So, yeah. I'm back on the meat.

And it's not like I'm especially proud of that, either--so please don't assume that this column will be a defiant, pro-sausage gloat. Believe it or not, I am still conflicted, and I do feel shame, and I did try to honor my animal-free diet for as long as I could.

But then, on the 18th day, I failed.

It's too humiliating to go into details about what finally broke me. I will only say that my disgusting downfall involved a lot of beer, a six-inch meatball sub, and a challenge from a friend who dared to question my competitive eating skills.

So what the hell happened? How did I get from doing pretty damn well as a beginner vegetarian (and educating myself about how fucked up our country's industrial meat-production methods are) to this drunken, indignant girl who threw away 18 days of earnest self-improvement in the name of pride and gastronomic stamina and plain old FUN?

Maybe the real question here isn't whether or not eating animal flesh is right or wrong--this is, after all, a very personal decision, an issue with all sorts of blurry moral implications. The question that nags at me most is how to do what's good while still doing what feels good. How do I reconcile what I know about factory farms with what I want from a downtown steakhouse? Or is eating meat an irreconcilable act?

There are no easy answers. If you're going to eat meat, you're going to be steeped in contradictions. The beef from the sandwich that broke me was probably made up of low-grade bits of hormone-laced cows raised in their own shit and fed cheap corn mixed with synthetics and ground-up animals parts with inevitable manure. And yet... in that moment... late at night, tipsy and hungry and craving the sheer joy of tasting meat with cheese and garlicky tomato sauce, it just didn't matter, and I put the Right Thing on hold.

There is a tremendous disconnect, at least for me, between the retail grocer and the factory-farm slaughterhouse. A cleaned, portioned, refrigerated cut of meat on display is so far away from a breathing, twitching animal with skin and eyeballs and nerve endings. When I buy broiler thighs to roast with herbs and garlic, I'm not exactly picturing beakless, miserable chickens smashed into tiny crates. What I'm getting at here is that I've been a big, dumb, hedonistic American consumer. And I know that if I had to actually slaughter my own animals, however humanely, I would probably never eat meat again.

However, this still doesn't change the fact that I LOVE MEAT--the flavor, the texture, the way it makes me feel after eating it.

But! Of course animal concentration camps are wrong. Of course poultry and livestock--even poultry and livestock headed for slaughter--shouldn't live depressing, filthy, painful lives.

This is exactly the kind of ambivalence--this sort of back-and-forth waffling with disclaimers and whiny protests of "But I'm really a good person!"--that frustrates me. I want there to be less of a disconnect, I want a more solid ideological leg to stand on. The problem is, there just might not be one.

The most obvious, increasingly popular solution is to be more aware of where my meat comes from, and how humanely that animal was raised and killed; to understand the entire story behind what ends up on my plate. Awareness about indie farms that boast natural meats has heightened in recent years, and "ethical meats"--grass-fed beef, free-range poultry, or hormone-free pork from farmers who treat their livestock with respect--have become more commonplace at supermarkets. The complexities and ambiguities of meat consumption have also received a lot of recent media attention, from Fast Food Nation and Matthew Scully's influential animal-rights book Dominion to Michael Pollan's series in the New York Times Magazine ("Power Steer," March 31, 2002; "An Animal's Place," Nov. 10, 2002). As Pollan simply but brilliantly tells us in "Power Steer," his piece on Midwest cattle ranches, "We are what we eat, it is often said, but of course that's only part of the story. We are what what we eat eats too."

***

Honestly, I don't know where this leaves me. I'm not going to be a successful vegetarian. But something has profoundly changed in the way I think about eating meat. Even now, post-drunken-meatball-eating-contest, I find myself eating meat less casually and less frequently than before my vegetarian experiment. Now I'm careful and picky with labels when I'm meat-shopping. Boneless, skinless Perdue chicken breasts wrapped in plastic and pressed against Styrofoam make me queasy; I haven't made my usual pre-work a.m. pit stop to Burger King in weeks; and I can't imagine purchasing an inexpensive log of ground hamburger ever again--I'd rather buy a piece of pasture-raised natural beef and grind it myself. I've hopped on the natural-foods bandwagon by researching small farms that are more concerned with the well-being of livestock than with efficiency and profit.

I wish all this meant that I will, as a solid rule, only consume, cook, and order meats from animals that were humanely treated, fed a natural vegetarian diet, never given hormones or antibiotics, and raised on agriculturally sustainable soil. That carnivore code of honor might bring me closer to some semblance of resolution, a decent compromise.

But who am I kidding? I won't always be able to exclusively eat meat with a pedigree. I can try, and I certainly will--but I can't promise that I won't break down one night and just have a frickin' Dick's Deluxe, or impulsively compete in another meatball contest, or treat myself to foie gras on my birthday in a fancy restaurant, or cure a Sunday hangover with corned beef hash at my neighborhood diner. There's that disturbing disconnect again: the fact that my strong, selfish desire for what I crave, what's easy and right in front of me, what's instantly gratifying, will sometimes win out over my sense of virtue. Even with all I've learned about ethical, pure meats vs. scary, factory-farm "products," the big, dumb, hedonistic consumer in me is still not able to seamlessly negotiate that intense struggle between what I know to be right, and what I know gives me deep pleasure. For what it's worth, I will keep trying, and at least I am struggling still.

To learn more about pasture-raised, grass-fed, natural meats and other artisanal foods, check out www.slowfood.com and the Chefs Collaborative (www.chefnet.com/cc2000).

"Ethical meats" are widely available by mail order or at stores in the Seattle area. The popular "Rocky" (natural, free-range chicken) and "Rosie" (100-percent organic chicken) brands can be found at places like Whole Foods Market, Thriftway, and Larry's Market, as well as online (www.healthychickenchoices.com/products/ rocky_jr.html).

Trader Joe's and Whole Foods offer meats from Niman Ranch (www.nimanranch.com), the nationally renowned Bay Area producer of natural pork, lamb, and beef from pasture-raised animals. Natural, grass-fed beef from Colorado-based Coleman Ranch (www.colemannatural.com) can be found at Safeway and QFC, along with "Ranger" free-range chickens from Draper Valley Farms (Washington's largest locally owned chicken producer).

You can't really go wrong with the animal husbandry standards of Whole Foods (1026 NE 64th St., 985-1500, wholefoods.com), where all meats come from animals that are hormone- and antiobiotic-free, free-range, and humanely raised, transported, and slaughtered. The family-owned University Seafood & Poultry Co. (1317 NE 47th St., 632-3900) also offers ethical meats and wild-caught seafood.

To order superb natural meats, also check out www.greencircle.com, www.eberlypoultry.com, and www.dartagnan.com.

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