Scarvey column: Alas, poor Shirley: Our carnivore adventures

Published 12:00 am Friday, February 20, 2009

I was lucky to get a phone interview recently with advice columnist Amy Dickinson.
As I read her memoir, I realized that she and I have a lot in common, including a farm background. I could relate to Amy’s assessment that “the line between beasts of burden and beloved pets sometimes blurred in ways that caused discomfort…”
She wrote about how one of the Holsteins in their herd ó the only one honored with a name ó wound up in their freezer with this label:
“11/06/72 Shirley.”
Alas, poor Shirley.
That’s enough to give anyone pause, but it wasn’t enough to nudge Amy to vegetarianism ó and it probably wouldn’t be enough for most of us farm kids.
I never seriously considered giving up meat, although my 4-H beef cattle project did make me ponder it briefly.
The Carcass Show ó could there be a more non-euphemistic name? ó was the final part of the 4-H beef project. After your steer ó which you had fed and curried and halter-trained ó was shown at the fair, it was auctioned off. That was hard enough, but the next stop was the slaughterhouse, where it was judged one final time. We 4-Hers and FFAers gathered in the big meat locker to see how our steers had “dressed out, ” and woe to those among us ó like me ó who had gotten somewhat attached to our animals.
An experience like this forces you to confront what it means to be a carnivore. Like Amy, I faced it head on and decided I was OK with it, although I don’t eat as much red meat now as I did growing up.
Sometimes I forget, though, that others have given it up, like this past weekend when some old friends from Knoxville came for dinner and to spend the night after spending the day at Davidson College.
I made a big retro meat lasagna, right out of a Southern Living Cookbook I got as a wedding gift. It was a little overcooked, but I happily dished it out to our unsuspecting teenage guest and her mom.
I tend to be one of those cooks who is always looking for evidence that something is wrong with my culinary offerings ó you know the type; normally, we refer to her as “mom.” Finding the evidence, whether it be a slight hesitation of the fork or a refusal of seconds, is my cue to start blathering about the deficiencies of the meal.
Well, there’s evidence, and then there’s the smoking gun. The teenage guest appeared to be dissecting her lasagna, gingerly, the same way a cat pokes a paw around a litter box, looking for a clean spot.
I watched in horrified fascination ó which is exactly what she was feeling, I suspect ó as she moved pieces of meat around her plate, perhaps hoping that if she shoved it around enough, it might just begin to shrink.
Now granted, this was not my best lasagna effort, but it wasn’t inedible.
Or was it?
Then, it dawned on me.
She did not eat meat.
Can I get you a sandwich? Some cereal? I asked. No, no. She concentrated on the salad and the bread.
I restrained myself from excusing myself to the kitchen and banging my head against the stove. Why, in 2009, did I not query our guests about their dietary habits before I cooked for them?
The teenager’s mom managed to eat her helping, I think to spare my feelings. I’m pretty sure she doesn’t normally eat red meat either. My guess is that later that night, she probably gave her daughter a small earful about the dramatic food pushing. And then they’d share a little laugh about how dry the lasagna was, but it wouldn’t be mean-spirited, because they are nice folks.
The next time they visit, I’m making something with lentils.
Then, it’ll just be my husband shoving food around on his plate. Contact Katie Scarvey at