Shortly after becoming a vegetarian, I got a new belt buckle. This was in Vancouver, during the heady days of 2006, when everyone seemed to own an oversized, intentionally gaudy pants-fastener – sort of like an ironic T-shirt, only harder to read. Mine was a big metal oval declaring me class champion of Farm Fair 1997 in the Sr. Galloway bull category. I didn’t know what any of those words meant. But the buckle looked cool, and I thought it was hilarious, given my recent decision to stop eating meat, for ethical reasons. How complex I was!
The buckle was a gift from my girlfriend, Kate, who’d lifted it from her parents’ house the last time she’d visited home, a farm near Spruce Grove. As it happened, Kate and I moved to Edmonton after graduation, and I brought the Farm Fair belt buckle with me – only now the reactions it drew were different. Now, instead of revelling in the obvious joke, people started asking me more pointed questions. “You show cattle?” they would wonder with genuine interest. Or they’d ask if I knew a friend or a cousin of theirs. Up until that point, the meat industry, to me, had been an abstraction. It hadn’t really occurred to me that these animals were raised by actual people. Yet suddenly I lived among them.
The first time I went to visit Kate’s parents at their farm, I was nervous. A west-coast vegetarian meeting a couple of Alberta cattle farmers, as their herd mooed audibly in the background? A writers’ room couldn’t have drawn it up any better.
But I didn’t even have a chance to bring it up before Kate’s dad did it first. “So I hear you’re a vegetarian,” he said.
I gulped. “Yup, that’s right.”
After a pause, he said, “That makes sense, really. We’d all be better off if we ate less meat.”
Whatever I was expecting, this wasn’t it. First I’d unwittingly moved into a world I only knew as a stereotype, and then I met a pair of farmers – in the heart of cattle country, no less – who upended that stereotype entirely. It turned out that Kate’s parents weren’t cowboys, or aggressive boosters for the beef industry, whose omnipresent “I HEART ALBERTA BEEF” branding I’d seen back in B.C. They didn’t even care about Farm Fair that much (hence why Kate had been able to swipe the buckle so easily in the first place). They were just people who loved being around cows.
Even though 99 per cent of my issues with eating meat don’t apply to Paul and Nancy’s hobby herd – the cows have plenty of space, are well loved, and are removed from the factory-farm equation – I still can’t bring myself to touch the steaks sitting in their freezer. And while food is inherently political, it’s never been an issue between us. We go to the farm for dinner every Sunday, where my mother-in-law still makes a better vegetarian chili than I ever have.