk each morning to give warmth. She gave me a small bag of herbs specially selected for my constitution. These are important, she said. They were to be stewed in chicken stock. I should make the stock myself, from chicken bones I could buy at the nearby butcher shop. They weren't on display, but I could ask for them.

"But I don't really eat meat," I explained somewhat apologetically. I always feel bad letting people down.

The acupuncturist brushed off my protest.

"Your system is weak," she repeated. "You need to prioritize your health-- you need to take care of yourself."

Have I not been taking care of myself?

Faced with such a barely veiled accusation, I did the only thing it seemed I could do. I went to the butcher shop.

Drewes Bros. Meats on Church Street in San Francisco is one of those old- school butchers: part meat shop, part community center. The regular customers talk and joke with the butchers and go home with paper-wrapped ribs or roasts under their arms. Kids grow up here, brought in strollers by their parents, then as toddlers and teenagers. There's often a dog tied up out front. Drewes is one of the cornerstones of this sleepy little neighborhood. Established in 1889, it is thought to be the oldest operating butcher shop in California. It is into this piece of San Francisco history that I walk when my acupuncturist sends me in search of chicken bones.

The long glass cases along the left side of the shop are filled with sausages, prepared meat loaves, chicken breasts, fillets, and roasts. There are names I've heard before but do not know what they mean--sirloin, tri tip, porterhouse. As new customers come into the shop, I let them go ahead of me, pretending that I'm weighing the merits of London broil over sirloin. The mere idea is laughable to me--what on earth is a London broil? What's a sirloin? I feel rooted to the spot, too terrified to order, too frightened to leave. I wonder if they've seen my type before: the vegetarian who begins to stray.

One of the butchers looks at me, already impatient. "What can I get you?"

I try to act casual, but I have to clear my throat before I can manage to say "Chicken pieces, for stock." It comes out as more of a squawk than I had planned.

The butcher doesn't seem to notice. He nods and turns away from the display case, disappearing into a door that I imagine leads to some gore-splattered back room. He emerges with a clean plastic bag filled with a large frozen lump. I pay quickly, avoiding all eye contact, and walk off with my shameful purchase. I wonder if I should be emblazoned with a scarlet letter: C, for carnivore.

At home I boil the frozen lump and the acupuncturist's herbs, with as little touching of the meat as possible. The stock tastes awful, bitter from the herbs and slightly medicinal, a fact I take comfort in. This is something I am doing for a doctor, after all. I'm certainly not buying meat for my own pleasure. That would be bad.

I don't yet know that this bowl of chicken stock will set in motion a journey, an inquiry that will lead me to reevaluate the basic assumptions of my childhood, to question my place in the world and the nature of our humanity. Like Persephone and the pomegranate, a mere taste will irrevocably change my life.

Who knew a bag of chicken parts could get a girl into so much trouble?

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The Butcher and the Vegetarian: One Woman's Romp Through a World of Men, Meat, and Moral Crisis 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I'm a long time vegetarian and enjoyed this book. I think it was interesting to hear the author's views on eating meat after being a vegetarian for so long (even though she did dabble with meat in her past so not completely new to her). It was very funny and I really loved her style and sense of humor. She did a lot of research and experienced all sides of meat eating and the meat industry. I will say that her descriptions of her meat meals made this long time veg's mouth water!
MotherLodeBeth More than 1 year ago
This is one of those books I want every meat eater to read. The chapters on the Prather Ranch up north of me near the Oregon border is one of the finest chapters of any food book I have ever read. The fact a woman I adore, admire and have some things in common with, Temple Grandin of Colorado State University is mentioned only made the piece better. Since I was raised in a hunting family where it was mandatory that we thanked the animal we were about to take for meat. Chapter Twelve is great because I see so many people cooking meat incorrectly and alas, unhealthy, and this chapter is a how to on cooking and in cooking right so you have NO waste. God I hate food waste. Getting back to the Prather Ranch which is a ten star set up where nothing is wasted, feed is raised on site and the cows are NOT finished off in some feed lot being fed corn which adds weight but is poorly digested. I want people to read this book and then demand, yes demand more Prather Ranch set ups, where a quick profit isn't the goal, but the healthiest beef, raised in a sustainable, environmentally sound ways as possible. Chapter 20 to which is titled How It Ends brings up some interesting questions.. The author notes on page 213 'Vegetarians are quieter with their opinions', which may be the case for her and her journey, which includes going back to being a non meat eater, but that's not the case with most people I have encountered and I am 80% vegetarian, or lacto ova (eat dairy and eggs). She also notes 'Many months and many hamburgers later, I still don't have a conclusive answer as to whether we humans should be eating meat or not.' Those who wonder if humans should eat meat, or those who believe humans should not eat meat, tend (in my view) to come at the issue from a comfortable, plentiful food supply here in the developed world place. Fact is native people in places above the arctic circle would perish if they didn't eat meat and seafood. They simply do not have ready access to the fruits, vegetables, and grains that I have access to. The poor nomadic people of dessert regions have to consume milk items they make from the camel, ox, horses milk.
Christine_Emming More than 1 year ago
Rife with ethical dilemmas, The Butcher and the Vegetarian follows author Tara Austen Weaver's struggle with eating and health. Raised on a strict, vegetarian diet she's been happy to follow into her thirties, Tara suddenly finds meat-eating the doctor's orders. And then multiple doctors' orders. What to do? How to start? Weaver's meandering tale is pure foodie flip-floppery, as she eats in ways that defy a label, trying to take her waning health in hand. What we're eating is a charged choice these days, ethically speaking, from winter tomatoes to organic labelling issues. It's rare to grow up veg and not have your choices challenged by friends, relatives, and even medical personnel, though you, like me, may be a nonconfrontational person who doesn't object to others' carnivorism and simply prefers a face-free, guiltless diet. Weaver's embracing approach to all the major eating groups - meat-loving to raw - sets the tone for a truly unbiased memoir of one woman's journey to find her ideal diet, food to replenish sapped energy levels and fuel her adventurous spirit. Weaver balances the scale between improved personal health and minimized environmental impact by thoroughly researching her food's origins. Even if it means visiting a grass-fed beef ranching operation on slaughtering day and then downing a burger afterwards, Weaver proves it's possible to make to make food decisions - meat or veg - that one can proudly defend. In the end, Weaver shares a personal experience and ends with a personal choice, one she admits is far from where she began and never expected to find herself. While Weaver's eating habits may not be my own, this is a woman I'd invite to dinner for her thoughtful, open approach to both food and friendship. Find this review and more at