Interview with a Meat-Eating Vegetarian

As I mentioned earlier, I will at least occasionally be doing interviews here on Speciesist Vegan. This is all part of my effort to start conversations about the gray areas between the extremes in the paleo/SAD vs. vegan divide. I think a lot of people with more moderate views and practices tend to get drowned out by all the people on the extreme ends. So I want to provide a forum where people with all kinds of diets and views can get their thoughts out there so that people can take them in and then discuss them if they like.

My first interview is with Nathan Chappell (pronounced like the building, not the comedian). Nathan knows all about living life in the gray areas. The area is so gray, in fact, that he has been known as “that vegetarian guy that eats meat.” For the last 17 years Nathan has been vegetarian and for about 10 of those years he has been eating meat that would otherwise go to waste. Well, it’s actually a little bit more complicated than that, but I’ll let him explain that part of it. I think this is the perfect way to kick off interviews on Speciesist Vegan.

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How long have you been vegetarian? Have you been making freegan exceptions the entire time?

I became vegetarian when I was 17 (I’m 34 now), but then I fell off the wagon for a couple years about half-way through, mostly because of steak quesadillas. Then I ate some fish occasionally for a couple years after that, but I’m back to being an asterisked lacto-ovo now. Being freeganish started about ten years ago while I was waiting tables. I just saw so much wasted meat. I found it really offensive, not just in principle, but because my beliefs didn’t allow me to eat meat, so it made me jealous or something to see people take their delicious ignorance for granted, and just sad to see people take meat for granted.

How would you describe your motivation for becoming vegetarian? Has it changed over the years?

I would describe my motivation as about 5’6″, brown hair, and bossy. Yep, I made the switch for a girl. But, my motivation has changed. It’s always changing. After a while it became less about the girl and more about animals. I simply couldn’t accept that it was okay to eat chickens, but not cats. I was kind of a preachy vegetarian for a bit. To really get into something I have to be firm, strict, argumentative. I have to be black or white. But then I started talking to people instead of arguing and realized that I wasn’t completely sure I was right. Or if it’s the worst thing in the world to be wrong.

I got to a point where I realized that I could (and had to) accept that people will probably eat meat for a long time. But my being on the not eating meat side could pull the center toward not eating meat, toward moderation, toward at least being conscious of our meat consumption. Recently I’ve been inclined to think that the most reasonable, provable point is the extreme inefficiency of meat production, especially the way we do it. Basically, I don’t want to support the business of meat. I don’t buy meat, I don’t let other people buy me meat. Waste is good for business. I try to lessen that.

And on a less objective note, I don’t like having too much guilt wrapped up in my eating. Health has never been a big consideration for me.

How do you label the way you eat and has that changed over the years? How much do labels matter?

I used to be very sneaky about it for fear of being kicked out of the club, but then I learned that I don’t much like clubs. I tell people I don’t know that I’m a lacto-ovo vegetarian. If pressed, I say “I used to eat fish, but I don’t really like fish, so it just doesn’t make sense to make the exception. Even though I think fish are stupid.” Because I do. No offense to fish. Not that they’d get it anyways.

It’s strange, I usually love labels, but I find this one to be tough to categorize, so the only time I accurately label myself is in the form of an awkward paragraph. Labels are great as descriptors, but not as definers.

The term “freegan” definitely makes me think of dumpsters. It isn’t fair, but if I think that, I’d bet that most everyone else does too. I think the way we present our ideas or movements is important. I don’t like to give people ammunition to judge my positions too early.

Since you don’t usually actively identify yourself as someone that eats meat that would otherwise go to waste, do people ever feel like they have you in a “gotcha moment” when they find out that you do? Is there a reason that you’re not more upfront about it?

Sure, here and there, but there’s no accounting for every asshole. I’m mostly not more upfront about it because I don’t like long, qualified explanations regarding what I do. I’m also not upfront about being a vegetarian. I don’t always want to get into a discussion wherein my stated beliefs call into question somebody’s morals. I’m sort of a live and let live sort of fellow.

Do you feel like being vegetarian is a sacrifice? If so, does eating freegan meat lessen or increase this feeling?

Sort of, but not a big one in comparison to the sacrifice that the chickens, pigs and cows make quite without their consent. I don’t think my throw-away meat eating affects that much. It satisfies my general nostalgia for meat and makes me feel like I’m doing what I believe.

In a way that’s the sacrifice, giving up the no flesh streak and trading in my high horse. I just don’t want to see the nutrients and delicious flavors go to waste. Also, I like being limited at restaurants because I am a terrible decision maker. I was recently at a vegetarian restaurant and it took me half an hour to order. I don’t have that kind of time. I’m a very busy man.

So, giving up being a strict, no-exceptions vegetarian might have actually been harder than giving up meat when you first went vegetarian?

For me, definitely.

How do omnivores respond to how you eat? Do you find that they want to argue with you and find inconsistencies in your approach? Does anyone ever call you a hypocrite? How do you respond to that?

Omnivores really seem to like the cut of my jib, particularly the ones that I know well enough to get into this conversation with. So it might be a flawed sample. But they respect my nuance, and probably feel like they don’t have to be defensive because I’m not exactly on the other team. They think about it a little more than if I state my label. Maybe they see my practices as a sign that I’m not judging them, that I’m making myself vulnerable to being called a hypocrite.

And I am a bit of a hypocrite. My actions don’t always perfectly reflect my morals. Whose do? I probably wouldn’t eat milk or eggs if they did. But I am not interested in unrealistic goals, and I am very interested in breakfast burritos. It’s tricky though. Sometimes omnivores will pretend that they’re going to throw meat away just to get me to eat it. Sometimes to pull me off my horse, sometimes just to see the incredible unicorn of a vegetarian eating meat, sometimes just to be dicks.

Some people have mentioned this as a pitfall of making freegan exceptions, the way that other people can try to manipulate you. Do you still eat it when you get the sense that they’re just messing with you?

I at least bluff that I’m not going to. Then the kind-hearted protein pushers (“I just want to make sure that you’re getting enough protein…not to mention iron!”) usually eat it or take it home. They just can’t help it. But if they insist on not eating it, I’ll totally eat it.

What about vegetarians and vegans? How do they respond to you?

They’re the ones who usually call me a hypocrite, especially new vegetarians, as they are in that black and white zone, that defensive place when they’re trying to suss out what they really believe. Then a lot of people end up accepting my viewpoint, even agreeing with it, at least logically. I think it’s just nice for thoughtful people to hear another idea that isn’t yea or nay.

So they agree with it in principle, but they don’t want to do it themselves. Why do you think more vegetarians and vegans don’t allow for freegan exceptions?

Because of the gray area. Most people aren’t happy there, if they have to recognize they’re there. Let’s face it, we’re all in some gray area, no matter how many absolutes we round up (or down) to.

You mentioned that you think you’re a bit of a hypocrite because your actions don’t always perfectly reflect your morals. I don’t see hypocrisy in that way. I think that as long as you don’t do what you say you won’t do, you’re not a hypocrite. How do you stack up given that definition?

I initially identify as a lacto-ovo vegetarian, which certainly suggests that I don’t eat any flesh, but I do. Trash flesh. But I don’t beat myself up about it. It’s not really anybody else’s business, anyway.

Are there certain people that you won’t eat meat around?


One common objection that vegans make to vegetarians eating freegan meat is that they think once someone loses their disgust for meat, they’ll just slip up and fall off the wagon and become omnivore again. Does making freegan exceptions make it harder to pass up non-freegan meat in certain situations?

Yes, maybe, but I’ve never been disgusted by meat (except for haggis – that shit is gross). I’m opposed to the meat business. And I’m not in it for the streak, I’m not into perfection, I am not looking to win. I used to be, and then when I slipped, I ate meat for two years. I figured, well, shit, there goes that. I blew it, I might as well shove a bunch of beef tips in my face. Now I’m looking to live a decent life, and as long as I remember why I came back to this lifestyle, there’s no wagon to fall off. It’s my life. I tend to exist in gray areas and I like it there. I like the fluidity, the humility it demands or facilitates, the constant realization that you’re not necessarily right. It forces you to reconsider things a lot, which is something I strive for.

How did your “slip” happen? What caused you to decide to move back toward vegetarianism?

I don’t remember exactly. I was depressed. I felt like I was doing and had done a lot of things that weren’t in line with who I thought I was, so what’s one more? Eventually, as I was bringing myself out of my slump, returning to vegetarianism was just one way I began to line my life up with who I was and what I believed. It just followed naturally from getting my head right in general.

Do you have different feelings or standards for different types of meat (such as factory-farmed vs. free-range organic)?

If ALL meat was produced on small farms, and we could go out and see the animals, and you knew where it was coming from, and the livestock (or “animals”) were treated and fed well and with respect (you know, except for that slaughtering part), I would certainly reconsider. I don’t know where I’d land, but it would be something to think about. I think we would be a lot happier as a society, for sure. We’re too far removed from all of our food. So maybe that’s a business I could accept into my gray area.

There are ways to get meat that are pretty much how you just described. Are you saying that you don’t want to do that because it wouldn’t change the overall reality of meat?

Yes, absolutely. I choose to boycott the business of meat.

You mentioned that you probably wouldn’t eat milk or eggs if your actions perfectly reflected your morals. Does this cause you to limit your eating of eggs and dairy?

I simply can’t imagine it does, given the amount of eggs and dairy I consume. Although, who knows? Maybe if I didn’t see any moral problem with eggs and milk I would eat exclusively cheese and egg sandwiches dipped in ice cream.

What advice would you give to someone that is considering giving up meat (or just factory-farmed meat)? Would you recommend taking an approach to eating that is similar to yours? Are there any mistakes that you’ve made that you might be able to save others from?

Just be mindful. Know why you’re making the decision. Don’t beat yourself up if you’re not perfect. Go get ’em, tiger? If you can’t handle the gray area of throw-away meat exceptions, if you think you’ll slide down that hill and go back to meat-eating, you probably shouldn’t do it. Because you’ll probably be happier not eating the meat.

But no, I don’t think I’ve made any mistakes in this area. Oh, except one, many years ago – despite what I thought the menu said (Spicy Mexican Salsa), chorizo is totally meat. (I’ve never been much of a reader).

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8 Responses to Interview with a Meat-Eating Vegetarian

  1. Aeolus says:

    Okay, I’ll bite. This comment may not be in good taste, but I think it’s pertinent. I wonder: What would Nathan have done if he had discovered left-overs in Jeffrey Dahmer’s fridge after the police hauled the guy away? Waste not, want not?

    There are some things we are properly disgusted at because they are not the sorts of things a virtuous person (in Aristotle’s sense) would engage in. Arguably (and I’ll admit this can be disputed) eating meat is always unvirtuous (vicious) because it manifests a lack of respect for the animals who have been abused and killed. Even eating road kill is questionable. Unless they were starving, few people would think it morally acceptable to eat a vagabond killed by a hit-and-run motorist on a wilderness highway. Of course, one may say this is all irrelevant, since animals just don’t merit the sort of respect that humans do. But that’s another kettle of fish… or should I say, another refrigerator of left-overs?

    • I can’t speak for Nathan, and I’m not sure he’s going to reply himself, but I don’t really see why it’s a pertinent question (although I like discussing this kind of thing just for its own sake). First off, it makes no more sense to ask this question to Nathan than it does to ask it to any given meat-eater. After all, 95%+ of people eat meat and 99%+ of them don’t eat human flesh. I don’t see how the whole “left-overs/waste not, want not” angle changes this.

      Secondly, there are very good health reasons to avoid consuming human flesh, and last time I did any reading on it (correct me if I’m wrong), the prevailing view among anthropologists is that it was indeed the health risks that led to cannibalism becoming a nearly-universal human taboo.

      Also, I think the respect for animals thing is irrelevant. Nathan, or anyone that chooses to eat animal foods that would otherwise go to waste, cannot choose to unkill the cow. They’re just trying to make what they feel is the best ethical decision given their options. I don’t see this as being inherently immoral, unvirtuous or vicious.

      Finally, I’m a speciesist, so I do accord different rights/respect to humans than I accord to animals (and that includes the survivors of the deceased – I know I wouldn’t like it if I found out that someone ate my grandpa just because his body was just going to to go waste). I suspect Nathan is a speciesist as well. I was going to ask that in the interview, but it didn’t really seem relevant to a discussion with a vegetarian (no offense to vegetarians)

      P.S. I like that you’re using the word vicious in it’s older, more etymologically “correct” form (from Latin vitium “vice”). I don’t see that often. Is that something from virtue ethics?

  2. Aeolus says:

    Yes, it is from virtue ethics. As for eating human flesh that would otherwise “go to waste”: I take it that Nathan’s position is that once an animal is dead and eating the meat is unlikely to contribute to other animals’ being abused and killed, the ethical issue is off the table. My question is, then why not eat human flesh in similar circumstances? I assume most people who eat animal flesh would answer this question by invoking some notion of respect for human dead; they would NOT say the ethical issue of consuming human flesh is off the table once no further negative consequences are likely to follow. And they would say that animals just don’t deserve anything remotely close to the kind of respect we ought show to humans. But you, and probably Nathan, believe that animals deserve a great deal of respect, even it they don’t have the same moral value as humans. (Correct me if I’m wrong.) Hence, it seems to me that eating road-kill or other unconsumed animal flesh should at least present an ethical dilemma for you and Nathan, even if you conclude that, on balance, it’s acceptable to eat the stuff.
    P.S. I’m just trying to make your life more complicated.

    • “Hence, it seems to me that eating road-kill or other unconsumed animal flesh should at least present an ethical dilemma for you and Nathan, even if you conclude that, on balance, it’s acceptable to eat the stuff.”

      Yeah, I think this is true, at least for myself. And I can only assume that it was (or once was) for Nathan since he used to be a “no exceptions” vegetarian. But, for me, I think it’s just an acknowledgement of my lack of power over certain facts of life. I can’t stop people from raising and killing animals. I can only make choices that are available to me. As much as possible, I want to concern myself (re: what I eat) with actual consequences, not symbolism (“respect” for the dead animal) or sentiment (my feelings of disgust).

      As for “why not eat human flesh in similar circumstances?” I don’t have much to say that I didn’t say in my first response. But I will say that there are situations in which many people would eat human flesh (think Donner Party). Again, it’s a case of someone making what they think is the best decision in a moral dilemma.

      And one other thing: assuming you weren’t raised veg*an, why did you never eat human flesh before you stopped eating meat? If it’s just as wrong to eat animals as to eat humans, why would that not have been so blatantly clear from the beginning?

      So, I just want to be clear on one thing: do you think it is MORE ethical to let some meat get buried in a garbage dump than it is for me to eat it (instead of buying some vegan food that has its own cost in animal suffering/life)?

  3. Aeolus says:

    I stopped eating animals (for good, in both senses) at the age of six. Eating human beings was not something I seriously contemplated before that. I don’t condemn people for eating “waste” meat, given the current ways of the world, but I wouldn’t do it myself — largely, I admit, because to me the idea of eating any meat is quite gross. But I think a sense of respect plays a role even in the case of “waste” meat (and contributes to the revulsion.)

  4. Sarah says:

    Nathan’s comments make it seem like he thinks all vegetarians or vegans like or liked the taste of meat, and secretly wish they could eat it, if it weren’t for their “moral hangups” about it. I wish he and others would accept that some people just don’t like the taste or smell of meat. Whether they never did, but just ate it because “everyone else does”, or because of after a while of not eating it, it just stopped smelling like something yummy, not everyone likes every food, and not everyone feels like they are making a sacrifice.

    • I’m sure he’s aware of such people, Sarah. But the vast majority of veg*ans, me included, liked the taste of meat (and cheese etc.) before giving it up.

      Anyway, someone in your shoes (meat-free because they don’t like the taste) is really in the minority and they don’t really make any ethical/moral claims about meat eating (correct me if I’m wrong). Such a way of eating is akin to eating vanilla ice cream, but not chocolate ice cream, because there is no ethical component to the decision – just taste. Nathan is in a position where he likes the taste, but has moral qualms about eating meat, so his way of eating works well for him.

      Thanks for reading.

  5. says:

    Pretty! This was a really wonderful article. Thank you for providing these details.


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