Book Review: The Mindful Carnivore

I spent much of this past Lent reading.  Madame and I also enjoyed The Hunger Games series as audiobooks, which is definitely one of the best readings I’ve ever heard.   Strangely the hunting aspect of The Hunger Games was paralleled in a much more personal way in one of my main lenten reads, Tovar Cerulli’s The Mindful Carnivore (available in Canada too, and at WPL).


It took me a couple renewals but I made it through the book, and am happy to have done so.  The Mindful Carnivore is an extremely thoughtful and meditative memoir about one man’s journey from vegetarianism to veganism and finally back to omnivorism and hunting.  

As a child Tovar Cerulli spent his free time fishing and hunting frogs.  He cooked and ate what he caught.  Reading his accounts of what his days floating around on his quarry pond made me nostalgic for my own youth.  There is a sense of freedom and limitless time that you only seem to feel when you’re young, and I miss it.  I didn’t grow up fishing, but I had plenty of time to spend in the woods behind my home and to fill my days with exploring, building, and playing.

Cerulli would go on to become a teenager who started questioning the factory farming system that provided his family with most of their meat.  He became a vegetarian, giving up the fishing he had so loved as a boy, and within a few years had become a vegan, eating no animal products.

“In becoming a vegan, I had been mindful of my diet’s consequences for the planet and the beings who inhabit it.  I aimed to confront those consequences head-on, to see them clearly, to choose the path of least harm.  I sought a respectful, holistic way of eating and living, a kind of right dietary citizenship….”  P.249.

During his time as a vegan he was very concerned with the Buddhist mandate to do no harm.  As a gardener he finds out how difficult it is to grow food without affecting other living creatures.  He recounts how he grappled with the tension of deciding how to deal with both the animals and insects that wanted to eat the food in his garden.  He realizes at one point that he had “contracted out” the killing of animals, when his favorite vegetable grower reveals that he has had to kill woodchucks that were obliterating his garden.  Cerulli also discovers that many deer are killed by farmers to preserve their crops.  It seems to him that no matter what choices he makes regarding his food there will be the death of animals as a part of it.

After a decade of veganism and amid concerns about his own health after some comments from his physician be begins to reconsider the eating of meat in limited amounts.  Although he doesn’t use the term, he returns to meat-eating as an ethical omnivore, taking great pains to source small amounts of meat from trusted local, ethical sources.  He returns to fishing as well, this time with much more thoughtfulness and deliberation, but with great joy too.

Somehow the idea of hunting enters his head and begins to take over his thoughts.  Cerulli is both consumed by the idea and troubled.  This was the part of the book that caused me a couple library renewals.  While his exploration of the history of hunting in America is very interesting at times it dragged on.  I ended up taking a break from the book to read another (which I hope to review soon) I did make it through it eventually, and learned a great deal about hunting and its history.

It was a couple of years after his decision to go hunting that Cerulli finally went on his first bow hunt, followed by rifle hunting a few weeks later.  His accounts of his hunts are intimate and personal, full of his thoughts and internal tensions.  This is a man who makes few decisions easily, and his times in the woods searching for deer are both rewarding and troubling for him.

“In becoming a hunter, my outward aim had been the same: to be mindful of the consequences of my diet, and to confront one of those consequences—the death of animals—with  my eyes open.  I still sought a respectful, holistic way of eating and living, my decision to hunt shaped by the same concerns that shaped my veganism.”  P.249.

Ultimately he reaches a point of eating that he feels balances as much as possible his own needs with those of the world around him.  He learns to live with tensions of life and death, and finds his place within the nature.  

“Gardening and hunting reminded us that we were also part of nature.  They gave us a felt sense of the elemental, inescapable relationships that sustained us.”  P.250.

I recommend this book to anyone who has considered giving up meat, or who is considering returning to eating it.  Really anyone who gives thought to what they eat should read it and realize that they most likely haven’t given it as much thought as Tovar Cerulli!  I also think it’s fine to read portions of the book, and skim some of the center, which gets a bit bogged down.  My Amazon rating is 4/5, because I find the book very valuable, but found it a bit tedious at times.  It is a book that challenges readers to look at their own beliefs about food and take some time to question their own diets.  After reading this book I also know that even though I make considerable effort to eat only local food, it is important to always talk to farmers and food producers to learn more about how they grow and raise the food I’m eating.