I’ve been a vegetarian for a while now. It feels like the right thing to do. For me.
I don’t push it on anyone else. Living near San Francisco, you’d think it’d be a piece of quiche (so to speak) to be veggie here. Compared to, say, Memphis or Mongolia, that’s probably true, but truth be told, it’s not all that different here compared to the many other places I’ve lived (both around the U.S. and overseas). Sure, there are a few more food options in this area in restaurants and grocery stores, but the same social dynamics exist here as anywhere.
Non-vegetarians are usually well-meaning when they encounter non-carnivores. I appreciate their tolerance, really. I’m a straight, white dude, so my eating ethics are probably the only place where I regularly experience being part of the non-majority culture. It’s far from oppression (though it does have its own -ism), but there are two dynamics I’ve observed that are a tad annoying. In the spirit of National Vegetarian Awareness Week (an event of which I admit I’d never heard before I was asked to write this post), allow me to explain so you, dear meat eater, can be a better friend to the vegetarians in your life.
Solidarity with the vegetarian.
I’ve mostly encountered this one in work situations, but it sometimes happens in social situations as well. Group meal. Food is ordered, carefully taking into account the number of vegetarians. (Thank you!) The food arrives. Then, this happens….
Say food was ordered for 10. Thai food, my favorite! There are 2 vegetarians and the very thoughtful person who ordered the food got basil tofu for 2 and yellow curry with chicken for 8. So far, so good.
We line up, plates in hand. There are a few carnies (no, not carnies) ahead of me, no biggie. Then, a couple of them supplement their curry with some of the tofu. Bangkok, we have a problem.
Maybe they didn’t think of the fact that the tofu was for me and I can’t eat the other food. But, I’ve also experienced situations where friendly flesh-eaters want to show me they’re cool with vegetarian food. See? We’re not so different! I’m like the guy in that Snickers ad. I get a little cranky when I’m hungry. Don’t try to show me how much we have in common by taking food off my plate.
The lunchtime conversation.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s nice that people show interest in my vegetarianism. It’s often the same kind of interest one takes in a weird animal at the zoo, but I’ll take it. There’s always the possibility that talking about my motivations will plant a seed of thoughtfulness in the other person about what they ingest.
The problem is, 99% of the time, the conversation comes up over a meal. Why is this a problem? The conversation usually goes something like the following:
Me: Yep. [Cue minor sense of dread because I know what's coming, having had this conversation about 17 kajillion times.]
Them: How long have you been vegetarian?
Me: About 8 years now.
Them: Do you eat fish? Milk? Eggs?
Me: I don’t eat fish, despite Nirvana’s blessing. [Wink wink.] I eat cheese sometimes, but I don’t drink cow juice. Eggs are a mainstay for me, probably my primary source of protein.
Them: Why’d you decide to be a vegetarian? Was it a health thing?
Me: Pie is vegetarian, as is 3 pies wrapped in cake.
Me: I’m not a vegetarian because I love animals. I’m a vegetarian because I hate plants. [Quoting A. Whitney Brown]
Here’s a decision point. Is the person satisfied with my (so far) superficial response? Do they appear to want to engage more seriously with me on the topic? It’s something I’ve thought about for 8 years and—chances are—they haven’t. They’re serious? OK, we’ll take it one step further.
Me: Actually, it’s for a variety of reasons. It started as an environmental thing. (Did you know it takes 3 kilograms of plant protein to produce 1 kilo of beef?) But, over the years, as I’ve learned more about the subject, it’s become more and more of an ethical decision.
I usually try to leave it at that because on my plate is a bunch of vegetables (pie is a vegetable, right?), maybe some tofu, maybe some eggs and cheese. On the other person’s plate is likely a chunk of someone’s charred flesh. Chances are, even from my limited response, they’re already feeling a little chagrined. Maybe they think I judge them. Maybe they’re judging themselves. I don’t know. All I know is some percentage of people get a little quiet at this stage of the conversation.
If they ask for more info, I do my best to beg off. The meat industry just isn’t something you want to talk about in detail when you’re eating the stuff.
Sometimes people ask me if it’s OK for them to eat meat in front of me. While I can’t imagine eating meat anymore, I don’t really care what other people do. Sure, I’d prefer it if others made similar choices to me, but what I’d like even more is just for other people to think through the implications of their food choices and to be intentional about what they choose to put in their bellies.
For me, it doesn’t make sense to kill someone for my culinary satisfaction. If you’ve decided it is OK with you, then who am I to say you’re wrong? But if you’ve never really thought about it and only eat meat because it’s what was given to you as a kid, that’s harder for me to respect.
Caveats and conclusions.
Far from having a holier-than-thou attitude about it, I’m well aware that my dietary decisions aren’t perfect. I know it’s nearly impossible to eat eggs cruelty-free, for example, yet I still eat them for the protein. I only buy eggs that are raised cage free and fed vegetable feed (it’s, how to put this, surprising what factory farm animals are fed), but knowing what happens so I can have eggs makes me sad and uncomfortable. Maybe someday I’ll ditch eggs. It’s a process. For now, I draw the line at not eating anyone with a stomach. I’m not willing to eat anything I wouldn’t kill myself and I’m not willing to kill animals (or humans, but I repeat myself) for my food, mostly because it just isn’t necessary in modern society.
People draw the line in different places. Some go to great lengths to source local, organic, (relatively) humanely-killed meat. Hey, at least they’re making an effort. It’s the folks who mindlessly consume factory-farmed meat out of (most disturbingly, willful) ignorance who bug me. What we eat makes a difference. The environmental impact, by itself, is huge, not to mention the deplorable conditions in which many animals live and die for our grilling pleasure.
Eat like you give a damn, because it matters what you put in your pie hole, but even if you don’t, avoid the social traps above and you’ll make mealtimes more merry for your veggie-head compadres.