This year for Christmas I poisoned the in-laws.
They had flown all the way from Toronto to spend the holidays in London, dragging several extra bags of gifts across the Atlantic like a modern-day Santa and Mrs. Claus. In return, I had planned a feast for dinner.
The centrepiece of the meal was a beautifully aged prime rib roast. I had purchased it, for nearly $100, from my local Notting Hill butcher, who specializes in organic, free-range, ethically farmed beef, lamb and poultry.
I don't eat much meat these days, but everything about that shop made me feel safe, from the quaint striped awning to the well-heeled locals queuing up for their premium giblets to the butcher with his starched, white-linen apron making small talk as he trimmed the leg of lamb. Even the store's slogan ("Real meat naturally fed") was heartening. What could possibly be more healthy, comforting or downright trendy than a rib roast for Christmas? As I stepped out of the shop with my several pounds of Grade A flesh in hand, I was determined to follow the butcher's emphatic instructions: "Do not overcook."
And I didn't. The prime rib was perfect - except for the 36 hours of stomach-churning misery it caused everyone who ate it.
Having passed on seconds, I was the only person able to get out of bed on Boxing Day. And when I did, I bicycled straight over to the butcher shop to complain. It was closed, of course, but, staring woozily into its window at the blood-stained counters, I made a simple New Year's resolution: No more red meat.
Don't get me wrong, I have no interest in becoming a vegetarian.
Vegetarianism, in my view, is a seriously unattractive character trait.
Having majored in liberal arts at university, I've encountered my fair share of sanctimonious zealots keen to lecture me on the dubious ethics of gelatin, bone-refined sugar and silk. Diehard vegetarians love to point out hypocrisy in others, but are often slow to recognize it in themselves.
Sentimentality about the feelings of cows and ducks, I have noticed, often comes at the expense of basic human decency. A case in point was a meat-free media executive I once worked with who was such a cold-blooded mercenary she actually enjoyed firing people. She was also the only person I have ever seen weep at the sight of flypaper. This, in my experience, is typical of the evangelical vegetarian mindset.
Having said that, I have sworn off red meat once and for all, and am determined to limit my consumption of chicken and fish. Food poisoning was the catalyst in my case, but the deeper reasons are rational rather than sentimental.
As the pile of evidence on the evils of industrial farming grows and the spectre of global climate change looms larger with each passing season, continuing to eat animals without pause feels like the dietary equivalent of dancing a waltz as the Titanic bubbles under an iceberg.
This fall saw the publication of Eating Animals, a philosophical exploration by the American novelist Jonathan Safran Foer of the politics of meat consumption. And not long ago, another one of my favourite writers, the South African Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee, decried the human predilection for large quantities of cheap, factory-farmed meat as "a crime of stupefying proportions."
According to the authors of Freakonomics, simply cutting out red meat can reduce your carbon footprint by as much as 25 per cent. It makes sense when you think about it. According to estimates, seven billion animals - most of them cattle - are slaughtered for consumption each year in the United States alone.
Each one of those animals has to be grazed, fed, slaughtered and shipped. Then there's the harmful methane gas (i.e. flatulence) that cattle produces - and which has to be absorbed by the atmosphere. So before you even get to the ethical dilemma of killing a mammal for dinner, that steak on your plate has caused some serious environmental damage.
But while I sympathize with the argument for a blood-free lifestyle, I will not be calling myself a vegetarian any time soon. Instead, I will be joining the growing number of people who are choosing to radically cut down on meat without identifying themselves as vegetarians per se. Whether it's the new tribe of "pre-six-p.m. vegans" led by New York Times food writer Mark Bittman (who credits his recent weight loss to a less-meat-heavy regime) or the increasing number of "flexitarians," a mainly meatless diet is no longer a choice that requires a label. It simply makes sense. According to a recent study by the U.K. consumer-research group Mintel, a quarter of Britons says they eat significantly less meat than they did five years ago, with 23 per cent falling under the classification of "meat reducers" (people attempting to eat less meat) and 10 per cent under "meat avoiders" (those who try not to eat it all but occasionally make exceptions).
Like most ethical lifestyle choices, my decision to eschew mammalian flesh is fraught with hypocrisy. I can't conceive of giving up air travel or leather shoes or sushi. But hamburgers and bacon I figure I can live without. It's more like a small concession than grand moral stand.
It hardly makes me perfect. And I'm certainly no Natalie Portman, who blogged at the Huffington Post a few weeks ago that she has traded her vegetarian diet for a strict vegan regimen after reading Safran Foer's book. "Some things are just wrong," she wrote, adding that the "factory farming of animals will be one of the things we look back on as a relic of a less-evolved age."
I applaud Portman's convictions. Her doe eyes are the window to a truly Bambi-loving soul. For my own part, I am going to lay off the venison (and anything else with four legs) and try my best to avoid poisoning houseguests in the future. It's the least I can do, even if it's not much.