I love to camp, and I've spent a good amount of my time in the forest, over the years. It's a fantastic place to be.
In the forest, the air is dense and invigorating. Freshwater lakes dot the Canadian landscape, and many are easily accessible. Swimming in them is one of my favourite things to do. And when I'm camping, lakes double as bath time. How nice.
Being cold and exposed makes warming up significantly more satisfying. And when you chop wood for your own campfire, it warms you twice.
But I also like camping because it’s hard. You are required to plan and be organized. Having good systems will ensure that it’s more fun. And that it’s safer for everyone involved.
Because to go camping means you voluntarily detach from the support systems of modern life, including your access to food.
And that’s how camping makes me realize that I am a vulnerable human being. It highlights how dependent I am on others for my survival. This is especially true when it comes to making sure I have enough to eat, because I buy my food at the grocery store. I don’t grow or forage for it.
So my food supply is usually pretty limited and scarce. And when I’m out in the bush, I am always acutely aware of how little food I have, even on Day 1.
Because I’m eventually going to run out of grub. Then I definitely have to go home, or I have to find more if I want to stay. The clock is always ticking. Every day I have little less to rely on. And I can’t survive on pine needles and moss. At least not for very long.
Historically, this has been the reality of the human experience for a long time. Where do we get enough food to survive? How am I going to feed myself and my family? How am I going to ensure I have enough when winter comes and I can't grow any more potatoes, grain, and vegetables for 7 months?
These are real, existential questions. And they were near-universal concerns not that long ago.
So it makes sense to me that many of us have descended from cultures that are omnivorous. Because you can’t eat pine needles, and if you can't forage enough food to live off of year round, I guess you have to eat the animals that can. And that’s exactly what we did. Eating animals and domesticating them was an available solution to a pressing, relentless problem of our own survival. They were a-life line during the hard months.
And it worked. Animals are a concentrated form of energy, calories, and protein. And in northern climates with short growing seasons and areas of caloric scarcity, animals are walking treasure chests full of the stuff of survival. Part of the reason we revere meat so much might be because it symbolically represents survival, in a deeply primal way.
But, those days of food scarcity are past us. We don’t need meat to survive anymore. And despite what many believe, I don’t think we even need it to thrive. Not anymore. And I say this having been a card-carrying omnivore for the first 28 years of my life.
There’s story I really like that illustrates this point well. It’s about a famous loaf of garlic bread.
The Story of The Garlic Loaf
A young Italian lady and her husband are having company over for supper, and they are eager to impress their guests. So the lady calls her mom to get the recipe for the family’s famous garlic loaf.
The loaf is to be prepared - the recipe calls for using a good baguette, and to cut 4 inches off both ends, then dress, season, and bake.
The guests arrive. Dinner is served. The garlic loaf is a hit. It tastes amazing. Socks are knocked off. People write home to tell others. It lives up to it’s reputation.
The next day, the young woman shares with her mother how the garlic loaf was a massive hit with everyone at the table. “But”, she asks, “what do I do with ends that were cut off and set aside?”
Her mothers responds, “I don’t know - it’s your grandmother’s recipe. Ask her.”
So the young lady calls her nana, tells her how wonderful the recipe is, and asks her what to do with the cut-off ends of the baguette.
Her grandmother laughs and replies, “Oh my goodness. I would cut the ends off because when I made that recipe, my oven was too small to fit an entire baguette. You have a bigger oven. No need to do that anymore.”
We all have family customs like that
I don’t think this hypothetical Italian family is an isolated case. All families contain methods and practices that stretch back into the past.
We inherit a range of customs and beliefs like this from those who came before us, from different times.
Customs, tradition, and beliefs matter a lot. They supply a sense of group cohesion and individual identity. Often, family customs serve to help us thrive and survive. But they’re built from context, and they take shape based on existing necessity.
And times change. People change. Needs change. And conditions change.
So while it makes crystal-clear sense that many cultures required animal products and animal flesh just to have a chance of staying alive, this is a need that’s coming from past conditions.
Food conditions of today are far more bountiful than they were in the past, at least in terms of the sheer abundance and variety of calories available to most Western people.
Meat & dairy consumption has it’s origins in our ancestors solving the riddle of survival. An omnivorous diet helped us get to here and now.
So we can adapt our recipes and the approach to our life and our food, if we want to.
*Camping Tip: Based on my experience, eating plant-based is far cheaper and easier to manage while camping. When you forgo meat, dairy and eggs, there's a real reduction in the pressure to keep food cool and contained (no desperate need for ice). And flies and pests are less of an issue around the food, because they are highly attracted to decomposing organic material, not potatoes, tomatoes, beans, or lemons.