I Used to Love Steak — Then I Met a Cow

How, at age 50, I finally brought my love of animals in line with my behavior.

animal ethics vegetarianism eating meat

Photograph by Justin James Muir

When I was in my 20s, I started working at an alternative weekly, which I should explain to younger readers was a free tabloid-format newspaper that told people where to go, what to do, and which people were being crapped upon by politicians. Most of the other staffers were in their 20s and 30s, but we had a couple of “older” writers, too. One of them — let’s call her “Anna” — had an effortless cool that a young colleague and I admired. We’d whisper about Anna like high-schoolers crushing on the quarterback, and one day we decided to confess. So we went up to Anna, giggling, and said, “We want to be just like you when we grow up.”

Oh boy. We might as well have gifted her a subscription to AARP.

At the time, we didn’t get it. To us, Anna seemed like an adult, and we assumed that when we reached the ripe old age of 46 or so, we’d feel adult, too, and be pleased to have the young folk look up to us.

But as I’d learn in the years to come, even when you’re an adult, you don’t necessarily feel like one. It’s not as though there’s some Harry Potter moment when you go to King’s Cross and walk through the wall and suddenly it’s fine for people to call you “ma’am” or offer you a senior discount. There is no momentous click: “Finally! I am that competent, knowledgeable grown-up who understands IRS deductions and home refinancing! What a nice suit I’m wearing!”

Even when I reached my mid-40s, which is undeniably middle age, there was no sense of arrival, only an ongoing dislocation as my face changed in the mirror and 20-something colleagues youngsplained Twitter. I spent much of my 40s feeling shocked by how people saw me, and I thought a lot about something my grandmother used to say, even into her 90s: “Inside,” she’d tell me, “I still feel 19.”

Research has shown that people age at vastly different rates. In 2015, a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences demonstrated that biological age — which is determined by physiological markers such as blood pressure, organ function and metabolism — can vary significantly for people born in the same year. That means that some people, physically, are younger than their age — like that 82-year-old weight lifter on YouTube — and some people are older. This discrepancy has led to dozens of online quizzes that allow you to test your biological age and learn how to game the system, usually by being less sedentary and eating less junk.

The last one of those tests I took showed I was 20 years younger than my chronological age, which was nice. But it doesn’t actually explain the persistent disconnect between biological age and self-perception. I have a vision of myself hurtling through time — perhaps in an Elon Musk child-rescue capsule, just for fun — with my visceral sense of self trailing like a scarf caught in the door.

I’ve been thinking about all this because I turned 50 this summer, and I’m trying to embrace it. After all, after so many years of illness and suicidal ideation, it’s quite a miracle that I’m here at all. And I’m attempting to sync the number 50 with myself by asking: Who should Liz Spikol be as a credible 50-year-old?

In all my considerations, which were mostly done at night, on my couch, while playing Candy Crush on my phone, I kept coming back to one thing: It’s time to meet a cow.

Anyone who’s read my writing over the years knows I’m an animal freak. I’d rather talk about dogs or birds or hamsters or even guinea hens than any other topic, which makes me fun at parties. When social media feed me videos they think I’ll be interested in, they’re inevitably things like a husky on its back on the grass, yowling “no,” refusing to leave the park.

And yet there’s something else, too, that I haven’t mentioned a lot: For my whole life, I’ve been a meat eater. I don’t just mean a person who has a burger every now and then or gets chicken on the Caesar salad. I’ve been a devourer of animal flesh. I grew up on hoagies and cheesesteaks, in a Jewish home where bacon was king, and every year for my birthday I go out for the most expensive steak possible — as though I haven’t been eating steak and sausage and chicken and lamb and roast pork and all the rest for the entire year prior. I’ve had an almost spiritual relationship with steak. I don’t drink or smoke weed, but I do get high on steak.

In April, I went to Argentina with my boyfriend, and it was savage. With each bite we took of what is arguably the best beef in the Southern Hemisphere, we’d gaze at each other across the table, our expressions rhapsodic, like we were posing for a remake of Caravaggio’s Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy.

Yet even then, alight in a carnivorous glow, I knew it had to end. It was time, at 50, to bring my abiding love of animals into accord with my behavior, and if I would balk at eating a dog, why eat a cow? Some people argue they’re different, and that works for them. I’m not judging. But I have never really believed any animal is more worthy or sentient than any other. It breaks my heart to see a dead mouse on the sidewalk — I lament all the scurrying and nibbling it’s missing out on. That’s just not consistent with someone who gnaws on chicken wings.

As with the discrepancy between age and sense of self, there’s a disconnect between animal and “meat” for the casual eater. If the meat had a face, it would be harder to eat, but by the time a cow becomes a cheesesteak with Whiz, it’s just a local tradition, rather than a once-living creature. That’s why I’ve been wanting to meet a cow — to make it real.

So a few weekends ago, I went to Chenoa Manor, a nonprofit farm and animal sanctuary in Chester County, to participate in a farmhand workshop. Chenoa was founded by veterinarian Rob Teti, who’d dreamed of a haven for farm and work animals ever since he was a kid. Now, the 25-acre parcel is home to horses, pigs, donkeys, cows, llamas, alpacas, emus, geese, ducks, tortoises, rabbits, parrots, chickens and others — most of them refugees from labs, factory farms, slaughterhouses and the like. The farm holds public events but doesn’t seem exceedingly interested in courting public attention. Rather, the workers are focused on the work, and when you’re out on that beautiful land, away from honking cars and harried city pedestrians, you can see why they might not want it overrun with tourists.

The animals obviously have great lives there, doing what they want with no expectations except to be the most emu an emu can be. Two horses galloped across a field to inspect our group. The male sniffed each of us in turn, while his mother stood back and watched. Then he galloped away, and his mother followed. Seeing a horse run so freely, without a human or hardware attached, is a rare sight for a city dweller. It was glorious.

We spent a lot of time with goats, which was delightful. I had never seen goats stand on their hind legs to reach tall tree leaves, and I was happy to learn they pedal their hooves in the air as though they’re bicycling to keep balance.

We heard all about plant life and nature-based art projects, and then, at the end of the day, I asked to meet a cow. It was time for the reckoning.

We walked past a llama and an alpaca and a couple ponies to a rectangle of shade on one of Chenoa’s pastures. Though I’ve obviously seen cows from my car window, standing next to them is altogether different. They’re huge, especially cows that have been allowed to grow naturally rather than sent to slaughter. The five cows were all sitting down except one — and that one was the largest. Bentley is a dappled brown and white, with long, sharp horns. The words “lumbering beast” came to mind, but Heather Leach, who’d taught us a horticultural lesson earlier in the day, told us that Bentley was very friendly and liked people. Unfortunately, this resulted in his moving his mini-fridge-size head toward the person next to him, which was fine until he had to shake the summer flies off his face, swiveling those sharp horns.

Once I figured out how to stand next to him without being accidently impaled, I enjoyed petting his soft fur and looking into his black cow eye fringed with white eyelashes. I also scratched behind his ear, and he tilted his head accordingly. He liked the attention, though my fingers go much farther on my Chihuahua.

I met Lorraine, too, and Jamar, and was able, even in the short time we were there, to get a sense of these cows as individuals. If you’d asked me before if I’d be able to remember and name individual cows, I would have thought you were crazy.

On the other side of the fence there was Remus, an enormous pig who stood up when he saw me and stretched his nose in my direction. I put my hand against the fence so he could smell me, and Remus pushed his right ear against my hand and made a rubbing motion, like a cat doing a friendly head butt. When a cat bangs into your hand, though, it feels like a tap. When a large pig does it, it can knock you off balance, which is what happened to me. Since he threw his entire weight against the fence, I fell to one knee and dropped my bag. I was a little embarrassed to be felled by a pig, but when I righted myself and turned around, my view was entirely obscured by cowhide.

Bentley and Jamar had positioned themselves in a semicircle around me, like I was a calf they were blocking from predators.

“They’re protecting you!” Heather shouted from the other side of the cow wall.

Indeed, that’s exactly what it seemed like. They were completely still, standing in this formation, and I was hidden from view. I wasn’t sure what to do, so I just stood there, respecting their effort. Even though they weren’t looking at me, they were absolutely engaged with me. It was so different from having my dog paw at me, making desperate eye contact. Before I met these cows, I would have said that was the most authentic human-animal connection there was. But this was a rich communion as well, maybe even more profound for its silence.

My eyes filled with tears. “I’m sorry,” I whispered to them. “I won’t do it anymore.”

I meant eat them, of course. And I haven’t.

As an adult, I haven’t hit any of the traditional milestones: I’m not married, I don’t have children, and I don’t own a home. My car is a 21-year-old hand-me-down missing half its front bumper. The length of time I go between laundry loads is scandalous. I love all those memes people post about the challenges of “adulting,” even though I know they’re made for millennials. So much of the struggle seems to be having enough discipline to get tasks done. Self-discipline is hard.

I’ve never been disciplined in the slightest (ADD doesn’t help), so I thought giving up meat was going to be brutal. In preparation, I went to Whole Foods and spent $230 on non-meat products I’d never heard of. I bought vegan moisturizer and cruelty-free hemp body wash. I had lunch at Hip City Veg and Mama’s Vegetarian. When I told a meat-eating colleague I was going to dinner at Vedge, he said facetiously, “Enjoy your $15 carrot.” When we got there, that was the first thing I saw on the menu: a $15 carrot. It was delicious.

All this prep work wasn’t necessary, as it turned out. Unlike the number 50, which still strikes me as foreign, not eating animals feels right. I feel lighter and truer. I make more sense to myself. Sure, I could get all boring on the subject of factory farming and environmental impact, but that’s not how I got here. It was just time.

Maybe that’s what being an adult is all about. It gets to be time for certain things, and then making the change or having the discipline is easy. This year, I became a vegetarian and started exercising, and they both fit. Maybe next year it’ll be the laundry. Fingers crossed.

Published as “Don’t Have a Cow” in the September 2018 issue of Philadelphia magazine.