Twenty-three years ago, I ceased eating meat. Over time, I’ve gone through incarnations of eating seafood and not eating seafood (currently it’s on the menu); but I freely admit that I’ve never given as much thought to the why of my pisco-lacto-vegetarianism as has the gifted writer, (and thoughtful eater), Tovar Cerulli.
In The Mindful Carnivore: A Vegetarian’s Hunt for Sustenance (Pegasus Books, 2012), Cerulli beautifully chronicles his philosophical approach to eating and living. The book follows his journey from eschewing not only flesh but all animal products—such as milk and honey—to becoming, improbably, a hunter of deer in New England’s woods.
Rest assured, his journey is far from a navel-gazing or vain adventure. In his writing, Cerulli interweaves literary influences and meditations that span from Buddhism to animal-rights ethics to farming to hunting. It’s an approach that augments the threads of his personal life narrative with a broader connection to the link between the ethics of how animals (both wild and domestic) are treated in our normal channels of food production—even the organic farming of vegetables.
The vast array of sources Cerulli draws upon reveal his deep interest in pursuing “mindful” eating, and exposes his driving mission to seek out the “right” way to live. I interpreted this “right path,” in his view, to be one of minimal impact to the natural world, but also one that yields a healthy diet and a deep personal connection to food and how it is produced.
One of the things I most appreciated about Cerulli’s book is the honesty he demonstrates in anecdote after anecdote when explaining how his thoughts and attitudes toward food, and animals in particular, have changed over time. In the beginning he shares cherished memories of fishing as a child, and of eating his catch. We learn of his attempts later in life when he is vegan to create and maintain a vegetable garden with his wife, and the moral dilemma posed by raiding groundhogs, deer and even squash beetles. After coming to terms with the fact that animals are routinely killed for the production of his local organic vegetables from a co-op (the farmer he bought from shot deer and bombed out groundhog burrows), Cerulli decides that if animals had to die to produce his food, he might as well take part in eating them to reduce waste.
One of the best parts of the book is when Cerulli confronts his inner struggle over hunting. This one line is so brutally honest that it caught my breath: “My problem wasn’t with hunting. It was with hunters.” He then dissects various attitudes toward the act of taking an animal’s life, from those who view it as a reverent spiritual act, to those who do it for sustenance, to those who treat it carelessly and kill mainly for the trophy of a stuffed carcass. He concludes that he approves of hunting when it was down with respect and mindfulness, with reverence of the life being taken, and with the purpose of sustenance.
After conversing with an uncle Cerulli respects who is also an accomplished hunter, Cerulli takes a firearm safety course, learns to track and stalk deer, and then spends many hours sitting quietly in various woods waiting for a deer to wander by. What happens when he finally sees a deer? Will he pull the trigger? You’ll have to read the book to find out.
Cerulli is a gifted storyteller. While his anecdotes of fishing, gardening and hunting could easily become mundane events, with Cerulli’s voice they become infused with discovery, wonder, and an abiding appreciation for nature and life. With every anecdote he shares, with every literary reference he explores, the reader joins him on his path to seek a way of living and eating that minimizes harm and suffering to living things. It’s a path fraught with hard choices and imbued for various shades of morality.