Monday, June 30, 2008

So...why did you become a vegetarian?

I can't believe my last post was in there a penalty for slacking like this?

I love summer. It really gives me time to just BE. In the process of just BEING, I get a chance to get to know myself better. Sometimes I explore new things-last summer it was gardening with a vengeance. Sometimes I just get to go deeper into who I am and why.

I have been doing a lot of reading lately on my favorite subject: Food. Unintentionally I chose three books that complimented each other incredibly well, to the point where the authors cited each other in their books! Each of these books, in their own way, help for me to articulate the answer to the perpetual question: "So... why did you become a vegetarian?"

I started with Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, which is a chronicle of her family's adventure growing and raising their own food for a year, and buying only locally produced food. It was fascinating and thought provoking.

Next was Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, a captivating account of the history of four meals: A McDonald's meal, a Whole Foods Market meal, a local meal from a family farm, and finally a meal that the author hunted and gathered himself.

The last of my "trilogy" was The Ethics of What We Eat, by Peter Singer, professor of bioethics at Princeton and Jim Mason, an attorney and fifth generation member of a farming family in Missouri. Singer and Mason interview three American families and trace the contents of their shopping cart back to the source. Singer, a prominent animals rights philosopher, is know for his book Animal Liberation, if that gives you a hint about this book.

As a vegetarian of twenty years, it was particularly interesting reading the first two books, Kingsolver and Pollan. Both were advocates of eating meat, but only humanely raised meat. They aren't afraid to get their hands dirty, so to speak. Kingsolver "harvested" her own chickens, while Pollan slaughters chickens on a small family farm. Pollan hunts his own wild pig for his fourth documented meal. It is this ideal that I observed growing up.

Reading about small scale family farming brought me back to being a very little girl living in the country. I remember our pigs named Pork & Chop, the bull named Delicious, and the lamb named Patrick, or lamb "Pattie" for short. I remember the huge garden my parents planted and all the days in the kitchen with my mom canning produce to use throughout the winter. I remember collecting eggs in an orange baseball cap. I saw calves being born, and I saw the remains after a day of slaughter. It was all so very...natural. Happy animals were grazing in the field until one day they were on the plate. We still shopped at the local grocery for much of our diet, but it made me realize how fortunate I was to grow up knowing where food comes from (or so I thought).

It wasn't until my first year of college at the University of Massachusetts that I became aware of industrial farming. I was a naive college freshman taking English 101. One of our first assignments was to help us get familiar with the offerings at the university: Go to any student club meeting and write a report on your experience. I was inexplicably drawn to the Animal Rights Coalition meeting. It was really as simple as "I like animals. This looks interesting!" Uh. Yeah. After the first and only meeting I attended, I woke up the next morning and never ate meat again. My images of happy cows grazing until their fateful day was shattered. I had no idea where meat really came from until this moment.

For a short time I belonged to PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) and subscribed to their magazine where I learned even more about the issues involved in industrial farming. I even reverse researched the issues, looking at trade magazines for farming-these only strengthened my convictions. I started to notice things like the box of hot dogs in the dining hall that were labeled "Grade D but edible."

My parents were really worried I would be malnourished, (vegetarianism was not yet mainstream), but I was living in "The Happy Valley," perhaps one of the best places to be a vegetarian. UMass had a traditional dining hall (where the hot dogs lived) and an alternative dining hall that featured entrees like Wheatberry Casserole and Tofu Stir fry. We even had a student run restaurant called Earthfoods Cafe, where every day you could buy a big plate of brown rice, beans, and steamed vegetables for a couple dollars. Family farms and natural foods co-ops were plentiful. being vegetarian was not a difficult transition. I was never tempted to go back.

One of the greatest benefits for mewas that it expanded my palette. I had always been the pickiest eater in my family. Food on my plate could NOT touch (maybe that is still a tiny bit true). I was always the hold-up at McDonald's where I had to special order my "plain" hamburger with nothing on it-no ketchup, no pickle. I would lightly salt it when it arrived, long after my family had finished their dinner. Now as a new vegetarian I trying everything: tofu, tempeh, seitien, and ethnic foods of all kinds: Indian, Thai, Mediterranean...the world of food had opened up to me!

The other great benefit was that I learned to cook. Suddenly I was interested in learning how to make many of my favorite foods. My friend's wife taught me how to make vegan sausage with TVP (texturized vegetable protien) and all the right spices. My friend Andi taught me how to roast garlic and make fresh pesto. I started buying cookbooks and experimenting on my family and friends. Roasting garlic made my mom nuts-she wasn't used to the smell, and roasting a whole head of cauliflower in the oven drove my dad crazy ("You're supposed to cut it up and boil it!")

It is interesting to observe the changes that have occurred around me over the years. I notice people are either defensive, neutral or curious. It is the curiosity that often results in them making small or large changes to their own diet. Being vegetarian results in conversations about why I made this lifestyle choice. Despite my initial discomfort I am generally happy to talk about it. I do not preach, I just live my choice.

Throughout the twenty years that I have been a vegetarian I have carried some degree of guilt about eating eggs and dairy (really the worst victims of industrial farming), my leather shoes, and my S'mores addition (although today my first package of vegan marshmallows arrived-hurray!) My acceptance of others and their food choices is quite open-minded, yet in my own eyes I fall short. I respect my husband for choosing only poultry, and my mom for never eating veal or lamb. I respect my mother-in-law and her husband for humanely raising their own beef. I respect my friend for his reverence regarding eating what he hunts. My philosophy has always been that each person makes their own choices and even if it is small step, it is still a step. Even Peter Singer, prominant animal rights philosopher, says that people need to be recognized for any small changes that they make. We all do the best we can. My journey continues-today with local eggs and dairy, maybe tomorrow as a vegan. Every step is a step in the right direction.