Belief in Action: An Interview With Marissa Landrigan

Marissa Landrigan, author of The Vegetarian’s Guide to Eating Meat, had been a vegetarian for seven years when she came to the slow realization that her choice to stop eating meat might actually be standing in the way of her ethics.

Through her twenties, as she moved from upstate New York to Washington, D.C., then to Montana, California, and Iowa, she started to see food choice as a form of privilege. The vegetarian convenience food she was living on was profiting corporations with dubious ethical standings; the fruits and vegetables she ate harmed migrant workers; and she realized her food choices hadn’t brought her any closer to the sources of her food.

Disillusioned and searching for a greater connection to her food, she began to talk to a local meat farmer at an Iowa farmer’s market. “I remembered that being an activist isn’t just about refusing to do something,” she writes. “Activism is belief in action—in the inherent value of digging your hands in, messing around, and building something new.” She bought her first chicken in seven years.

Landrigan’s book is about food and activism, but it’s also about a girl who grew up in a family where food was community, and her journey to find for herself a dietary philosophy that resembled that original ideal: eating as a form of caring, of loving and showing love. And for her that meant not only to the people around her, but a network of people and lives that she may never see.

This July, we met to talk eating and activism, her work to balance research and memoir in service of a greater argument, and the current sense of urgency around food choice. Also, Doritos.

I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit about how this book came to be. When did you look at whatever you had in your notebooks and think: This might be a book?

It was interesting because I actually decided to start thinking of it as a book before I had written almost anything. I decided to start eating meat again at the beginning of my second year in grad school, which is also around the time when you start thinking about your thesis. And I was going to the Iowa farmer’s market a lot and dating a guy, Scott, who was also in the MFA program, and who had always eaten meat.

So I thought, I need to talk about this. I’m thinking through all this and I have a lot of questions about, first, the ethics of eating animals, and then what about my responsibility is to the environment.

So Scott and I had this super super long conversation that was really just me just talking. At a certain point he was like, So we’ve been talking for three hours and you are clearly really obsessed with thinking about all of these things. All of these questions are things you could be exploring in writing.

And I was like: huh.

But then I thought surely someone has already written this book about deciding to go back to eating meat. When I started looking at it, I actually couldn’t find a lot of writing. In the end, I kind of wrote it both for myself to help me think through these issues and also to write the book that I wish I could have read.

The first draft of the book was almost completely research. It was just me trying to learn all of the stuff that I needed to learn in order to decide how to be an ethical omnivore.

What type of research was in it that you took out?

There was a lot of stuff about the negative environmental and ethical impacts of factory farming. I tried to research how small-scale local farms were different than factory farms—I was mostly trying to write my way through it to come to an understanding. But it wasn’t really stuff that a larger audience needed. Some of it stayed in there, like the stuff about toxic chemicals in produce production in California and the stuff about migrant workers. I think a lot of what was cut out was the stuff about why factory farming is bad. It didn’t need to be there because Food, Inc. exists and The Omnivore’s Dilemma exists.

Were leaving behind vegetarianism and writing this book entwined? Were the pressures of having decided to write the book part of your decision?

Yeah, definitely. And also the pressure of having to think–and this is such a nonfiction writer’s problem–the pressure of thinking of stuff in my day-to-day life as material. So the first meal I cooked with meat again, that was actually the first part of the book that I wrote. I was [cooking], and I also had my notebook out in the kitchen taking notes thinking okay I have to remember this part and these details and this is what it smells like…

And then there was a big part after I wrote that essay when I was like: Okay that’s the story, I’m eating meat again now! What else do I write about? How do I make this into a book? I had to go back and think through how I got to vegetarianism and try to craft all of that while I was also moving forward on the actual experience of eating meat again. The beginning of writing the book is actually 2/3 of the way through.

So, one thing that really struck me about this, and that surprised me, is that this book is very much about place. Why is that so connected to food for you, and how did you work to unite food and place?

I thought: okay, it makes sense to think about the personal journey that I want to cover in the book as a journey from place to place, partly because that’s just how I had thought of my 20s. There was the Ithaca time and the DC time and the Montana time. And then I could see how those places lined up with some of the issues I was talking about.

Obviously, the period of time in California aligned really nicely with asking questions about how farm workers are treated. And the stuff in DC aligned really nicely with talking about urban food access and food deserts and things like that, even though while I was living in DC I was not very conscious of that stuff.

So there was kind of an overlap here between some of these places and some of these food issues, and I thought, let me see if I can get those to line up. That was a real struggle. The first draft of that was like: Piece of personal story. Asterisk. Chunk of research. Asterisk. Piece of personal. It’s an essay! People will just make the connections! (laughs)

I just kind of smashed them together, the research and the personal, and then there was a real process of going back over that version and actually streamlining it.

It feels to me, when I look back on it, that I wrote a research book and then a personal book and then asked: How do these things go together? The material was there but it wasn’t working. So I decided to re-type the whole manuscript mostly from memory. I had a printed out hard copy of it in my office but I didn’t keep it on my desk. And I just sat down and was like: Okay. Chapter One. What has to be in Chapter One? And I figured, I’ll remember the stuff that’s important enough to put in there.

A big part of your personal story is about your journey as a young activist. Do you see the book, in a way, as an extension of your younger activism? Or as an act of activism itself?

Yeah I think I do. And it was sort of hard, especially in culling some of the research, to sort of acknowledge and accept how much more memoir it was becoming and how much more of a reflective piece of writing, because when I started it I thought it would be more of an argument. Almost right after I started writing the book Jonathan Safran Foer put out Eating Animals, which is sort of his vegetarian manifesto. And it’s super research-heavy and not a lot of it is personal and reflective and that’s kind of what I’d been aiming for.

But I was also discovering the limitations of success that that genre can sometimes have. It can become too polemic and alienating. [Safran Foer’s] conclusion is that there is no ethical way to eat meat, and he visits the Niman ranch and [is] like: “Sure, but the animals still die so never mind. This is not an satisfying solution to the ethical problem that I have.” I was seeing that kind of really binary thinking in so much of the stuff that I was reading that I think that helped me come to terms with making it more personal. This is not a book that takes a really clear binary position, so the only way I could really make that work was by saying, this worked for me, and this is how I got there.

What do you hope that people will take away from the book?

Mostly that there isn’t a clear answer, or that the world of ethical eating isn’t black and white. I sort of started out thinking that eating animals = bad, vegetarianism = good, and it’s just really not that simple.

Instead, I basically just want people to think: What are the places where I am making assumptions? And if I’m making assumptions about something I’m doing being automatically more ethical or sustainable or whatever, what might I be overlooking in making that assumption?

That’s really what it was for me. It’s not that you can’t be a healthy environmentally-conscious and ethical vegetarian—you absolutely can—I just didn’t because I wasn’t paying attention to some of those other contributing factors. So basically, I hope people just sort of ask questions about where they might still be participating in suffering, and how they can work to minimize that.

At your reading you said something about minimizing suffering being your main objective at this point…

Yeah and it’s a hard thing to say because if you look at the Amazon page for the book there are lots of people out there who are like: Nope. You can’t do it. you can’t eat animals and say that you’re not participating in suffering.

And it’s a weird thing to be like: That’s true. But vegetarians and vegans are also participating in suffering. Nobody likes to have that pointed out to them. And people who are really ethically minded or people who are activists spend a lot of time thinking about how to reduce their impact and so nobody really likes having it pointed out that you can’t eliminate that impact.

I remember when your book first came out and Goodreads quickly filled with unhappy comments from vegetarians and vegans, who I don’t think read your book—at least there didn’t seem to be any evidence of having read it. How do you respond emotionally or intellectually to that?

It’s actually pretty easy for me to not feel that emotionally affected by that stuff because it’s pretty apparent when somebody hasn’t read the book. I think it would be easy to look at the book and read the cover and assume that I’m making an argument against vegetarianism, and I know that that’s not what I’m doing. I think, too, if any vegans or vegetarians read that book and come out the other side thinking that there were some interesting points raised, but they still want to be a vegetarian, I don’t have a problem with that. I’m not going to try to convince anyone that they shouldn’t eat the way that they want to eat.

At your book launch there was this striking moment, after you’d done your reading, when you opened it up and there was just a flood of urgent questions about how to eat ethically. There were so many questions that at one point you just had to assert an end to the question period. It seemed like it might just go on and on. How do you understand that? Do you think that it’s about this moment or your particular experience of being both vegetarian and now omnivore?

I think there is something about the cultural moment. We are definitely at a time when a whole host of different diets are accepted and understood, and this proliferation of food choice is really overwhelming. Like, at the grocery store, when you’re buying eggs, you have to choose between organic, cage-free, and free-range, all from the same brand, and how do you know what the difference is? Those sound like the same thing.

There’s a lot of anxiety about what all these words and choices mean and not knowing how to make the right one, and the words frankly being misused and diluted of their meaning. You can also get “all natural” eggs, which…I don’t know…I’m pretty sure if an egg is shaped like an egg and has a yolk in it it’s a natural egg.

So I think some of it is that, but I also think it’s a response to how we’ve become really disconnected from the sources of our foods, especially in less rural areas where we don’t have regular physical access to farms. And that’s why, again, the book’s position is sort of like: Just go to a market or a farm and meet some farmers and talk to them and you’re probably okay. It doesn’t have to be as complicated as wandering through a giant supermarket might make it seem.

I was so struck in many places by your use of description. As you describe your family, they just came so alive, and your descriptions of place, especially Iowa. There was this one sentence that I read so many times. You wrote, “My sadness was colored like Iowa, yellow brown around the edges, turning gold within a few week’s time. ” As you were writing this, what other writers were you turning to as guides either for the structure or for letting their words seep into yours?

That was interesting because I felt like I had to kind of piece things together. I was obviously reading a lot of food writing because I was completely unfamiliar with the genre at the time. I was reading Michael Pollan, and that Jonathon Safran Foer book I mentioned, and that was right around the time Barbara Kingsolver put out her book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.

And then I was also reading some food memoirs, which subject-wise were completely different, because interestingly a lot of food memoirs are from immigrant perspectives. There’s a really good one called Stealing Buddha’s Dinner by Bich Minh Nguyen about being a Vietnamese immigrant in Grand Rapids, Michigan in the 70s, and falling in love with America via Twinkies and Pringles and Spaghetti-os, while also living in a multi-generational Vietnamese household where they made their own Pho. So I was reading a lot of that sort of stuff, but I was also feeling that none of these books were models for what I’m writing, because in terms of content they’re completely different.

So I was kind of like, okay how can I marry this research thread with the structure of memoirs that I’ve known and loved for a long time? I thought of Terry Tempest Williams’s Refuge, which was one of my first favorite books of creative nonfiction, and I reverse-outlined Refuge and tried to then try to make my book follow the exact same trajectory. Which didn’t work (laughs) but was a useful exercise.

Okay, two last questions. Towards the end of the book, you say something about how sometimes you still just want to eat Doritos.

Yeah. Oh yeah.

So I’m wondering: When you have the least amount of energy for ethical thinking, or are your saddest, or most tired, or most sweat-pants sort of self, what do you love to eat?

It’s still pretty much the same stuff it’s been my whole life. If I don’t feel like cooking anything I always have pasta at home, and now when I make homemade sauce I make a huge batch so I always have a container in the freezer that I can thaw out.

And potatoes, which are still my all-time favorite food. I will sometimes just make myself mashed potatoes and put frozen peas and corn on top.

One thing that I challenge myself to do, which I totally stole from Michael Pollan from his book Food Rules, is eat all the junk food you want but make it yourself. And so I had this thing for a while where I was trying to figure out how to make homemade versions of the stuff I would still succumb to. And I tried making homemade Doritos but they did not taste anything like Doritos. So I still eat Doritos sometimes.

And what about when you’re at your best sort of farmer’s market, free range, organic self?

Then what I usually do is just go to the farmer’s market and buy whatever looks good and figure out what to make with it when I get home.

I knew you were going to say that!

(laughs) It’s really a fun thing to do. And I still sort of like to challenge myself with that. Just this week we made–actually my husband Jeremy makes this because he’s better at it–we had ratatouille because zucchini and summer squash are everywhere right now. We went to the farmer’s market and it was like: squash, zucchini, tomatoes, bell pepper, onion…yep, that’s everything!

 

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