I’m not one of those vegetarians who can’t stand the taste of meat. In fact, I envy those sorts. I was once a carnivore in a big way.
I write this four years to the day after my last taste of the stuff. The scene was the popular “All-You-Can-Eat Chicken Wings Night” at The Ground Round in South Burlington, Vermont. I can honestly say that before that night I’d never entertained the slightest thought of giving up meat. Vegetarians? An odd, self-depriving lot, driven by mysterious motives which I certainly didn’t care to find out about. Me? Only an occasional creamed or buttered vegetable would interrupt my chuck steaks and whole roasted chickens. When I got too fat every couple months or so I’d fast until my weight reached its high-school-level target. Fasting was no major endeavor, it was just part of the routine.
Well, that night my friend and I were each presented with a basket of twenty chicken wings, which we devoured as fast as we could lop on the dripping blue-cheese sauce. As was my custom at all-you-can-eat anything, I planned to bankrupt the restaurant by eating many times the monetary value of $4.49 I paid. Between mouthfuls, I noticed eight large, raucous men, elbow-to-elbow at a table piled high with empty baskets of chicken wings. The waitress was placing down several more. One of the eight was a fellow I knew but hadn’t seen for over a year. Then, he had actually been quite trim.
I’d never entertained the slightest thought of giving up meat. Vegetarians? An odd, self-depriving lot, driven by mysterious motives which I certainly didn’t care to find out about.
I sauntered over and said hello. Rick, his mouth brimming, was surprised and glad to see me. I was witnessing a chicken wing-eating contest, he told me. I surveyed the large, greasy-fingered men and tried to estimate who was ahead from the piles of chicken bones and mounds of gooey napkins in front of them. “I’m winning!” Rick suddenly roared. “Number ninety-two right here!” he exalted, shoving the entire wing in his mouth.
My stomach clenched. My body shook. At that moment, age 29, I felt a strange type of revulsion I’d never experienced before.
I returned to find a fresh basket of twenty wings at my table. I eyed it suspiciously. What’s going on? Trying to be nonchalant with my friend, I ate a few wings anyway and resumed some forced conversation. Soon I felt better and we were each onto our third basket.
Suddenly, cheers erupted from across the room. I meandered over to learn that Rick, standing with both greasy fists waving high in victory, had edged out his buddy by eating chicken wing number 126. His buddy was in the bathroom, vomiting.
For the first time, I wholly grasped what wings are. Wings of real, breathing, strutting, living chickens… Wings that stretch and flutter, and could even fly.
I stumbled back to my table, now very confused. I could no longer maintain eye contact with my friend. Instead, I stared at the pile of chicken bones.
Bones of chickens.
For the first time, I wholly grasped what wings are. Wings of real, breathing, strutting, living chickens. Wings. Wings that stretch and flutter, and could even fly. This wasn’t the sparkling, plastic-wrapped, feather-and-blood-free stuff neatly displayed at the supermarket — which of course I knew came from dead chickens but somehow, on some level, didn’t comprehend it. No, these were wings. They were flesh and tendons and joints, just like my own. Twenty-two living birds, killed so that I could eat 44 chicken wings in a matter of minutes. I suddenly remembered my bird, a beloved and friendly parakeet, which I had cherished for nearly ten years. I was devastated when he died before my eyes. Now, dead birds rested in a basket in front of me, piping hot, prepared for me to eat. My stomach was already stuffed with them. And they were killed, their precious lives taken away, just for me.
Four years later my weight holds steady at high-school levels without fasting. I feel healthier, more energetic, more alive. Yet I wonder: was I destined to become a vegetarian, or, had I not chosen to eat at the Ground Round four years ago, would I still be grilling steak?
Eddy Bikales is a video documentary producer for a major Protestant denomination. He lives in New York and Vermont.