Suddenly non-vegetarian: Dilemmas in anthropological fieldwork

I thought I had prepared for my PhD fieldwork in India and Papua New Guinea. I’d taken language lessons, made initial contacts, researched cultural traditions, read the Lonely Planet guides to each place, tried to anticipate what culture shock might be like, and decided to ‘expect the unexpected’. What I hadn’t fully considered, however, was what I would eat in the field.

Being vegetarian was no problem on my trips to Kolkata (India) where vegetarianism is normal for many. It was easy to find suitable street food and restaurants when I was out and my (Muslim) research participants usually included a vegetarian dish in their meals. I even found vegetarian options at weddings I attended (which was a relief, as it is considered rude not to eat at a wedding and I wanted to be a good guest).

On my first trip to Lae (Papua New Guinea) however, I suddenly became non-vegetarian. I’d met with a village women’s literacy group and, after touring their facilities and meeting the women involved, we shared a meal. Pride of place at the meal was a pig the women had slaughtered and cooked. As a guest, I was offered my plate of food first. All eyes were on me as I accepted it and sat down to eat. I had seconds to decide whether to decline the pork and risk offending my hosts, or whether to eat what was on the plate in front of me. I ate it. I was quite unwell afterwards (not having eaten meat in some years) but preferred this to the discomfort I thought I would have caused by refusing the meal cooked for me.

Everyone has different reasons for becoming vegetarian. Mine involved the treatment of animals in the commercial meat industry in New Zealand, and the fact that I don’t like the taste of red meat. I remember quickly thinking ‘it’s okay, they’ve raised and killed this pig themselves’ and ‘this doesn’t look too bad’ before I ate it. For the rest of my fieldwork in PNG I ate meat when it was offered to me and, over time, became non-vegetarian at home as well (for a whole host of different reasons, and I still dislike red meat).

Recently, conversations I’ve had with colleagues suggest that suddenly becoming non-vegetarian is actually quite common. David Sutton (1997) has written about being a vegetarian anthropologist but I haven’t found much written by anthropologists who faced food-related dilemmas during fieldwork and changed their dietary practices (by either becoming non-vegetarian or vegetarian), temporarily or permanently. Is this because it is considered ‘normal’ or expected for anthropologists to follow the cultural practices of those we work with?

I am curious to find out whether others have crossed the vegetarian/non-vegetarian divide while doing fieldwork. Did you become non-vegetarian, vegetarian, vegan? Why? Have you maintained it? I would love to hear about your experiences!

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