“Heaven sends us good meat, but the Devil sends cooks.”
~ David Garrick
Preparing dinner that night was complicated. Among the two extended families present we had vegetarians, a vegan, and people that were gluten- and lactose-intolerant. The three different pans of lasagna, salad and bread got everyone something to eat. Dessert was a smorgasbord of berries, ice cream and cookies.
Allergies aside, our eating habits seem to mirror those found in nature — carnivores are meat-eaters (including insects), herbivores are plant-eaters and omnivores eat everything. I kinda like the descriptions the kids in Jurassic Park used to describe the dinosaurs, “Meatasaurus” eat “veggiesaurus.” Nature has its own hierarchy.
Herbivores spend most of their time grazing because the nutrition in vegetation is less per unit than for meat. However, for both carnivores and herbivores, finding the balance of nutrients is important, too. Carnivores need to eat most parts of their prey to achieve a balanced diet — flesh, offal, even some skin and bones.
Many animals, including humans, are omnivores and eat a variety of foods — even scavenging the remains of dead animals. Omnivores are usually opportunists, getting their nutrition through a variety of sources throughout their day. Herbivores graze different places and vegetation to achieve the required balance.
I read a story by a New England birder who documented the bird activity in his yard over several years. He was perplexed by the behavior of a local flock of waxwings (I think) that fed each day in his mulberry bush during the autumn and winter. He noted that they only stayed for a little while, never consuming all the berries, but always leaving some for their next visit.
Humans complicate the natural order in eating (as well as everything else). We can be smart about what to eat or not, based on scientific knowledge about required vitamin, mineral and caloric content. We also complicate our diet by the abundance and variety of foods available to us, and our sense of taste. Fried potatoes are wholesome and healthy, except when we eat too many of them with all the extra salt and ketchup. But what else are you going to have with that Big Mac, a salad?
We also complicate our diets by thinking about it too much. Lions seldom, if ever, consider the moral correctness of eating that bush-buck, but our humanness gives us a sense of responsibility, a moral perspective which leads to some people preferring a vegetarian diet, where animal products are avoided.
An ovo-lacto-vegetarian diet includes both eggs and dairy products along with the veggies, an ovo-vegetarian diet includes eggs but not dairy products, and a lacto-vegetarian diet includes dairy products but not eggs. Pescetarians are vegetarians that eat fish but no mammalian products. Vegans avoid all animal-based substances, including eggs and dairy products. There are dietary vegans, ethical vegans and environmental vegans, with degrees of flesh avoidance and moral responsibility towards animals, such as avoiding beeswax, leather or silk clothing, and goose-fat shoe polish.
Growing up in Fort Worth, TX, a stockyard town, we had easy access to cheap, non-standard meats, such as liver, tongue and sweetbreads. These were used for regular meals cooked by my mother that I didn’t know were unusual until I moved away to college. You could occasionally get liver in a restaurant, but I only found sweetbreads years later in a fancy (expensive) San Francisco place with a French name.
Growing up in a hunting family, I was used to gnawing my way through ‘non-commercial’ meats, too, including bass, catfish, dove, duck, quail, goose, turkey, rabbit and occasionally venison. That same fancy restaurant had quail on the menu at an outrageous price; I had never known how good I had it at home.
But it wasn’t all meat at our house. Being a good southern cook, my mom made sure we had plenty of vegetables at every meal (particularly if you included gravy as a vegetable). I still go nuts for a good baked or fried squash, fried green beans, fried okra, fried onions (get the drift?), cabbage, greens, pinto beans, beets and nearly any other vegetable. And, what’s more omnivorous than a good bowl of chili?
So, despite my carnivorous habits, I do qualify as an omnivore. But it can get pretty savage when you put that plate of BBQ ribs and fried okra in front of me and I dig in. Women and children may wish to avert their eyes.