Meating in the Middle: Meat, Water and My Roommate Dilemma

Coloured illustrations of meat and poultry piled onto elaborate silver serving stands, 1901

I have a pretty good arrangement with my roommate: he likes to cook and I like to eat what he cooks so he does most of the cooking and I do most of the dishes. He’s a pretty good cook so I should be really pleased about this arrangement, right?

Here’s my dilemma.

I work in the environmental field and most of my writing is about water resources and indirect water use. I know about the connection between food and water. The population is growing rapidly and freshwater resources are limited and agriculture uses a lot of water, especially meat production. It takes far less water to wash my dinner plate than it does to put a piece of meat on it. In fact, eating less meat is at the top of the list for the best ways to conserve water, but my roommate is a resolute meat eater.

According to my roommate, “No dinner is complete without a piece of meat in the middle of it.” And oh man can he cook some meat. He makes a great Greek salad with skirt steak. His coque au vin can’t be touched. And I'm happy to say that he turned me on to the delights of oxtail. He’s Dominican and has introduced me to a whole new way of spicing food that is so delicious (the more cilantro and lime juice the better!).

His food is juicy and delectable and there’s no way I'm passing up a deal where somebody cooks such treats for me. Call me Debbie Downer, but every time I eat meat I cringe. Partly it’s due to some residual vegetarian guilt. Mostly it’s because I think about how it takes, on average, 1800 gallons of water to put just one pound of beef on the table. If you eat meat, most of your daily water consumption comes from your meat consumption, never mind shorter showers and low flow toilets. Meat production in this country can use enormous amounts of water, especially if the meat comes from grain fed animals and more so if that grain was irrigated.

I've tried introducing the concept of meat-free meals, even in a limited way, but he shoots me a look, shakes his head and says, “No!” When I do cook, I reduce the meat content and he doesn’t seem to notice, or maybe he does and he just doesn’t say anything. He says he likes my cooking so maybe it’s a perception thing to feel like you need a big slab of meat in the middle of your plate. It makes me wonder how common this (mis)perception is in the United States.

The reality couldn’t be further from the truth. There are so many more meat-free options available now than when I was a vegetarian in the 80s and 90s. My options then were limited to beans and rice, tofu and tempeh. I got pretty creative and even made a tofu turkey, complete with vegetables cut into feathers, for Thanksgiving one year (don’t laugh - it was the hit of the meal, even with the carnivores).

It’s not my place to tell people how to eat, even my meat-loving roommate. Ultimately I control only my own actions. I try to make people aware of the connections between food and water and help them understand why conservation is important. Unfortunately we all are impacted by the consequences of our over consumptive ways, especially by a love of meat.

My roommate told me when we moved in together (we were friends beforehand) that I would not turn him into a tree hugger. Lately I've noticed that he’s recycling a lot more than when he first moved in. Also, he’s careful not to run the dishwasher unless it’s full. I think I see some tofu in a future meal.