The Meaning of Meat

by D. R. Hildebrand

Whenever possible, I avoid buying food at airports.  Earlier this month though, I was in a bind, saw a Qdoba, and decided to make an exception.  I got the rice, the beans, the roasted veggies, and said no to the meat, cheese, and sour cream, and at the end of the line asked for guacamole.  Apparently, when one orders certain vegetables and not others, the guacamole is not included—irrespective of the fact that no meat, no cheese, and no sour cream are part of the meal.

I told the manager I could have ordered a chicken burrito for the same price as a vegetarian one, or a beef burrito for thirty cents more; but asking for guacamole without any of the meat or dairy and it cost me more than all of them combined.  He looked at me like I had just informed him that water is wet and said, “Yeah, that’s right.”  Dumbfounded and annoyed, I asked him what, then, was the meaning of meat, and took my money elsewhere.

Not long before this I was out at a low-key restaurant in Brooklyn and I ordered a veggie burger.  The bill came and my friends and I passed it around, seeing what each of us owed, and I realized their meat burgers were priced the same as my veggie burger.  When the server returned I asked if there was a mistake.  She said no.  I asked her how that could be.  She said my veggie burger had come with a homemade sauce.  I cocked my head and raised a brow and she said, “Look, we’re not exactly serving high-quality meat here.”

Clearly!  Still, the answer begs the question—not just of this one restaurant or of Qdoba alone, but of numerous establishments—what are you serving?  And more so, what is it really worth?

Image by Christopher Rogers

Image by Christopher Rogers

Attempting to comprehend the true cost of meat is all but futile.  The numbers are astronomical and in some cases incalculable.  We can, however, certainly consider these expenses by name and surmise the respective price tags they carry.  Just addressing something as basic as land use, the United Nations Environmental Program reported in 2010 that 38% of all land is assigned either to growing livestock or food for livestock.  Growing and transporting billions of animals, and their food, comes at a cost, not to mention the gobs of fertilizer and the 90% of all pesticides they exploit.  Then, after years of fattening these animals they have to be transported once again.  Then they have to be slaughtered.  Then they have to be cut.  Then they have to be cleaned and inspected and packaged, and transported yet again.  Countless employees must be compensated.  Throughout the entire, cumbersome process, all 215 million tons of meat we consume annually must be kept refrigerated or even frozen.  Merely striving to prevent the epidemics we foresee from this system, we spend additional billions of dollars—then many billions more when it fails.  None of this even approaches the more abstract, unseen costs of deforestation, water pollution, waste management, or the 18% of all greenhouse gas emissions generated by such a monstrous, inefficient, inconceivably expensive industry.


Nevertheless, one little dollop of guacamole in my burrito costs me an extra fifty cents.

Because, aside from the taxpayers in New Zealand where as far back as 1984 the government recognized the ills of environmental degradation, mass overproduction, and inflated land prices, we pay for it all.  Vegan or omnivore, as long as we pay taxes we subsidize the entire process.

In the United States we grant an average of $20 billion per year to the meat and dairy industries.  Of all food-related subsidies, two-thirds goes to animals destined for slaughter, one-fourth goes to humans for direct consumption, and not one penny goes to the growing of fruits or vegetables.  The system is so antiquated and uneconomical that today three-quarters of these direct subsidies go to the top 10% of commodity-crops owners, even while the original intent of such 1920s bills was to keep small family farms, not mega corporations, from going out of business.

In a rational world we wouldn’t subsidize such a ruinous industry, but tax it.  If we desire meat as much as we think we do, having it should come not at a discount, not generously and freely, but with a levy, just as with alcohol, with cigarettes, and with airfare—and ideally one day oil.  The proposal might sound absurd but if, for example, we were offered a vodka-and-orange juice for the same price as an orange juice alone would we not question the vodka?  Or if we flew and never paid taxes for the flights would we not wonder how things like infrastructure, inspections, basic maintenance, and security were all financed?  None of this is at all different than a burrito or a burger.  Transporting, mutilating, housing, injecting, feeding, killing, cutting, cleaning, packaging, freezing, and distributing an animal comes at a cost.  Given away, it is meaningless.

A Word on Wallets

by D. R. Hildebrand

I was about ten, maybe eleven years old, the first (and only) time my mother bought me a wallet.  The store sold leather jackets, leather purses, leather everything, all at very inexpensive prices.  As she paid I asked her, unaware, where this thing leather came from.  She hesitated a moment, probably caught off guard, then told me, “from animals.”  As someone who grew up vegetarian, not because of my parents but because of my stubborn older siblings who demanded it, there was no doubt my mother knew exactly what I thought of this suddenly morose, unappealing gift.  Before I could even utter a rebuttal she looked at me with frustration, and a little guilt, and said, “Well what other options are there?  It’s leather or nothing.”

I made that wallet last through college.

Fortunately, twenty years later my mother’s question has a host of answers.  Leather is passé and the alternatives are abundant.  The assortment below, by no means exhaustive, is intended simply to highlight a few of the materials and styles currently available, and to hint at what innovation will bring in the future.

My first vegan wallet was the National Bi-Fold, a very popular item from the Vegan Collection.  It had a leather-like look and feel and was often mistaken for leather.  Unfortunately, it wore out like leather too.  Others have found theirs to be quite resilient however and if a likeness to leather is the aesthetic you desire then this, or one of the company’s other designs, is worth considering.  Prices range from $24 to $32, with MooShoes carrying select styles in-store.


Dynomighty Design, intended to “accentuate the modern urban lifestyle,” by Terrence Kelleman offers a tear-resistant, water-resistant, expandable, and recyclable wallet at an affordable $15.  The material is tyvek, which makes for an extremely lightweight, almost unnoticeable presence.  Dynomighty’s only drawback comes for those who carry extra credit cards, piles of receipts, photos, condoms, business cards, or anything else that will strain it.  For the minimalist, though, it is a gem.  Find it online at Alternative Outfitters or in a Whole Foods supermarket.


For the past year I’ve carried a US-made wallet by HARVEYS.  This California-based maker, founded by the couple Dana and Melanie Harvey, offers no visible mention of being vegan—something I actually kind of like.  Each item, though, is made of seat belts and has a fashionable yet conscientious look.  The wallet, Black Label, costs $48 and is as reliable as, well, a seat belt.


Additional options include: Franklin by Alchemy Goods, which makes wallets from reclaimed bicycle inner tubes for $29; hemp wallets by Rawganique ranging from $4 to $17; the effortless yet resilient Flowfold at $30, crafted in Maine from the sailcloth of boats; RAGGEDedge Gear, with badass wallets made of carbon fiber and Kevlar at $60; handmade by “dudes in California,” Couch Guitar Straps offers Jet Age, a funky $30 vintage-style wallet manufactured from vinyl; and for $74 any number of the sleek and über-chic stainless steel wallets by Stewart/Stand.

Victim versus Violence

by D. R. Hildebrand

Six years ago star quarterback Michael Vick was sentenced to two years in jail for promoting, funding, and facilitating a dogfighting operation, then lying about the details of his involvement.  He served his sentence, paid his fine, participated in community service, and eventually returned to the NFL with the Philadelphia Eagles.

Now Vick has written an autobiography, Finally Free, with the hope of articulating his gratitude for second chances.  He was recently set to sign copies of the book at book stores but cancelled when “reported protests escalated into threats of violence” not only against Vick but his family, his publisher, and the retailers that were scheduled to host him.

Michael Vick Humane Society

(Photo: Raleigh News & Observer/Getty)

Debating Vick’s crime, his sentence, the degree to which he is remorseful and so on will likely continue for some time.  My own opinions about these issues have vacillated, even unexpectedly, the more I learn and the more I consider.  It is the bigger picture, though—the response to it all and the context of it all—that I find consistently, relentlessly baffling.

Vick’s crime was heinous.  No one I know disputes that.  The reaction that has surfaced from it, however, is the wrong one.  Our discussions are focused almost exclusively on the victims and not on the pathology of violence.  We are angered because they are dogs, not because we permit and perpetuate a vast culture of abuse.  These events would not, six years later, still sit at the fore of our thoughts had anyone been mistreating any other animal—including, even, humans. Continue reading “Victim versus Violence”

Backstage at Vaute Couture

by D. R. Hildebrand

Last year, in early March, I took a short subway ride from the annual New York City Vegetarian Food Festival in Chelsea to the opening of a boutique clothing store in Williamsburg.  I had read about the designer and her innovative water-proof, wind-proof, sub-freezing-suitable outwear and I wanted to meet her and see the clothes in person.  Leanne Mai-ly Hilgart, newly relocated from Chicago, was attracting evermore attention for her one hundred percent cruelty-free label, Vaute Couture—and she hadn’t yet even opened her doors.

But this was just the beginning.  Two months later, in a national competition hosted by Macy’s, Ms. Hilgart was chosen from an applicant pool of 1,800 as one of fourteen “emerging designers” with “promising mainstream success.”  The reward was a week-long workshop aimed at teaching these designers the business aspects of the industry and how to penetrate the greater marketplace.  Hilgart excelled, and less than a year later Vaute entered New York Fashion Week.

When I arrived for the fitting two days before the show I was already elated, not just as a vegan and a model but as a friend, to be a part of this experience.  There had never been a sustainable, vegan label showcasing solo at New York Fashion Week, and Hilgart was poised to correct that.  As enthusiastic as I was for this inimitable occasion, it wasn’t until I put on my “look,” right there in the factory where it was made and I saw the decency, the ethic of the environment all juxtaposed to comparable factories overseas that I realized the extent to Vaute’s uniqueness.  Much more than just the apparel itself would set Hilgart’s brand apart from the tiresome trends and the status quo of fashion’s most meaningful week.

Leanne Mai-Ly Hilgart Vaute Couture

Photo by Gregory Vaughan

Everything, it seemed, was different.  From the subtle to the overt, Hilgart created her own rules: instead of opting for the artificial, militaristic look of sameness and severity, she chose models who were diverse and approachable and styled each one uniquely.  Instead of confining the show to a runway, which would permit the audience just a few elusive seconds to view a single outfit, she integrated a showroom design that encouraged guests to photograph, to engage, and to linger.  Instead of creating an ambiance of darkness and mystery she opened the atmosphere with music that was inviting and lighting that was serene.  And instead of having her models walk out with every imaginable being from snakes to peacocks to baby tigers in some false display of survival or allure or power, Hilgart presented dogs—in the hopes of finding them homes.

Backstage, the mood was professional yet light.  There was a clear sense that everyone involved was eager not only to create something beautiful, but something lasting.  It was a fashion show, yes; it was art and creativity and newness, of course; but it was a statement to boot, a very proud and unequivocal one with a conscience at its core.  Every element of the exhibition reflected this.  Makeup was done by DeVita.  Hair was styled by Salon Champu.  Women’s shoes were made by Love is Mighty, men’s shoes by Brave Gentleman.  Refreshments came from Vegan Treats and Vita Coco.  Sponsors included the Humane Society, Farm Sanctuary, PETA, and PCRM.  From the casting director to the DJ to the volunteers and many of the models, nearly every piece of the show was fair-labor, sustainable, principled, and vegan.  As Hilgart commented afterward, “I’m not here to create fashion.  I’m here to create ethical options within fashion.”

David Raphael Hildebrand Vaute Couture

Photo by Gregory Vaughan

My own outfit exemplified this.  I wore a warm, ivory-colored organic cotton Sherpa turtle neck, a camel organic velvet coat with a recycled thinsulate quilted liner and brown tagua nut buttons, and gray waxed canvas pants, most of which was unlike anything I had ever seen or heard of.  The innovation behind each item not only made the rest of Fashion Week look lame but caught the attention of leading media as well.  By the following day CNN reported it on its homepage and soon after ran an almost four-minute televised segment on Hilgart and the unnecessary use of animals in fashion.

Notably, after commenting on the elegance and sophistication of the clothes, the news anchor concluded the story with an observation that couldn’t have better summarized the entire affair.  “Well,” she said to the correspondent, reflecting on what she had learned, “you made me think.”  As thought is the origin of compassion, that is the point.  Nothing will change without thought when it is thoughtlessness that defines the current state of fashion: exploit, waste, pollute, kill—over and over and over with a few bland modifications in color and cut so the world will clap and call it new, and ignorance will persist unchallenged.

Hilgart has chosen to think.  She has chosen to challenge.  Originality has never looked so good.

Note: For all news on Vaute Couture and for exclusive backstage footage of the show, like their Facebook page:

Challenging Carnism

by D. R. Hildebrand

Challenging Carnism

Earlier this month I read about a student in Great Britain who was eating, what he believed to be, the wing, or the breast, or the thigh of a chicken, at a KFC.  He happened to pull the flesh apart, and saw something that looked like a brain.  He grew nauseated, photographed the specimen, and posted it on his Facebook page.  Eventually, KFC identified it to be a kidney, and apologized.

I posted the story on my own Facebook page and asked, both sarcastically and in seriousness, what the big deal was—that we should know by now that in a world in which “food producers” have zero interest in ethics or expectations, but rather in turning sentient creatures into a profit, there will be no shortage of mistakes.  One person disagreed and replied, “By your logic, if you get a piece of bark in your orange juice, you should have realized that oranges grow on trees.”

The point, as is often the case among omnivores, was either deflected or missed: if you opt to eat a breast or a rib or any part of an animal, what prevents you from eating any other part as well?  A foot, a stomach, an egg?  Eating one body part and not another is a mere cultural contrivance, not a natural law or inherent truth.  There is no universal norm stating that kidneys are taboo while wings, breasts, and thighs are acceptable.  In some societies people consume hearts, livers, blood, and urine.  Only in desperation do people eat bark.  If I mistakenly bought a grapefruit instead of an orange I would only care because I happen to enjoy the latter more than the former, not because I have been programmed by a self-serving system that declares one to be repulsive and the other ideal.  In the end, kidneys, like nearly all body parts, are edible.  Most bark is not.  And kidneys are necessary to one’s being, whereas oranges fall if not plucked.

Coincidentally, horse meat was then found where there should have been cow.  All over the UK there is outrage and shock that twenty-nine percent of the beef they call burgers is that of horses: “People should be able to go into the supermarket,” one Labour politician said, “and be confident that what they are buying for their families is legal and safe.”  That it is what?  Legal and safe?  Why is horse meat neither legal nor safe when the pigs we deem “dirty” are a staple at breakfast?  What is so fundamentally different about the flesh of a horse than that of a cow, a sheep, a dog?

Nothing.  And herein lies the issue: meat-eaters are not flabbergasted by the sale and production of horse per se, for they eat the flesh of countless species; neither are they sickened at the notion of eating a chicken’s kidney, for they eat hot dogs made of penises and eye balls and much more.  Meat-eaters are upset because they have been challenged.  They have been challenged to face their inconsistencies.  They have been challenged to confront their choices.  By eating animals and parts of animals that they have been programmed to believe they absolutely never should, they have been challenged to ask why they eat some and not others, or any, for that matter, at all.  And they hate this.  They hate to be challenged when they could much more easily be ignorant.  They cannot answer the questions because there is none that makes sense.

Melanie Joy, professor and author of the book Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows, gave a remarkably lucid interview with Andrew Cohen on essentially this topic, this carnist view of animals and the dampened emotions on which it stands.  “Carnism,” Joy explains, “teaches us not to feel.”  It is the invisible belief system that conditions us to eat certain sentient creatures and not others.  Interestingly, Joy is not concerned with why vegans abstain from eating animals, but rather why omnivores choose to eat the specific animals they do.

Few omnivores are either used to, or comfortable with, this sort of framing of the discussion.  Vegans make the weird choices.  Vegans have the explaining to do.  The fact of the matter is, while we all make choices, few meat-eaters can explain why they make their specific choices.  They don’t know why they eat cows and not horses.  They don’t know why they eat breasts and not kidneys.  The carnist view is so dominant and so entrenched that they see it as good enough that they are part of the norm.  Even their go-to answer, “Because I just like the taste, damn it!” is not valid here because Brits were eating innumerable horses without any display of revulsion; and kidneys, from what I have read, are supposed to be delicious.

Continuing to challenge meat-eaters to defend their choices is essential to raising the awareness about which Joy speaks.  It is not cognitive awareness, for we all know the horrors of slaughter.  Rather, it is emotional awareness, “taking it into your heart,” as Joy says, and reflecting on it, processing it, and responding to it with action.  Defending veganism is effortless.  It is all logic.  Defending carnism is the opposite.  It is complete absurdity.  No carnist should ever be excused from this defense, simply because the challenge is too great.