After a childhood spent fishing for trout, Tovar Cerulli began to experiment with
vegetarianism in his teens. By the age of twenty, he was a vegan. A decade later, in
the face of declining health, he returned to omnivory and within a few years found
himself heading into the woods, rifle in hand.
Through his personal quest, Cerulli bridges the seemingly disparate worldviews of
hunting and vegetarianism: can fishing and hunting be respectful ways for humans
to connect with nature and their food? How harmless is vegetarianism? How do
we make peace with the fact that life is sustained by death? At once compassionate
and probing, The Mindful Carnivore offers fresh, thought-provoking ideas about the
food on our plates.
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About the Author
Tovar Cerulli awarded a graduate school fellowship by the University of Massachusetts-Amherst in 2009, where he is researching diverse perspectives on human relationships with the natural world. He lives in Vermont with his wife, Catherine. Visit his webiste at www.tovarcerulli.com.
Read an Excerpt
The Mindful Carnivore
A Vegetarian's Hunt for Sustenance
By Tovar Cerulli
Pegasus Books LLCCopyright © 2012 Tovar Cerulli
All rights reserved.
No More Blood
The lavish Earth heaps up her riches and her gentle foods, and offers you dainties without blood and without slaughter.
The trout, pinned to the cutting board, flared its gills for water that wasn't there. The thin blade of my fillet knife hovered above. I had been thinking about kindness.
The week before—halfway through college and full of questions—I had attended a retreat led by Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh. He spoke of compassion. He encouraged vegetarianism and said how glad he was to see tofu becoming available in American supermarkets. Most of all, he encouraged mindfulness.
I severed the trout's head and felt a sharp twinge as the blade bit.
The killing hadn't bothered me when I was a boy. I remember a snapshot from back then: My father's friend Willie stands beside me on a low granite shelf at the water's edge. We're both bundled in winter jackets, his giant form dwarfing my small one, our attention fixed on the boundary between air and water and on the unseen presences moving below.
I remember how chilly it was that April day. I remember my father out on the water in the battered, oft-patched rowboat; he had his camera with him. I remember because that was the day of the salmon egg.
Willie had opened his tackle box, taken out a jar, unscrewed the lid, and extracted a small red orb, no more than a quarter-inch across. Deftly, his big hands pierced the salty-smelling egg with a tiny gold hook. It disappeared inside. The length of nearly invisible leader between hook and swivel seemed too delicate to withstand a fish of any size. Willie cast out a short distance and let the egg settle into the depths. Minutes later, the diminutive tackle struck its mark and he reeled in the biggest brook trout I'd ever seen, its sparkling bulk almost a foot and a half long.
Willie grinned, cheeks bunching up on either side of his broad face. I was thrilled. And mystified, too, that he had accomplished the feat with such finesse, with such improbably small implements.
I lost the photo years ago. But the image remains with me: the place where it was pinned up in my father's house, the intent looks on Willie's face and mine, the quarry wall behind us, the blueberry bushes and birch saplings clinging to crevices in the rock.
I had caught my first fish within twenty yards of that spot, a few years earlier, at the age of three or four. My mother had chaperoned me down to the water's edge and I'd tossed in a hook baited with bread. Rewarded by a tug on the line, I had hauled up my first scaly prize. I suppose I should prevaricate here, in the venerable tradition of fish stories both exaggerated and fabricated, by waxing lyrical about the majesty of carp—which Izaak Walton called "the queen of rivers"—and about the daring exploits of carp fishermen around the globe. There is, however, no getting around it. The carp I caught was an orange-and-white goldfish. Some nine inches long, perhaps, but a goldfish nonetheless.
When the fishing bug bit me more seriously at five or six, Willie became my mentor in all things finned and gilled. A big man, quick to laugh, he had grown up in South Carolina and Harlem, and had met my father years later when they both lived in Boston. I didn't know much of his story then. I knew he was a clever angler, knowledgeable about fish and water and tackle; I had no idea his innate brilliance had earned him a full scholarship at Boston University and, later, admission to Harvard Business School, which he attended on the GI Bill, both in an era when racial integration was far from the norm. I knew he was imperturbable; I had no idea that he'd done three tours of duty with the navy and another tour in the struggle for civil rights, sustained by a spirituality that had little to do with religion. I knew he always seemed genuinely happy—"in good humor and good spirits," as he put it; I had no idea how deep he'd dug, completing his MBA at Harvard and then turning his back on the lucrative life he could have led to start a custom furniture business and return to the craft he had learned to love in the high school woodshop at Bronx Science.
Nor did I know what it was like for him to visit us there in southern New Hampshire. The area was, like me, quite white. And Willie was black. I never stopped to think about it. To me, he was simply a marvelous fisherman and longtime friend.
By the time he and I started fishing together, I was living in Vermont with my mother and stepfather. Whenever Willie's visits to New Hampshire coincided with mine, we made the most of the daylight. We stood for hours on low ledges around the quarry's perimeter. Or we drifted around those two and a half acres of water in the old rowboat, flakes of pale- blue paint peeling from its interior. My father, who didn't care to fish, left us to it.
Willie treated me like a full-fledged fishing partner. When I had questions, he listened closely and gave real answers. On the water, though, we talked little. Mostly we waited in silence, watching our spiraled lines dimple the water's surface as they went out, praying for an acceleration or pause in their movement, any sign of a trout taking the bait. As the lines straightened, all attention went to our rod tips, to anticipating a slight twitch, a sudden increase in the tension of line against forefinger. When we pulled trout from twenty, forty, or sixty feet down, we delighted in their sparkling jewel-like colors, red spots haloed in blue. Then we ate them.
We did not catch and release. Why torture your food? We caught and killed, stopping when we had enough. And we had no qualms about it. Like Willie, I enjoyed the catching: the undeniable excitement of the first tug on the line, the uncertainty of whether I would land the fish and, if I did, of how large or small it would prove to be. Not that the size of the catch mattered much: We were fishing for lunch, not bragging rights.
An enthusiastic young omnivore, I also enjoyed the eating. The killing was merely a means to an end, to putting the trout on a plate. I took no pleasure in beheading my prey. I simply did it, without thought or apology. Willie and I didn't talk about such things back then. We just fished, killed, and ate.
Willie's passion for food had, over the years, enlarged his naturally big frame. I remember him standing near the water one time, telling my father how he had lost weight. He pointed to his leather belt, at eye level for me. Curved wear lines showed that he had taken it in several notches.
"The only exercise I've been doing is pushing myself away from the table," said Willie. He demonstrated the motion with his big arms and laughed, his barrel chest heaving with a surprisingly high-pitched, nasal chuckle.
We cooked the brookies simply. Each was beheaded and gutted with my birch-handled fillet knife, then fried in a cast-iron skillet with butter. The finely scaled skin crisped to a golden brown. The delicate flesh separated easily from spine and ribs.
Between catching and cooking, each fish was measured, its length jotted in a little spiral-bound logbook that Willie had encouraged me to start: date, length of fish, lure or bait used, any special notes such as food found in the mouth or stomach. Though he had spent much of his life in cities and still lived in the Boston area, Willie observed the world with a naturalist's eye. He knew that keeping track of details would help me understand the fish we hunted and the ecology of the place. It had been years since any trout were stocked in the quarry but they—like the goldfish someone had apparently dumped there—had taken well to their new home. The big trout suggested ample insects and minnows to feast on. The constant presence of little ones indicated successful spawning.
I couldn't have found a better creature on which to focus my hungry curiosity about local life-forms. Though the old granite quarry in which they swam was hardly a natural feature of the landscape, the trout themselves were. Brook trout (Salvelinus fontinalis) are native to only one place on the planet: eastern North America, from the streams of the Appalachian Mountains, up through the Great Lakes basin and New England, and northward all the way to Hudson Bay and the northern Atlantic.
Though being of the genus Salvelinus technically makes them char, not trout, brookies are members of the broader trout and salmon family: Salmonidae. Like all salmonids, they're thought to be descended from a common ancestor species that lived in the rivers and lakes of southwestern Canada fifty million years ago. That's most of fifty million years before anyone resembling you or me showed up. We Homo sapiens are a very recent blip. Brookies and their ancestors were here a long, long time before we got around to noticing how gorgeous they were. And how tasty.
Each summer, as soon as school was out and I had arrived from Vermont, I would begin scouting for that summer's sweet spot, relying on my rough mental map of the underwater terrain. From constant exploring and swimming, sometimes with a diving mask, I knew every foot of the perimeter: where the cliff walls plunged straight down toward the bottom, where shelves jutted out, where the rock piles were, where branches and leaves collected, threatening to snag my hook if I cast in too close. The deeper reaches remained more mysterious. My father had been down there with scuba gear once and said there was a grocery cart on the bottom. We joked that in the movies it would have been something more sinister, probably a car.
My father had a pair of grainy, black-and-white photos from the quarrying days. The men looked tiny at the bottom of the ninety-foot granite cliffs. From those pictures, taken shortly before the quarrying stopped, I could see the shape of the basin: the shallow, low-walled section and the wider, deeper end. Where would the trout be in summer? During April vacation, with the ice just melted as it was the day Willie landed that huge one, we would often see—and catch—hungry fish near the surface, as they hunted every corner for minnows and insects. Though more adaptable than other species of char, brookies prefer chillier water than do their rainbow and brown trout cousins over in genera Oncorhynchus and Salmo. By July, as the upper waters warmed, they'd be deep, especially at midday.
But logic was only part of the equation. In selecting a sweet spot, I relied on intuition, too. After a bit of scouting, I would decide on a place without knowing exactly why. Perhaps the spot didn't matter. Perhaps I would have done just as well somewhere else. It felt like it mattered, though, as if that was the exact place I needed to be if I wanted good luck.
One summer my spot was a deep corner under the tallest cliff. Another year, my father and I set out an old, dark-green glass buoy, anchored to the bottom about twenty feet down. I would tie the rowboat to the netted four-inch sphere and sit there over the rock pile that marked the transition from the quarry's shallow section to the deeper eastern end. On a calm, bright day I could see the rocks below, illuminated by ribbons of sunlight streaming downward like the fanned tail of some great bird. If I was lucky, I might pick out the dark shape of a trout silhouetted against the granite and have the chance to get my hook out ahead of it. In dimmer light, I would watch for narrow, white fin edges ghosting by.
There, in my little corner of the world, I was fascinated by the drama of eaters and eaten, aware that I was only one predator among many.
Under the eaves of my father's house, antlions lay in ambush, their conical pit traps pocking the dusty earth. When an ant fell in and began scrambling out—or when a curious boy trickled in a few grains of sand—the hidden lion would rear its flat, ferocious head from the bottom of the pit. If an ant was within reach, the lion would seize it in its massive jaws. If not, the lion would flick up showers of sand, destabilizing the loose sides of the pit and bringing its scrabbling prey back down. I passed no judgment on the antlion—the larval form of an insect resembling a damselfly—for killing ants. That was its nature.
Toward the end of those long summer days, as the light began to fade, I would watch trout surfacing for food. The best shows were the all-out minnow chases. A little shiner—sometimes two or three of them abreast—would leap clear of the water, a hungry trout inches behind. A few feet farther on, the minnows would break the surface again, seeking escape, the trout still nipping at their tails. A third or fourth time the chase would flash into view before vanishing toward an uncertain conclusion.
Watching these chases reminded me of more exotic creatures. I had learned about the cheetah from the box of National Geographic cards that lived on the top shelf of my bookcase, and my mother had made me a quilt with the face of that great cat at its center, striking black eye lines embroidered on yellow, running down around the muzzle like tears. I had met the peregrine falcon as Sam Gribley's companion, Frightful, in My Side of the Mountain. I knew that both were endangered—the cheetah by hunting and habitat loss, the peregrine by decades-long use of the pesticide DDT. This concerned me. But what seized my imagination was their raw, predatory speed.
I had seen it on Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom: the cheetah's slow, careful stalk, the explosive charge, a gazelle leaping away, the cat accelerating to seventy miles per hour in a matter of seconds. It made my heart race. And even that stunning velocity was eclipsed—three times over—by the deadly strike of the peregrine, hurtling down in my mind's eye like an arrow from the sky.
As a young bipedal predator, I had neither great stealth nor great speed. What I had was stubbornness, augmented by luck. I also had innate cleverness and a few rudimentary skills that—like Willie's far greater and long-practiced skills—were unimpeded by allegiance to any notion of aesthetic purism.
I fished with whatever worked: lures, salmon eggs, live bait. Grasshoppers were a favorite, caught by hand among the tall grasses of a nearby field and stowed in a plastic bread bag. Minnows were a close second. A wire-mesh trap, baited with crumbs and set overnight in a shallow, sheltered corner of the quarry, would yield a dozen or more by morning.
In a pinch, if I wanted a minnow but hadn't set out the trap, I would catch them singly, on a tiny hook. One afternoon I impaled a small black ant on such a hook and, rod in hand, threaded my way down to another corner of the quarry where thick alders overhung the water. Minnows congregated there in the shade. They scattered as I lowered the hook. I thought I had startled them, but then saw a trout just cruising into the shallows. I jiggled the hooked ant. To my delight, the hunter struck and I had an eight-inch fish in hand.
Another summer, I watched one drama unfold evening after evening: a single trout hunting whirligig beetles. Each time I saw the fish, it surfaced in the same area. Each time, it appeared to be the same size. I decided I was seeing the same trout again and again. Most of its leaps missed the beetles as they zigzagged their way across the surface. The ripples would subside and the whirligig would emerge, still paddling away in its evasive pattern. But the trout was persistent. Eventually there would be a leap, the ripples would vanish, and the beetle would be gone.
The trout's tenacity gave me an idea. Though I knew little about fly-fishing, I had a rod, and I'd taken a short series of classes in fly-tying, taught by an old Vermonter who knew his stuff. The flies I had tied under his direction included a compact, dark-gray bundle of deer hair with an encouraging name: Irresistible. It floated and was about the same size as a whirligig beetle.
Excerpted from The Mindful Carnivore by Tovar Cerulli. Copyright © 2012 Tovar Cerulli. Excerpted by permission of Pegasus Books LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1 No More Blood 1
2 Man the Gardener 19
3 Trouble in Eden 37
4 An Animal Who Eats 53
5 Where the Great Heron Feeds 65
6 Hunter and Beholder 85
7 Double Vision 102
8 A Hunter's Prayer 121
9 Healing Ground 143
10 Into the Woods 156
11 Kinds of Killing 177
12 Fickle Predators 192
13 Blood Trails 202
14 Hunting with the Buddha 216
15 The Red Deer 231
16 Reckoning 243
Epilogue: Mindful Eating 253