So I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be vegetarian and how this affects the people around me. (Vegetarians like me are Ovo-Lacto Vegetarians, which means I don’t eat meat, but I do eat some eggs and dairy products). Most of the people that I encounter daily are not vegetarians themselves and don’t really get why it is important to me. They haven’t come right out and said that I’m a tree-hugging charismatic-megafauna-loving hippy, but I know some of them, especially my relatives, are thinking it.
I’ve been a vegetarian for about 2.5 years now. You’d think the day I stopped eating meat would be an important date for me to remember. From the outside looking in, one day I was a meat eater, and the next day I was not. But for me, it was a gradual process.
I was an extremely shy and sensitive child, with a natural empathy for animals. The running joke in my family was that I was so sensitive that I would cry for hours if I even thought we might have run over a gopher with the car. It was as if there was something wrong with me, tolerated, but definitely not normal, in a family of hunters from backwoods Michigan, living in Minnesota, Idaho, then Oregon. Gradually I developed a tougher exterior, putting my love of animals into the few pets we had, including cats, our one dog (a toy poodle), and a teddy bear hamster farm of about 20 at one point (boy do those guys crank out the babies, I discovered rather quickly). I was dragged along for target shooting with rifles (fun), and quail hunting (not so fun). It wasn’t long before I made it very clear that I wasn’t interested in being included in family hunting activities. But I’d eat what they brought home – meat was the center of every family meal, and it didn’t even occur to me to think about what I was eating.
Even though still relatively shy, I developed a tough cynical exterior as a defense mechanism. I was married in my early twenties to a pretty big guy, who loved to eat Wendy’s, pasta, and ginormous bowls of ice cream. And I did my best to keep up with him – as if I weren’t going to get my fair share if I didn’t eat just as much! Compounding the situation, we had moved to New Haven from Portland, and had a hard time in many ways adjusting to such a different culture. Food-wise, Italian friends we made were serving one lobster each for Christmas dinner! Greasy pizza and cannoli were everywhere. (Oddly, moldy food was also everywhere: bread and cheese on the store shelves was often moldy, I was served a moldy bagel in a restaurant, and I started munching down on a bag of moldy chips before I realized it one time. I developed a temporary and minor eating disorder because of this, but apparently it didn’t keep me from eating other things). This formerly stick thin girl started to gain weight without even realizing it. It wasn’t until I later saw a shocking family wedding photo from that time period that I grasped what had happened to me.
Thank the gods we moved to California. At that point, anywhere on the West coast was going to be a great improvement. Suddenly, the food was normal (and fresh). I began to learn about what foods were really not healthy for me, and to pay attention to what was going into my mouth. I cut way down on red meat – and overcompensated with chicken. After living in Watsonville for a year I discovered Moss Landing and Elkhorn Slough. This beautiful wildlife refuge was right in my back yard. I took a great summer training course and began volunteering. I felt my exterior cracking – here it was OK to love and study animals – in fact it was encouraged. There were so many animals that were new to me: sea otters, sea lions, rays, whales, and birds – oh the birds! Brown pelicans with their prehistoric shapes, elegant terns with impossibly thin wings, cormorants, egrets, shore birds of every shape and size with silly legs, hawks, owls… I felt as if I finally had somewhere to belong. And I felt my natural empathy returning.
It was during this time that I met some friends who were vegetarian. The first were really my husband’s friends, met through some forensic work. They lived in LA, probably one of the easiest places to be vegetarian. Unfortunately, they were a graphic designer and a photographer who snobbishly professed that there were two types of people in the world – those who were creative – and those who were parasites. In spite of the disdain I have for that type of thinking, they hold the dubious distinction of being my first example of every day vegetarians. They were vegetarian, but as opinionated as they were about other areas of life, they didn’t act elitist about their diet. Later, through some biology classes I was taking, I met another vegetarian, who again, was not preachy, but just was. I didn’t know it at the time, but these people, as imperfect as they were, showed me that living as a vegetarian was possible.
Once I moved back to Oregon, I continued to make improvements to my diet in my newly single life. I met and moved in with my fiancé who had once been vegan, but decided it didn’t work for him, and was a big bacon and eggs breakfast eater. A couple of years later we met another friend who is vegetarian – and has been for probably 20 years. And some more friends, long-time vegans (vegans don’t eat animals or animal products like eggs or dairy). These people were (and continue to be) a great influence on me as well. Again, they live their convictions every day, but in a completely non judgmental way. They are happy to talk about why, but don’t feel the need to preach. We ended up sharing some holidays together, in which veggies and non veggies ate vegan for the day, just to make it easy, so everyone could relax and enjoy all the dishes. I saw that it was not so hard.
In the meantime, I had been learning about the very real horrors of factory farming. This post is already long enough, but suffice it to say that the information is out there if you are open to learning about it. We’ve been trained to close our eyes to or outright dismiss animal suffering, because we’ve been taught by religion and culture that we are the superior beings. Well, my take on it is that if we’re going to keep animals in captivity, that we have the responsibility to see that they have healthy fulfilling lives, that their lives are not taken prematurely, and that they have the right to live and die without pain and suffering. This is just not happening in factory farms in America. I think we need to challenge our paradigms a little – if we didn’t eat so many animals, then we wouldn’t need to breed so many animals in the first place, consequently we wouldn’t have to keep them in such awful conditions. And since I’ve learned that I can eat a very healthy diet without animal products, then I don’t see any reason to eat them at all.
And that’s the conclusion I came to one day. Why not try it and see if it works for me? I tried it, and started educating myself on all of the food options out there. It helped that my fiancé decided to try along with me. I let my friends and relatives know when it came up. I got the requisite, “but you still eat chicken, right?” from a few people, and tried to politely explain that chickens are meat and that I don’t eat meat anymore. For me it feels like absolutely the right thing to do. And my goal is to be the kind of example to others that the vegetarians and vegans in my life were to me. I’m not vegan, I haven’t gotten that far, but I think it’s a fair goal, especially since egg laying hens and dairy cows are kept in miserable conditions too. I’ve cut a lot of dairy out of my diet, but I’m still working on it – it’s hard for me to avoid eggs in other products – and cheese. I have no doubt that some day soon I’ll get there, gradually, ’cause that’s the way it works for me. Some vegans really think that if you’re not vegan, you’re not making a difference – like Bob & Jenna of Vegan Freaks. Even though I don’t agree, I still appreciate their outspokenness and their very entertaining and educational podcasts. A different example is Colleen of Compassionate Cooks – she very much believes that veganism is the way to go, but has a less judgmental message, in her also very enlightening and enjoyable podcasts . If vegetarianism had been shoved down my throat, I probably would not be in the place I am. I do what I can with where I am today. If I fail to be a good example, I’ll try again tomorrow.