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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Friday, April 18, 2014

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In Dining

Tovar Cerulli doesn't see the ethics of eating as black and white.

Mindful eating: Lessons from Tovar Cerulli


Each of us has his or her own personal struggles with dietary decision-making. Whether it's the decision to modify one's diet for a medical condition, in pursuit of general health or for ethical reasons, every individual ultimately makes a statement about his or her beliefs through daily choices concerning what to ingest, or not ingest.

However, some decisions are more personal – and often politically charged – than others.

Take, for example, author and environmental activist Tovar Cerulli's decision to give up his vegan lifestyle for one that includes hunting excursions and ingestion of foods like eggs, chicken, fish and venison.

Cerulli's decision wasn't an easy one. It took an exploration of the interconnections between plant and beast, and a struggle with the messy business of sustenance and nutrition, before Cerulli came to peace with a life choice that ultimately became the topic for his book, "The Mindful Carnivore: A Vegetarian's Hunt for Sustenance."

I first learned of Cerulli's journey when I came upon his book in 2012, but it wasn't until this past month when I heard he was coming to Milwaukee for the 2014 Pheasant Fest and Quail Classic at the Wisconsin Center that I reached out to him to learn more.

Ultimately, Cerulli's answers to my questions were so thoughtful and compelling that I've published them here – in large part as he sent them to me.

OnMilwaukee.com: First – veganism. What drew you to it?

Tovar Cerulli: I grew up fishing, and eating just about anything and everything. In my late teens, I started eating less beef and pork because I had heard and read that excess red meat was unhealthy. And my girlfriend at the time was vegetarian, as were her parents and sisters, so I was learning more about other ways of eating.

When I was 20, I had a pivotal experience with a trout I caught. In the moment of killing it, I realized its death hadn't been necessary. I could have eaten something else. That was the end of my flesh-eating.

Not long after that, I eliminated eggs and dairy, too. My concerns, like those of many vegans, were both ethical and ecological: the mistreatment and confinement of animals, the impact of livestock operations on the environment, and the clearing and use of cropland to grow animal feed instead of food for people. After a while, I couldn't think of any reason for me or other humans to eat eggs or dairy products, let alone flesh of any kind.

OMC: And what, ultimately, drew you away from it?

TC: The first step was recognizing that everything I ate had a cost to animals. Clearing land for agriculture destroys wildlife habitat. Birds, rabbits and rodents get minced by grain combines, and fish get poisoned by fertilizer and pesticide runoff. Because we have exterminated most of the large four-footed predators in North America, growing crops of all kinds now depends on keeping white-tailed deer populations in check: hunters and farmers kill them by the millions every year. Even in the garden my wife and I were growing, we had to deal with ravenous insects and fence-defying woodchucks. We also had to feed the soil, and the most readily available fertilizer came from local dairy farms.

These recognitions didn't make me abandon veganism, but they did put me in a different frame of mind. They softened the edges of my rigid, black-and-white ideas about food ethics. They opened me to the idea of changing my diet and made me see that veganism wasn't as harmless and innocent as I had believed.

The other factor was nutrition. My wife – who was studying holistic health – and our doctor – a Buddhist naturopath who had reviewed my blood chemistry – suggested that a decade of veganism might have depleted my body, and that I might be healthier if I consumed some animal-based foods. I wasn't ill, but my energy wasn't great, my immune system wasn't strong, and I had some allergic sensitivities. Once we started eating dairy and eggs, things improved. They improved more when we started eating chicken, and occasionally fish.

OMC: What repercussions have you experienced from the vegan community? And how do you respond?

TC: Fortunately, I have had very few negative reactions. I am grateful that my book has been so well received by such a diverse range of people. I am especially glad that many vegetarians have understood and appreciated its core messages.

Some of the most thoughtful and appreciative reviews of my book have been written by vegans and vegetarians. One vegetarian – who liked the book and encouraged others to suspend their prejudices and read it – wrote in her review that she thought the author would consider it a compliment to know that the book made her think about going back to veganism. She was right. I did consider that a compliment. She understood that the book isn't a call for everyone to become omnivores or hunters. It's a call for people to consider things from some unfamiliar perspectives, to reflect on the meaning of food in some unfamiliar ways, and then to live and eat as they see fit, in accord with their hearts and consciences.

The very few truly negative responses I've gotten – a few emails, a few comments online – have come from people who have chosen to judge the book without reading it. I have ignored those responses.

OMC: What role does compassion play in eating?

TC: That depends on the person. For some of us, it plays no role at all. In my childhood and teens, for instance, I didn't reflect much at all on what I ate, or bring any degree of compassion to it.

On the other hand, compassion can play a significant role in eating. I think this starts with being mindful about food. By "mindful," I mean being aware of how interconnected everything is.

I don't just mean recognizing that a slice of mass-produced bacon is the direct result of factory-farm conditions in which millions of pigs suffer. I also mean being aware of how food and farm workers are treated. I also mean recognizing that grains and vegetables are linked to the impacts of agriculture on water, soil, wildlife habitat, and ecological systems as a whole. I also mean recognizing that even small-scale organic farmers protect their crops by killing deer and other animals, not to mention countless insects.

Together, mindfulness and compassion can lead us to make informed and heartfelt choices about what we eat and, at least as important, how that food gets to our plates.

I don't think it's possible to do no harm. The kind of purity and innocence I once sought is simply out of reach for a real, living human being. But we can make less harmful choices. And we can bring compassion to bear where harm is done: compassion for those harmed, and perhaps also compassion for ourselves as creatures caught up in the same beautiful, terrible web of life and death. At its roots, "compassion" means to "suffer with."

OMC: And hunting – what draws you to the activity? And how does it play into your view of compassion?

TC: I hunt because I find it meaningful.

I originally took up the pursuit as a way of confronting mortality: the fact that my life and diet are inextricably linked to the lives and deaths of animals, and the larger fact that all of nature exists this way. As Gary Snyder put it in "The Practice of the Wild," "there is no death that is not somebody's food, no life that is not somebody's death."

On the rare occasions when I take a deer – once each autumn if I'm lucky – I don't enjoy killing. The first time I killed a deer, I felt such intense grief that I doubted I would ever hunt again. Now, years later, taking life remains a powerful experience. And it feels important. Every time I take a package of venison out of the freezer, I am reminded of the specific life I took. It keeps me from slipping into forgetfulness, from losing touch with the fact that I am rooted in the food web like every other organism: living and eating one day, dying and being eaten some other day.

It's one thing to live and eat with compassionate intentions but without much sense of the impacts we actually have. It's another to live and eat with compassionate intentions while coming face to face with some of those impacts. The latter is possible, but it asks more of us. It asks us to be full of heart and also fully aware of death. Hunting certainly isn't the only way to do this, but it's an important way for some of us.

Hunting has also drawn me into a new relationship with the hills and valleys I call home, making me more attentive to subtle signs and patterns in the woods. And it has drawn me into a web of relationships with other hunters, thoughtful men and women passionate about the natural world of which we are a part.

OMC: What's your opinion about the sustainability of local eating?

TC: I'm no expert on sustainability or local food.

I do think local food can be very sustainable. If I take a deer within hiking distance of home, for instance, the ecological impact is fairly small: the energy and materials it took to produce that rifle cartridge and some freezer bags, the energy to run our freezer, plus a little gas to drive the deer two miles to a check-in station and back.

That said, it seems to me that local isn't always better. Nearby farms can be run in very sustainable and ecologically responsible ways, or they can be run terribly. Local growing conditions might be great for some crops, but require a lot of extra energy and fertilizer for other crops. Local means less transport of food, which is good from a fuel-consumption and carbon-footprint standpoint. But there are other factors to consider.

OMC: Ultimately, what do you want readers to take away from your book?

TC: I would like readers to come away with a broadened perspective on these issues – food, meat, vegetarianism, hunting, the natural world, the human place in that world. I don't care whether people are vegans, vegetarians, or omnivores, hunters or non-hunters. I simply want them to glimpse other ways of seeing and move beyond stereotypes they might have about each other.

In the long run, I would like the book to help overcome ideological and political divides, uniting people in the cause of wildlife conservation. When hunter and non-hunter conservationists collaborate, our combined forces are powerful.

OMC: How has your lifestyle enhanced your love for food and dining?

TC: My choice to go vegan was based on deep ethical concerns, and being vegan involved a lot of attention to what I ate. My transition back to omnivore involved the same kinds of concerns. As my diet shifted, my attention to food led me to see the world – and my place in it – in different, more nuanced ways.

Becoming a hunter has deepened my sense of belonging, in the natural world and in particular places. And it has deepened my understanding of the meaning of food and eating. All food can be understood as a sacrament, a very basic and important kind of communion.

Last night, I made a venison stew, using meat from the deer I killed in October and the carrots my wife and I grew last summer. By June, we'll be eating salad greens from the garden with slices of sautéed venison on top. There's something very special about such a direct, immediate relationship with what you eat. It isn't anything like buying food at the grocery store.

Tovar Cerulli will present three seminars, including one focusing on "The Mindful Carnivore," at Pheasant Fest, which runs Feb. 14-16 at the Wisconsin Center. For more information, and a complete schedule, visit pheasantfest.org/seminars.

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