I’ll get the most obvious answer out of the way first: Meat tastes really, really good. The British journalist and formerly lifetime vegetarian, Huw Oliver, tried steak for the first time during the pandemic. “The pinkish muscle tastes deep, rich, and butter-smooth in the mouth,” he wrote for TimeOut. “And cor, that smell. It’s juicy, hearty, butterflies-inducing communal food to take your time over, and I love it.” Author Rajesh Parameswaran, also vegetarian for his whole life up until then, had a similar experience trying molleja for the first time in Argentina. “It was incredibly delicate, airy and light; at the same time it was somehow rich and sort of creamy,” he wrote for Bon Appétit.
Many interviewees felt the same intense, almost primal relationship with meat. It’s likely been a thing since our primate ancestors started accidentally eating worms who had burrowed into fruits about 65 million years ago, Marta Zaraska wrote in Meathooked: The History and Science of Our 2.5-Million-Year Obsession with Meat. No matter how plentiful other foods may be, we’ve long shared a “craving for animal flesh.” Scientists have a name for the phenomenon: “meat hunger,” an evolutionary drive to secure protein-rich foods.
That explains why, like Sent, we might literally dream about animal flesh over pumpkin seeds, purple cabbage, or plump bananas. And why, even having never tasted meat before, Oliver and Parameswaran felt its allure. Meat is full of protein, which our bodies are designed to “prioritize and actively seek out,” Zaraska wrote. (Does that mean we need to be piling our plates with steak, like the Atkins, keto, and paleo dieters? Not at all. Protein deficiency is virtually unheard of in the US, according to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.)
While many former vegetarians do start eating meat again for health reasons, their desire for animal flesh often isn’t about individual nutrients at all. In the majority of my interviews, people mentioned social and emotional drivers, like missing the foods they grew up with, feeling estranged from their cultures, and not wanting to cook two different meals for themselves and their partners or children. And others became social omnivores who simply wanted to partake in shared meat dishes while dining out with friends.
For Genevieve Yam, a 30-year-old food editor and Bon Appétit contributor living in Yonkers, New York, animal products reminded her of family when she needed it most. She’d been vegetarian for a decade before eating meat again during 2020. Her mom, who lives in Hong Kong, had been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s, and Yam was grief-stricken. “For a long time, she was what kept me rooted to my family and culture,” she tells me. “I was also just trying to hold onto as much of her as possible.” So, Yam started learning how to make all her mom’s comforting Chinese meals, such as pork spareribs with taro and coconut milk, braised chicken and chestnuts, and bitter melon with beef.
Meanwhile, Daniela Molina, a 28-year-old creative director from Miami who went vegetarian in 2012, didn’t really realize she’d been missing the foods of her heritage until she tried them again in 2021. “I went to Ecuador to visit family and it was the first time in years that I’d been there and not been vegan,” she tells me. “It’s customary to have a big pig roast. So, of course, I had some and it was so liberating and beautiful to be able to participate in cultural experiences like that once again.”