Imagine we’re out to dinner together with a group of people. Conversation is flowing, the mood is light –then our entrees arrive and while comparing plates, the question emerges…
“So why are you a vegetarian?”
I get asked this question all the time, but it’s a hard one to answer honestly. I basically never tell the whole truth.
Although vegetarianism is becoming much more popular, I find that there’s still a lot of confusion about the terminology. So, for clarity:
Vegan: a diet void of any animal products including byproducts like milk/eggs/cheese. A strict vegan also avoids the “consumption” (purchase) of byproducts like fur, leather, etc.
Vegetarian (lacto-ovo): a diet void of animals, but not their byproducts (milk and eggs are included).
Pescatarian: a diet that includes fish/seafood, but not other animals.
It is a misnomer to call a pescatarian a vegetarian, but it’s such a common error that the only people who probably actually care about this kind of loose labeling are vegans and vegetarians.
I want to start with a confession.
I have been a vegetarian since 1999, but I still eat an occasional crab rangoon. Vegetarians could chastise me over this, and vegans could give me a hard time about “free-range” eggs and FairLife milk, but I don’t want to hear it. When it comes to what we eat, no one wants anyone to make them feel guilty about their food choices.
If I’m biting into a sweet warm Krispy Kreme doughnut, the last thing I want to hear is how bad it is for me.
So I want to be clear: Your body, your choice – no judgement.
The farm to table trend has taken off recently. People want to know where their food is coming from. Around my family’s dinner table, we always knew.
We knew their names.
We had Red Bull (long before it was an energy drink), Becky (named after one of my brother’s girlfriends), Joy (another girlfriend), Samson and many others. My mother loves to tell the story of my brother proclaiming over dinner one night, “I’ll never eat Caesar!”
And of course, he had a mouthful of Caesar.
My most vivid memories of going fishing as a child are of the fish in the bucket. The ones that knocked against the sides of their white, 5-gallon morgue, flipping and sloshing in too little water. My fishing companions reassured me they weren’t even smart enough to know they were trapped.
But I would peek in and see them spreading their gills wide, gasping, and I couldn’t take it. I would plead until my dad or brother would pick up the tenacious ones and smack them on something hard enough to make them stop flopping.
I wasn’t taught to worry about the fish in the bucket. It’s IN ME to worry about the fish in the bucket.
One year, for my birthday, my grandfather gave me a calf. I named her Tinkerbell. She was a mix of Red Hereford and Black Angus. She had a giant tuft of white on her head that made it look pointy, like Sloth’s from The Goonies. Just like people, some cows are better looking than others. She wasn’t pretty, but she was all mine and that…made her beautiful.
She grew up and the moment of truth arrived. Market time.
I remember struggling with the decision, but people said, “It’s okay. This is just the way it is!”
They said, “This is why you raise beef cattle. This is how money is made. This is how people get to buy cellophane wrapped ground chuck at the grocery store and eat filet mignon in five-star restaurants.”
So Tinkerbell was loaded up in a trailer and taken to the slaughterhouse.
I knew what happened there in a general sense, but I was otherwise mercifully naive.
And then came the day that the slaughterhouse came to us.
I was ten at the most. We had a particularly aggressive bull that year. It was too dangerous to get him in a trailer so my dad hired someone to take care of him closer to home. A man showed up and parked his special trailer in the field right by our house. My dad and the man walked through the grazing herd with a rifle. Then they laid down on a nearby hillside and waited.
I had a perfect view from the 2nd and 3rd story windows. I remember running from window to window, hot tears streaming, dread and helplessness spilling over. I remember the shots and how the cows startled. I watched with swollen eyes and a dry hot throat while they wrapped his hind legs in chains and hoisted his mass into the air using a gallows-like structure mounted to the man’s trailer.
I hated that mean bull, but I hated seeing his body swaying there even more. Then he was skinned in front of the cattle he fathered. He was skinned in front of me.
This experience didn’t keep me from eating meat, but it forever changed how I looked at the food on my plate. It was no longer “meat,” but flesh: muscle, blood, fascia and fat.
In high school, I got to feed a calf powdered milk from a bottle at a nearby dairy farm. His little 6 ft x 3 ft wire and plastic house enclosure was lined up with dozens like it. He downed that frothy white stuff and wanted more.
He butted the nipple like the calves in our fields butted their mothers’ bags when the milk wouldn’t come fast enough. Then he kicked up his hooves in the cute, rowdy way calves do. I was supposed to have a warm, fuzzy feeling feeding that sweet calf, but I didn’t. He and his friends were likely destined to be veal and I knew it.
People said, “God gave us dominion over animals; we’re supposed to eat them!”
My senior year in high school while eating a Burger King chicken tender, I pulled a feather from my mouth. A feather. It was ground right into that chicken tender and I felt revulsion.
People said, “You know animals kill and eat each other all the time, right?”
Then in a college biology class, I was required to participate in an animal lab which included “experiments” on well-studied, thoroughly documented concepts; hence it was essentially well-supervised, unnecessary animal torture.
This class required that we view a movie on “bovine spongiform encephalopathy” (mad cow disease). The video was about the biology of prion diseases, but included footage from slaughterhouses. I was hit with a behind-the scenes view of the mass-production food industry and I felt like Paul when the scales fell from his eyes.
That class was the turning point. It forced me to face my discomfort. I was done with being mollified. I strung my lifetime of animal stories together like fish on a stringer; each story adding more weight until it was too heavy to bear. Each story represented a living breathing thing sacrified to sate a hunger I no longer felt.
So I stopped forcing myself to try to be okay with something that had really never been okay with me.
I stopped eating animals.
But all of this doesn’t really make for casual dinner fodder. So the next time I am asked, “So why are you a vegetarian?”
More than likely I’ll respond like I usually do with a weak portion of the truth. I’ll say something like, “Oh, I just don’t like meat very much.”