Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Vegetarian Among the Carnivores

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When I came across an article on feministe about being a vegetarian, as well as their link to a similar article in the New York Times, it got me thinking about my own experience as a vegetarian (albeit a somewhat loose use of the term), in an environment that isn't always vegetarian-friendly. And while the connection between vegetarianism and our discussions here at NAW probably isn't automatically apparent, I think it connects in many ways - it connects in discussions of how and to whom food sources are allocated, it connects in discussions of cultural differences and community foodways, it connects in perceptions of some foods as masculine, others as feminine.

But I don't want to get all philosophical about the implications of vegetarianism - at least, not at the moment. I'm just thinking about how difficult it can be to explain vegetarianism in a culture of meat-lovers. And, as understanding as most people were back when I lived on the New Hampshire Seacoast, Utah is definitely a land of meat enthusiasts.

It doesn't help that my reasons for becoming a vegetarian are unusual, or that I'm one of the rare variety that hates eggs, eats poultry, and won't touch fish or seafood. Most people either assume I'm a full-fledged vegetarian or roll their eyes when I say I can't eat soup made with beef stock, or vegetables sauteed in bacon.  To them, not eating meat is a mere matter of preference, and when there's so little meat that they can't really taste it, they can't see how I still can't eat it (and they don't realize that to someone who hasn't consumed red meat or pork in 12 years, it's easy to taste a drop of bacon fat).

When anyone asks why I became a vegetarian, I find that my answer is complicated. I didn't go from eating lots of meat to eating none, but I also didn't love vegetables as a kid. Instead, I grew up as a very picky eater and became a vegetarian in order to broaden my food options. As backwards as that may sound,  I realized when I was fourteen that most foods I didn't like had meat in them. So, I simply stopped eating them. I considered cutting out all meat, but my mother had always been so concerned by how much I liked carbs and how little protein I ate, that I didn't think she'd respond very well if I gave up meat entirely. So, although I didn't even like chicken, I continued to eat it. From there, things got simpler. I found that a good number of foods I'd never liked were perfectly fine if I just tried them without meat.

When I think back on it, I can see how ordinary my timing was - many of my friends became vegetarians shortly after I did, and I think Erica may have become one first. But even on the relatively liberal New Hampshire seacoast, being a vegetarian was difficult. Eating out wasn't an issue - I could always find something with chicken on the menu, and I didn't eat out very often anyhow. But eating food at social functions could be tough. Plus, when my middle-aged step-grandmother passed away as a result of her long term eating habits, some family assumed I was heading in the same direction. After all, she liked carbs and peanut butter, and so did I. She had been a vegetarian, and so was I. At her wake, one of my uncles cornered me for a firm lecture on eating.

Somehow, nobody in my family saw that unlike my grandmother, I ate chicken, I ate vegetables, and I ate fruit. To them, any form of vegetarianism would lead down this slippery slope. 

So, okay, maybe my initial comment about how understanding the New Hampshire Seacoast was glossed over the truth. But the pressure to eat meat only came from my family. Friends and acquaintances saw no problem with it and often assumed I just wanted a healthy lifestyle - in fact, given how many of my vegetarian friends didn't even eat chicken, I sometimes seemed like a carnivore.

But being a vegetarian in Utah is still a difficult affair that often leaves me with nothing to eat but coleslaw and two slices of white bread, or (as happened at an all-day event during the Summer), nothing but a piece of lettuce wrapped around a tomato slice. Eating isn't much of a problem at potlucks, as I can always eat some of whatever I bring, and there are always enough sides to tide me over till I can go home and cook for myself.  Restaurants usually aren't a problem either - unless I eat out with a group that wants to go "family style" and share entrees.

But catered events and large church functions can be tricky. Of course, with catered events you can just call ahead of time and request a vegetarian option, but occasionally even that plan goes awry. For instance, at one event last year, I explained that the only meat I could eat was chicken, and I was assured that would be okay, as that was the main course. But the chicken dish included ham. And once at a restaurant, I ordered a chicken dish and asked them to leave off the bacon. When the waiter forgot and I asked to send it back, he said, "Ok, I'll just scrape it off." It took a friend lying and pretending that I was allergic to bacon before I got a new plate.

The real problem, more than anything else, seems to be that in the perspective of most people, vegetarianism is just a matter of taste, and therefore something to be discarded when politeness dictates. For instance, one time I went to a party with a friend, and some people at the party were making empanadas. When I noticed that they were only putting vegetables and cheese in the empanadas, I excitedly grabbed one, only to realize, a bite in, that it had ground beef too. I looked up at my friend, and she said, "I know, there's meat in it." When I continued to stare at the empanada, unsure how to toss it out without being rude, she said, "Either you can suck it up and eat it, or I'll eat it for you." She didn't even seem to realize that she'd said anything rude.

So, there's always that lingering belief that I could eat meat if I just "sucked it up." In fact, when I told one boyfriend that I didn't eat any red meat, he said, "Don't worry, we'll fix that." So there's also that view of vegetarianism as a phase or a flaw that a person can work out over time. That same boyfriend later confessed to his fear that if we married I wouldn't be willing to cook meat for our children. To him, not giving meat to kids was tantamount to neglect and malnourishment.

And then there are others who have good intentions but who don't understand that a vegetarian diet doesn't consist of taking a meat-heavy diet, and just removing the meat. I eat a lot of vegetables and legumes to fill that gap. Which is why, when I ask what will be served at a social function and receive the answer, "Don't worry - we'll have potato salad too," I know I'll have to bring my own food or go hungry.

I'm not suggesting that everything should change in communities where meat-eating is more common than vegetarianism - non-vegetarians shouldn't have to rearrange everything for vegetarians like me. But even in a conservative place like Utah, there are a lot of vegetarians, and it would be nice if those who plan large social functions could be more aware of those needs. A simple, "contact so-and-so with dietary needs" could make a huge difference. Or, at the very least, listening when someone says that potato salad is not a meal and that they can't just "suck it up" and eat meat.

And then, if nothing else, there's this: whether I eat meat is my decision. If you accidentally serve me meat, I won't be mad - but I also won't eat it. And no, I don't owe you any explanation for why I'm a vegetarian, anymore than you owe me a lengthy explanation for why you eat meat.  

1 comment:

  1. It is interesting to me that the word "vegetarian" instantly signals "not a meat eater" when the word stems from vegetable, or someone who eats vegetables. I am not vegetarian in the no-meat sense, but I do eat and enjoy a lot of plant food and occasionally enjoy a main dish better if it does not include meat. I try to eat meat sparingly (except seafood. I love seafood). Because of this, I am the "vegetarian" of my family and get all kinds of grief for it, and I still eat hamburgers!

    I think that people are tolerant of people who don't eat certain things because of medical conditions or allergies, because those are things that "people can't help." When it is a choice, though, people seem very uneasy and irritated with why you can't just choose their choice. I will admit that when I went on study abroad for two months and our group cooked our own meals every day, it was a hassle to cook for twenty-seven omnivores plus two vegetarians--we basically had to cook two separate meals or just make the whole meal vegetarian (because it is quite true that a dish with the meat removed does not make it vegetarian). Of course we all went along with it, and it was fine, but I did sometimes feel twinges of irritation with the minority forcing the majority to change (I'm not saying this was a good or right feeling on my part. Just that it happened). So logistically, we might be offended when people "choose" to make things more difficult with their eating lifestyle.

    Here, someone could say that it was good for us to have to break out of our carnivorous ways for a moment and see the light of vegetarianism. But this is the main reason I think people resist vegetarianism--they feel judged and looked down on. Vegetarianism, like any lifestyle or belief, can become a kind of elitism. I've often wondered--if you believe passionately in something, how can you NOT look down on others who don't share that passion? (and this extends far beyond meatless eating). Even when people say "I'm only doing it for me, I don't expect anyone else to do it" I don't entirely believe it--I'm not sure a truly passionate person can exist without judgment.

    Finally, food is a huge part of our culture and we take it very personally. Recently my husband proclaimed his dislike of peanut butter and my sister, who claims peanut butter as her all-time favorite food, was offended--not mortally or irreparably, but the emotion was still there. If someone rejects the food we eat, we interpret it as hostility, a break of unity, a breach of tradition--danger.

    It's interesting how much of what I eat is influenced by societal pressures.