Full Catastrophe Eating, from Soil to Soul

Experiencing the joys and pains of mindful consumption

Sheep and chickens graze on a bright green field with rolling hills and a blue sky in the distance.

Photo by the author.

I did not enjoy my first steak. Lots of chewing was involved. Chewing in front of an attentive parental audience. I was twelve. We sat at our round dining table with placemats and cloth napkins, the ones we used for holidays. My mom set a glistening plate in front of me with ta-da flare. She and my step-dad were inducting me into the adult world of finer things. 

Between bright green peas and buttery mashed potatoes lay a slab of flesh, oozing oily red. I was meant to try it first. My parents’ eyes tracked my movements, compelling me forward. I took up my utensils—wooden-handled serrated knives having replaced our usual stainless steel blunt—and sawed off a lightly charred morsel. It felt like a foreign object in my mouth, salty and implacable. I chewed and chewed, and chewed some more. My parents were not great chefs, but they’d made great effort and expected appreciation: Wow, this is so good. What a treat. Instead I faked a cough, spit the masticated mass into my hand, and slipped it to the dog. I just wanted a burger. Was that so bad?

Looking back, I get their frustration. A friend described the situation well when, after spending an entire day cooking Thanksgiving dinner for his family, he recalled to me, “You know when your recognition of the effort someone put into making a meal sort of makes it taste better, even if it isn’t perfect? Yeah, kids don’t have that.” 

I certainly didn’t. Oblivious to the expense, time, and energy that went into my dinner, all I knew at twelve years old was that my first steak experience felt torturous.

Many more bites remained. I understood I was meant to eat them all, joyfully, gratefully. I wasn’t a picky eater as kids go, but that steak! I braved a second piece, some of it relenting to my molars and trickling down my gullet. The rest was stubbornly fibrous, strands of resistance I feared would choke me if swallowed. At some point I quit trying, dessert be damned. There was an inevitable standoff, probably some yelling, and a command to go to my room. It may have been that night my mom, knowing I was still hungry, brought me a bedside offering of oven-crisped Ore-Ida fries, something I really liked.

At fifteen, I stopped eating red meat altogether. I’d become sensitive to its metallic tang about the time I began bleeding once a month. I’m not sure the two events are related, but I can’t say they’re not. I’ve always had a ridiculously acute sense of smell. My subconscious may have registered olfactory similarity and hit the kill switch on my love of hamburger. 

I’d also started reading news magazines, which awakened me to issues of the day. It was the mid-1980s. Rainforest devastation linked to fast food beef was a controversial hot topic. McDonalds sold its fifty-billionth burger. Wendy’s coined the iconic catchphrase, "Where’s the beef?" And where was the beef for all those hamburgers sourced? The Amazon Basin. Staggering statistics cited up to ninety-six square feet of rainforest lost in the production of one burger. My bedroom was one hundred square feet. This felt real. I envisioned rainbow-colored birds, screaming monkeys, and exotic deer fleeing rumbling bulldozers as they downed giant, vine-laden trees to make way for grass and cows. 

“I’m done eating red meat,” I declared.

Twenty-three years later I started up again. After becoming pregnant, my craving for a quarter pound of flesh was so strong I’d have gratefully devoured the sinewy mass I suffered as a kid. I was shocked by my willingness to ditch long-held convictions for a bite of beef and confessed my shame to my OB-GYN.  Even pregnant vegetarians and vegans sometimes find themselves desperate for steak, she assured me, and with good reason. Animal-sourced foods provide valuable nutrition that is hard to obtain through plants alone. Red meat is rich in protein, iron, and vitamins B-6 and B-12—much needed nutrients, especially in pregnancy. Though the same nutrients may be derived from plant sources, it takes a great many more of them. Beans and legumes pack a large protein punch but can be difficult to digest. In my case, much of their nutritional value ends up in the toilet, barely digested. My gut was emphatic. It wanted a thick, juicy cheeseburger, hold the bun, with a generous side of dark leafy greens. Pronto. 

Slightly mollified by my doctor’s words, I still struggled because of what I knew about the beef industry and corporate agriculture. I’d watched Supersize Me and Food, Inc. and wanted no part in systems that raised livestock in crowded, disease-incubating conditions and fed them diets they weren’t meant to eat. A 2002 Farm Bill required retailers to list country-of-origin for fresh meat, and grass-fed producers began distinguishing themselves. Avoiding fast food, I scrutinized grocery store labels, bypassing packages from Bolivia or Brazil. I opted for grass-fed and locally raised and fired up the backyard grill.  

Everything with grill lines tastes so darn good. Something about that caramelizing magic of flame. It’s the only way my son enjoys the zucchini our garden overproduces every summer. Eating outdoors also contributes to the pleasure. Anyone who’s ever been camping knows how much better hot meals taste in the context of conifers. Maybe it’s the fresh air, or the focus that comes with meals anticipated and made as part of a shared experience. Maybe it’s primal, a link between food, wood fire, and big sky, which modern culture misplaced on the way to the grocery store or lost at the drive-through.

Determined to have access to the best food possible, produced sustainably and with care, I moved from a San Francisco apartment to a five-acre farm in Southern Oregon, my baby belly just missing the steering wheel on that long drive north. My son would know the natural world in a way he could never imagine in San Francisco. We’d eat food we also grew. 

At home on the farm, the pleasure of eating grilled meat is amplified by the fact that I now raise much of what makes it onto my plate. Caring for animals from the moment of their birth to the matter of their death is the full catastrophe of joy and pain. It’s Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn’s healing mindfulness—his effort to inhabit and acknowledge every emotion, every experience—applied to food systems. His Full Catastrophe Living stretched to include the species that sustain us, full awareness of the plant and animal lives that make our meal.

I am present for every bit of the process of raising and eating meat, rejoicing at every spring lambing and crying every January slaughter day. The days leading up to each event are filled with nervous anticipation. Once lambs are all safely on the ground, assured their good start to life, I relax. Entertained by their antics and games of chase, I eat many meals in the “nursery,” defending my plate from curious ewes. New Year marks the countdown to goodbye, my cheeks perpetually wet during chores and while scratching wooly backs. Tears roll again when I open the first package of meat from a new animal.

One friend has come every slaughter day for the past four years to witness and support. Together we thank each ewe for her babies and years, each lamb for his joyful play and fast growth, and all for the nourishment they provide. Our very capable mobile butcher quickly and respectfully dispatches them in less than ninety seconds, skinning and cleaning them onsite. I keep back hides, heads, livers, kidneys, and hearts, partnering with tanners, taxidermists and offal-eaters to use all we can. When I pick up the meat, tidily wrapped in white paper, it’s stamped with the type of cut and the sheep’s tag number. My son and I don’t name the sheep, but I know by heart their numbers, coat patterns, voices, preferences, and quirks. 

Number 329, for example, is the most vocal breeding ewe. I recognize her bleat from clear across the creek and farm. She turns her nose up at the sunflower leaves that everyone else devours with gusto, and she inhales alfalfa pellets to the point of coughing. In spring she’s the last to shed out, her glossy black summer coat contrasting with the dull, reddish-brown clump of wool stubbornly clinging to her rump. She avoids scratches then, lest we give her strange bustle a tug. I could list similar quirks for each sheep.

As a meat eater and producer, I hold no beef (couldn’t resist) with individuals who choose not to eat red meat, any meat, or avoid animal products altogether. I do take issue with all red meat being lumped into the same category when it comes to nutritional health, animal welfare, and environmental impact. 

It’s not the same. 

No matter our diets, buying industrially processed food, be it hamburger or Impossible Burger, carries weighty environmental and health impacts such as pollution, proliferation of antibiotic resistant bacteria, diabetes, water contamination, allergies, carbon emissions, and soil depletion. Corporate ag products cost less at the cash register, but we pay for them again and again in other ways. As Michael Pollan writes in Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual, “There’s no escaping the fact that better food, measured by taste or nutritional quality (which often correspond), costs more, because it has been grown or raised with more care.” By eating animals and plants that have, themselves, eaten and lived well, we invest in methods of production that enable a better, healthier future. And by putting effort into learning about our food sources and making some meals from scratch, we rediscover pleasures and flavors dropped out the driver’s side window on our commute to convenience.

My made-from-scratch meals are not all successes. I’ve created my fair share of shoe leather, not understanding that different cuts of meat require particular strategies. Preparing London broil and shank was a real shock after cooking mostly ground meat. It’s a culinary journey my son reacts to with mostly good humor. Raised on organically-grown plants, pastured animal products, and my learning curve, he enjoys full flavors and has a high tolerance for chewy. There’s periodic grumbling at green stuff, some overuse of soy sauce, and a staunch defiance of mushrooms, but I wouldn’t call him a picky eater. On those occasions when he says, “This is really good, Mom,” my heart melts as I gratefully recall all that went into our sustenance, soil to souls, and my part in it.


Environment, Ethics, Food, Health


7 comments have been posted.

Diane, this is a lovely piece in every way I can think of that good writing should be. There's so much here, so well said, and having known you and your farm for almost ten years now, it reads just like it feels to be there with you. Bravo!

SHIRLEY A WEATHERS | July 2023 | Eagle Point, Oregon

Beautifully written! Thank you for telling the important story of the small farmer. Your writing brings me back to the farm life of my childhood, where each cow was named and we knew them from birth to death.

Christine O. | June 2023 | Minneapolis, MN

An informative piece told with great humanity and poetry. What an impressive choice Ms. Choplin has made and how wonderful she is willing to share her insights and learnings with others.

Laurie Reed | June 2023 |

Beautifully said and written.

T | June 2023 |

Having been lucky enough to visit and eat lamb raised on your farm, I can attest to the love and care you put in to raising animals humanely. Thank you Diane!

Emily | June 2023 | Ashland, Oregon

I really loved this essay! Not only did I learn a lot, but it reminded me that red meat isn't all bad or all good, but there's a huge gray area. It's all about how it's raised, how much we consume, and educating ourselves about the source of our meat and its toll on our environment globally. If feel like the author, due to her care and compassion, is the exact kind of person I want raising my meat. (A former vegetarian!) I feel fortunate having environmentally-minded, caring, meat growers like this one in Oregon.

Terah Van Dusen | June 2023 | Walton, Oregon

I resonate with so much of this. (For me it was a slab of beef liver, carefully prepared to help me become un-anemic, but still incredibly disgusting and inedible.) I've been vegetarian, then not, and now live and eat with 3 of them. My attempts to educate about soy vs meat and where it comes from have not yet found much ground. (Pun unintended but noticed.) And whenever I serve something I grew in the garden, it's announced! Haha. And sometimes more appreciated for the effort that went into it.

Jo | June 2023 | Eugene

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