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Is meat OK? Student potluck in the age of identity politics

Eating — An international group of students at Advanced Migration Studies decided to have a julefrokost. Then someone suggested a totally meat free menu.

The room was booked, the date was set, and the Facebook event was made. The students of Advanced Migration Studies were going to host a julefrokost.

As Master’s students studying contemporary human migration at The Faculty of Humanities at the University of Copenhagen (a liberal-minded institution), the milleu of attendees was going to be unsurprisingly anti-establishment. As such, we decided that though the event took the name of the Danish cultural rite of the julefrokost we would buck tradition and create a feast of international holiday dishes for a lovely (and mostly non-denominational) evening.

Eating pork or not shouldn’t be an identity

Student Janna Aldaraji, vegetarian

Three days before the luncheon one of the Advanced Migration students posed a question on the event page, asking »Can we make this a vegetarian thing?«

The suggestion was not surprising given that around 25 percent of the forty students in the program are committed vegetarians, and many of the others eat vegetarian food happily and often. There was some immediate support for the suggestion indicated by likes and emojis and enthusiastic comments.

Potluck with limitations

I, however, along with Barbara, the Danish student with whom I was organizing the event, immediately felt a little hesitant. The suggestion of making the julefrokost a meat-free evening was completely fair and admirable. It is well known at this point that meat and animal by-product industries are a leading cause of climate change and environmental degradation and destruction globally. It is also a fact that in commercial settings the treatment of animals serving these industries is often lamentable, if not deplorable.

So, there are some very legitimate and convincing reasons to reduce personal meat consumption or forego the food category entirely. However, the dilemma at hand was not »Should I be a meat-eater?« but rather, »Should we ask that everyone be a vegetarian for the evening?«

For myself and Barbara this scenario thus quickly and honestly became a question of rights and freedoms (do not read this sentence as hyperbole). While there would be quite a few vegetarians in attendance there are also many students in the program who eat meat on a regular basis. And given that the purpose of the evening was to bring a favourite homemade holiday dish and enjoy each other’s traditions it felt a little imposing to require that it be something meatless. What if a Spanish student had planned to bring charcuterie? Or an American student bacon and brussel sprouts? Or a Japanese student fried chicken?

No rules, only encouragements

In the end Barbara and I replied and weighed in that we thought we should leave it open for people to decide what to bring, but that vegetarian dishes would be encouraged so that everyone could share in the food of the evening.

The event went over beautifully with a delicious selection of international homemade and … get this … vegetarian dishes. In the end, the only dish that included meat of any kind was one of my two smørrebrød, which had a bit of smoked white fish.

Maybe a local chicken is a more climate friendly choice than soya beans from China

Student Barbara Højlund Jacobsen

No One Brought Meat

The fact that no one decided to bring meat-dishes is suspicious. Surely, student budgets are not amenable to bringing sumptuous dishes of prime rib and proscuitto wrapped chicken and seared scallops to potluck dinners. But I was left wondering if some attendees who might have otherwise brought a meat dish were deterred from doing so because they felt social pressure to go vegetarian for the evening. I can attest that I felt extremely conflicted about the following:

  1. Was I being overly principled by arguing in the first place that meat should be allowed?
  2. Was I somehow now obliged to bring a meat dish because I had argued that they should be allowed?
  3. Was my bringing a meat dish now, after this whole discussion, going to be perceived as spiteful by my vegetarian friends?

Needless to say, I was uneasy about my new identity as a spokesperson for carnivors, not least because I personally believe that going meatless is an laudable thing to do, and one which I myself feel increasingly partial to.

Talking It Out Together

I sat down afterwards with three fellow students, including the one that suggested we made the evening vegetarian to discuss our julefrokost- dilemma and reflect on how to make decisions relating to food politics in the future.

»I guess most of my friends are vegetarian so I am in a kind of bubble,« said Janna Aldaraji, who’s a vegetarian.

Barbara Højlund Jacobsen said that she was shocked recently when she heard that consumption of meat in Denmark has not changed over the last few years, given that she feels she is surrounded by more vegetarian friends and options than ever before.

Maybe we’ll decide to have a vegetarian påskefrokost after all

She added: »I think some meat eaters are feeling that they are wrong now. And I’ve seen some social consequences of that, where people suddenly feel very judged or targeted.«

Arla Eveliina who suggested we went vegetarian at the potluck, stated that in this area people should not be left with a choice, because eating meat is just not sustainable:

»If we want to do something for the climate we need to take action and force ourselves to do things differently. People taking that choice alone will be too slow.  The focus has to move toward political and structural change, like that the canteen at the university shouldn’t serve meat and that the government should help find new jobs for people who work in the meat industry,« she said.

Janna, who share a home with six others, is not a super strict vegetarian herself and she respects that people have different diets:

»There are times when I’ve thought it causes more of a fuss not to eat meat. You don’t always have to fight that fight. But I think there is a need for everyone to be a bit more open to taking on criticisms of their food habits and having open discussions that are less personal. It’s so strange that what you eat can be so political and become a part of your identity. Eating pork or not shouldn’t be an identity,« Janna said.

Barbara sometimes feels self-conscious eating meat, she said:

»I feel like I try to justify my decision on other parameters. I always buy expensive meat from animals that have been treated well and had a good life. But I almost feel worse eating an avocado than a chicken because my concerns are more with CO2 than with animal rights. For me, at least, I want to challenge the assertion that eating meat is never sustainable: Maybe a local chicken is a more climate friendly choice than soya beans from China,« Barbara said.

Personal and sensitive

Well, it is undeniable that decisions around what we eat are personal and sensitive, and that making those decisions and negotiating in a group setting poses challenges. Was the suggestion of having a vegetarian julefrokost enough to push an already receptive audience toward deciding to make a meatless dish? Was it constraints of student budgets that ensured our evening was almost entirely meat-free? Or are there simply so many herbivores studying migration?

Maybe we’ll decide to have a vegetarian påskefrokost after all.

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