When I saw that my butcher was calling, I dreaded answering the phone. Yes, when I decided to replace meat with an entirely plant-based menu at Honest Tom’s, I knew there would be blowback. I knew there’d be a lot of social media sniping, and maybe even some people stopping into my restaurant to give me a piece of their mind—although that never happened. I had totally braced myself for all of it. But I hadn’t really thought about the fact that I would be severing a relationship that I had had for years with my butcher, and that he might want to give me an earful on the way out.
But that’s not what he did. Instead, he said, “I’m a third-generation butcher, and obviously I hate to lose the business, but I just want to let you know that I respect what you’re doing.”
That unexpected tender moment was as surreal as anything that happened since I stopped eating all animal products.
I never thought I’d stop eating meat. Actually, I never even thought about meat at all. It was just always there, sitting in front of me when I was hungry, on the menu at the restaurant, stacked neatly at the supermarket, or slowly rotating on a wheel at the gas station.
But one day this all changed. It was a hot Monday morning in July, and I had just returned from a trip with the wife to her hometown in central PA, a trip full of carnival food, cheese fries, pit beef, funnel cakes and Ruby Tuesday visits. I woke up feeling like I had mud guts, so I did what any normal, rational thinking person would do: I decided to become a vegan.
Well actually, I decided I’d become a vegan for a few days, because Friday was pizza and chicken wing night. But two days later, I was hooked on my new diet. I felt great and promptly extended the timeline of my newfound vegan lifestyle to two weeks, and within a few more days it was 90 days. By the following Monday, it was forever.
But something was still bothering me. Sure, it was great to give up the various animal parts and their secretions for my own personal health reasons. I was eating great and starting to get into some semblance of shape for the first time in my life. However somewhere in between googling jackfruit recipes and image searching week-by-week vegan body result pictures, I started digging a little deeper. I wanted to look at where all this meat was coming from. I knew slaughterhouse footage didn’t make for a cozy evening on the couch, but I had to see it, and it was much worse than I thought. The conditions the animals were living in and the methods of their killing and the impact all of it was having on the planet was almost impossible to take in.
All I could think about was how these crammed cows and sore covered pigs and deformed chickens I was watching videos of would days later be getting stuffed into my tacos and burritos. For the past nine years, I had been making a living off this, and I didn’t want to be a part of it anymore. I didn’t want to have to explain to my kid why factory-farmed animals were bad to eat but okay to profit off.
I needed to get animals off the menu and there was no other way around it.
It was somehow both the hardest decision I have ever made, but at the same time the easiest.
I suppose I could have made everyone happy and just hid behind words like “natural” and “humanely slaughtered” and “free range,” and just expanded the vegan options, but I wouldn’t be able to call the place Honest anymore, or look at myself in the mirror. And I’m happy that my butcher understood that.
Tom McCusker is the owner of Honest Tom’s Plant Based Taco Shop in West Philadelphia.