What Happens When a Vegan Falls in Love With a Carnivore—an Actual Hunter, Even?
A love story about two opposite lifestyles.
“If you Are going to disappear for a few days every time I kill one of my animals, this isn’t going to work. Their deaths are not about you.”– Hunter
illustrations: erin maala
Modern partners are increasingly star-crossed by their food preferences.Eating farmed fish versus wild, having an opinion on GMOs, having no opinion on GMOs, following a raw, gluten-free, nut-free, nightshade-free, breatharian diet—what you choose to put or not put in your mouth can be a deal breaker. We express love by cooking for our partners, and eating with them. What happens when you take that away? The Internet abounds with information about interdietary dating; however, I have yet to find writing that might address my own dating concerns: How does a vegan date a meat-eater? And not just a meat-eater, but an actual hunter?
I HAD SPENT an entire spring silently swooning over Hunter (yes, his name is Hunter)—while a student in his Permaculture Design course. Twenty of us would spend our weekends on farms all over O‘ahu, learning how to apply sustainable agriculture design techniques to urban and rural land spaces.
Despite my lifelong bookishness, I learned nothing about microclimates or mitigating hazards; I was too captured by the tangent of Hunter’s impassioned gestures, by his cynical tone that seemed incongruous with his idealistic lessons on how to best steward the earth and care for its inhabitants. As he explained the relationships between elements in a food forest, I daydreamed about sharing book collections, preferably naked. Without books.
A year earlier, I had taken Hunter’s introductory permaculture workshop. He taught us to design by first observing nature, and, as we began implementing our resilient backyard systems, he warned: You have to be OK with killing things. Hunter meant plants, but his statement swelled portentously in me. You have to be OK with killing things. Our attachment to identity? To toxic behaviors? Ourselves?
I had just ended a relationship that left me questioning how to love someone with compassion, particularly when that person does not want to live at all. I dove into the world of sustainability and growth, desperate to surround myself with life; veganism was one structure I crawled into, calmed by the belief I was doing no harm. I wrote an essay for this magazine on egg donation (bit.ly/hneggdonations), and its first sentence was “I am vegan.”
It was an empowering identity, but for years, grief would still wake me in the middle of the night, sink its teeth in my heart and shake.
On the last weekend of our Permaculture Design course, the class celebrated at a Waimānalo farm. With the help of wine and the threat of imminent partings, I finally managed to speak in Hunter’s presence, and hovered near. Mid-conversation about our favorite Radiolab episodes (inner monologue: “We have so much in common!”), we heard the repetitive echo of what can best be described as a banshee giving birth to an emergency response siren. Hunter disappeared into the growing fields and emerged with a limp peacock in his arms. (Inner monologue interrupted by inner screaming.) My fellow classmates seemed to respect Hunter for his bare-handed hipster-meets-paniolo peacock wrangling. But WWPD? (What Would PETA Do?) I gave him a look that I hoped would express complete horror, but it emerged on my face as something closer to, What? You want to spend the rest of our lives together? Cool, me too.
I reeled with awe at how easily I wrapped my morals in a gigantic red flag and, like a magic trick, made them disappear.
“I slaughter them with the least amount of suffering possible,” he said.
Even a little suffering is too much suffering, I wanted to say, but hormones triumphed over my conscience. I hovered nearer.
For the next few months, I picked up vegetables for the natural foods deli where I cooked as an excuse to see Hunter. It was a transparent ruse. Picking up cassava would blissfully take all day—our wanderings and conversations brought me to a Hawai‘i I had never known. We attempted to milk his nonmilking goat; we pounded taro with drinking glasses (not recommended); we indulged in new flavors—star apple, chico sapote, Jamaican liliko‘i. I was born and raised in Honolulu and was a professional local cook—yet I had never prepared kalo stem, picked ‘ulu, unearthed ‘uala, fingered trailside tangles for small berries or pohole. When he worried that I wouldn’t be able to engage in a significant part of his life with him—the slaughtering of animals—I dismissed his concern because I was raised to believe love conquers all, including murder. There was so much to feel kinship about—exchanging harvests and whisky-flavored secrets, spontaneous dance parties, delight in baby goats and foraged feasts—such a vibrant sense of being alive that it only increased the desire to bury my bleeding heart in the earth of his body.
•At least he doesn’t buy factory farmed meat.
• At least he is connected to the source of his food.
• At least he doesn’t leave peacock heads in the doorway every day.
• At least he is helping cull the destructive wild pig population.
• At least he will be super handy if something apocalyptic separates Hawai‘i from the rest of the world.
• At least he has the skills to dispatch me with minimal suffering if I needed to die really fast. (See “something apocalyptic.”)
Illustrations: Erin Maala
WHEN WE FIRST STARTED DATING, I made neutral, gateway vegan breakfasts such as peanut butter, banana and pumpkin seeds on toast; curried tofu scramble; brown rice and quinoa cooked with taro and coconut milk. But then I slowly began buying eggs, then yogurt. Brie, even. I felt the queasy lurch of hypocrisy, wrapped in acute anxiety that I would run into someone I know at the grocery store and have to exclaim, “I thought it was vegan Brie!” I didn’t know who I was more afraid of—fellow vegans and their surprisingly uncompassionate judgment, or carnivores who would revel in my bullshittery.
A Neanderthal sitting on my shoulder whisper-grunted, If you feed him nutritional yeast sprinkled on kale, he will leave you.
What’s spectacular about new relationships is how they bring out insecurities you hadn’t even considered. I could never be one of the girls Hunter would wax nostalgic about dispatching bunnies with—side by side, holding hands, and the dead bunnies. The kind of girl that could joke about rabbit being the cutest protein, and not feel the skin on her soul crawl. The kind of girl he didn’t call excessively compassionate, as if it were a weakness.
Before I knew it, I was cooking him wild salmon burger loco mocos and birthday bacon cupcakes frosted with bourbon caramel and amaretto buttercream. I hadn’t touched a package of bacon for years, and bought the most expensive “cruelty free” organic bacon from pigs that had frolicked in more wide-open spaces than some urban children—but it still made my heart wince. Why did it haunt me? I watched the most thoughtful, inspiring and world-saving obsessed people I know eat Spam, and I couldn’t help but wonder—why can’t I just eat Spam? I tried not to be the stereotypical self-righteous vegan, but how could mouths that bemoan the mistreatment of dogs and cats consume Spam musubi,
of all things?
There may be plenty of fish in the sea, but, if you’re a 30-something vegan woman living in Hawai‘i—the state where Spam is worthy of its own festival—you eventually begin to say, “To hell with everything I believe in, I’m lonely,” and reach for hands that have just snapped a dozen bunny necks.
With every animal product that found its way into my kitchen, I sacrificed a little bit of my ability to sleep at night. (Literally. If pharmaceuticals had years like the Chinese zodiac, 2014 would have been year of the Ambien.)
I couldn’t help imagining an enduring companionship with Hunter, a life built in our sustainably designed Venn-diagrammed space—sharing a bucket to poop in in order to create beautiful compost together (humanure—Google it); splitting protein bars during marathon used-book–buying binges; me dragging him (clothed) on a trail run, and him dragging me (naked) into even the smallest of waterfall pools; waking to a sky of silhouetted leaves in Kalalau or to the silver glinting of wild dolphins between us and the horizon—waking to the known, warm shiftings of one another but persistently thrilled by each day’s unknown adventure and D.I.Y. wonder.
I wanted to own goats, minus the part where we eat them. I wanted to not hear him tell his roommates how he put his sweet goat down after the goat was attacked by hunting dogs.
“Did Shippy make it?”
“He made it to the pot. He was delicious.”
“How did he die?”
“I slit his throat. His head is out front, if you want to see.”
“I DON’T GET ATTACHED to my food.”
“How can’t you?”
At the beginning, I ignored the livestock pigeons caged in his backyard in order to keep my moral compass from spinning in nauseating circles. When the baby goats and pigs arrived, I understood they were his food, but that didn’t stop me from putting a camo harness on the pig and taking her to Mākua beach (success!) or from swaddling the baby girl goat in a pink vest and trying to take her hiking in Mānoa with my goat-loving blue heeler (epic fail!). I tried to be present, to not juxtapose the half-smiling face as I rubbed a pig’s belly with the image of another, rotating over a fire. I tried not to see the randomness of affection. I didn’t think I would love the type of person who could kill. Perhaps he never imagined sharing even a dark corner of his heart with a vegan, her Tolstoy-quoting T-shirt proclaiming, “As long as there are slaughterhouses, there will always be battlefields.” I should have known better than to snuggle a man’s food and dress it in floral-print spring fashions, but I hoped that compassion would be terms for detente, and that somehow we would all survive.
Illustration: Erin Maala
I STOPPED EATING RED MEAT when I was 12, after reading about slaughterhouses. I don’t remember the last time I ate an egg, cheese or ice cream—because I didn’t know it would be the last time. I was aware of the hypocrisy in my ethics—perhaps my camera strap was faux leather, but my medications were surely tested on animals. My shampoo may have had a heart-shaped “V” to indicate that it was certified vegan, but my vegetables were grown with animal inputs. I did my best; when I said, “I’ll never eat meat for the rest of my life,” I meant it.
Hunter used to joke that he would break me of my veganism, and, on the day we separated our lives, he did. Although I had aggressively avoided the bloody scene of every prior peacock, pig or rabbit death, with our increasing closeness, I felt a creeping obligation to watch him kill an animal; it was impossible for me to imagine—both the capacity and the act.
In his backyard, beneath the lemon tree, he took one of the chickens, curled its head beneath its wing, swung it in slow circles to calm it.
“Do you want to hold it?”
I shook my head.
The first knife he handed me felt too small, the second, massive. We crouched in the mulch, facing each other. The sun was everywhere; he held the chicken down, one hand on its head. I placed my hand over his hand, asked how much pressure to apply. “You’ll know,” he said. I pressed the blade into the chicken’s thin neck—like chopping a carrot, until I hit something. “Draw the knife across,” he said. It was simple and it was nothing. He swooped it upside down as we stood, the chicken flapping, twisting, dripping into the mulch.
I kept asking, “Are you sure it’s dead? Are you sure?”
He flicked the head, strung its body against the tree, grabbed another chicken, snapped its neck. A few minutes ago, there had been four of us and we were all living, and I
was amazed by how suddenly we were separated. How irredeemably.
Sitting side by side on buckets next to the compost pile, I held the one I killed in my arms and could only think about how warm and sweet it felt, as alive as any of the beasts I had held in my arms. I was afraid to hurt it as I ripped its feathers off in sharp handfuls; I accidentally tore an entire chunk of skin and thought, oh god, I’m so sorry, even though its head was already in the compost pile.
After, we sat on his backyard steps, and I cried for what felt like my whole life but was probably three-and-a-half minutes.
How perfect and terrible that last day together was—we talked, laughed, killed, cried onto each other’s faces for hours. How is it that you can love someone so immensely and not find a way to treat them with compassion? All the reasons seemed so small: Because he drinks. Because I go to bed early. Because I love running. Because he believes academic degrees define success. Because I am prone to melancholic fits, which isn’t great for dinner parties. Because he loves dinner parties. Because we are not the same, exact person.
I never ate the chicken. I left it, skinned and eviscerated, in a bowl on its empty cage. I almost laughed at how quickly a life can be dismantled—a head here, a heart there. At how what does us the most harm (the prosaic broken heart) is not what we would expect (slitting an animal’s throat). After these cruelties, I didn’t know what I was capable of anymore. After killing the chicken, I asked if there was anything else we could kill. I asked for drugs (I don’t do drugs). I asked to be let out of the riotous cage of my body.
When I left Hunter, he was sleeping and there was a drop of blood spatter on his ankle. It surprised me, how strong the desire to taste it.
About the Author
Jennifer Meleana Hee is a (mostly) vegan chef for Juicy Brew, where she cooks with her sister. Born and raised in Hawai‘i Kai, she now resides in Kahalu‘u. She is obsessed with her dogs, wilderness and ‘ulu. Follow her foraging and family adventures on Instagram @jennmeleana, and find her eats @juicybrew.