My first job ever was at a pizza joint, and somewhere in the first week I found myself in front of the make-line, assembling pizzas–throwing a fist full of cheese on a sauced-up crust, adding a handful of chopped peppers, onions, and then reaching, falteringly, for a vat of raw sausage.
With my bare hand. (I swear the Health Dept. ok’d this.) One of the many 6’+ delivery guys glanced my way and said, nonchalantly, “If you dip your fingers in the pineapple first, the meat doesn’t stick to ’em near as bad…”.
I didn’t touch meat for two years after that.
And I found myself fielding questions. “Why?”, “Do you honestly think that makes a difference?”, and “…but how do you get any protein?” were among my favorites, the latter being especially touching because meat is not the only source of protein that the parents of a finicky stick-thin high school junior can scrounge up. Didn’t you guess that that’s what happened? My parents got stuck thinking up creative vegetarian entrees to keep me nutritionally sound while the rest of my family had chicken breasts, grilled salmon, etc.
I wasn’t the one doing the cooking.
This fact, among others, eventually knocked its way into my delicate skull (weakened from calcium defiency, right?) and propelled me toward a certain point, where an innocent bystander, who knew nothing of my preferences, offered me a turkey sandwich and said, “Here, try it, it’s really good”–and I did.
Let’s get this out of the way right now: I’m not anti-vegetarianism. Your choice is your choice. I’m merely articulating why I chose to take up the animal products (and by-products) once more, rather than arguing for one team or the other–really, I can’t stand teams. I’m not a “team player”.
That aside, I must state that one of the biggest problems I have with this pro-veggie/pro-meat debate is the fact that most vegetarians I end up butting heads with (mind, I avoid that situation at all costs, though I know some really darling vegetarians) assume that I just haven’t summoned up the courage necessary to give up my beloved meat–that given the right persuasion, I’ll finally get up the nerve to move forward, into the light, and accept what what I know to be fundamentally right.
Sound like church? It should. I’m making that comparison intentionally.
What people miss in treating me (anybody) like that is the possibility that, dammit, I might have actually thought this out, and come to a conclusion of my own–and my conclusion might be different from theirs. (Can I get an Amen?) I’m becoming less and less of the opinion that any one thing is absolutely right for every single person, in every single situation–and coming from a Christian (yes, I am), I feel that’s saying something.
Whatever that “something” may be.
But, to the point–once I moved out, on my own, and began to recognize the phenominal patience my parents must have required to make special meatless sauce for me, I felt a bit humbled. With only cans of garbanzo beans and bulk rice to keep me protein’d, I understood (albeit dimly) that vegetarianism required a bit more sacrifice than just giving up meat–and in that light, several other things occurred to me.
One: no matter how I tried to convince my relatives (Iowan and otherwise) that, “no really, salad is fine,” at every gathering, they’d feel compelled to make some special, meat-free dish just for me. They’d even call a week or so before Thanksgiving to ask what I would eat, so as to be sure that I’d have something on my plate besides French bread–and no matter how I tried to impress upon everyone that it’s not their meatloaf personally that I object to, I couldn’t help but notice a wrinkled brow here and there as I turned down the chicken casserole again.
Not everybody is vegetarian-entree savvy, I noticed. Take that and run, if you like–tell me about how we need to educate the masses about the advantages of a meat-free diet, and about how the fact that meat is such a central part of our diet in the first place is a major part of The Problem–I’ll be here waiting.
Now, then. If you’re finished, I’ll move on to item Two.
I admit that the meat market is a mess. Yes, it’s gross that we kill things in these inhumane ways (bred for slaughter! Ugh!), and keep the whole process so far away from the consumer to the point where we really have no idea (no idea) what we’re buying when we pick up a package of chicken breasts. I’d rather we just went hunting, and killed our dinner ourselves, than bought into the santized idea that Meat=Dinner, not Animal. Probably turn a lot of people vegetarian that way, that’s for sure.
But, I will not show up at your dinner table and tell you so. If you offer me a chicken breast, I better damn well take it and like it, I figure. I mean, you’re feeding me, and I’d feel like an utter brat, passing it back to you and explaining why you’re personally contributing to a corrupt system and how, if you’d killed this chicken in your backyard you’d probably feel a lot different about it.
Because even if I didn’t say so out loud, people tended to take the “passing back of the chicken breast” as precisely that: an accusation. “What?” I had people ask, on several occasions, no matter how tight I kept my mouth closed, “Do you really have a problem with my meat?”
Three: Vegetariansim is a luxury. Get down on American consumerism all you want, but how many places can you actually buy meat-substitutes in the ridiculous abundance that we have here? And sure, we can grow our own vegetables (I am 100% behind that), but even in America there are places where that just isn’t possible–because of the lack of nutrients in the soil, because of the feisty weather, because of the lack of space (oy, apartment living!)–not to mention deserts, or the tundra. Places where people eat meat because that’s all they have.
Some people are much more concientious than I was–they protest the American market, and recognize that vegetarianism perhaps isn’t practical in other parts of the world–but my problem wasn’t with slaughterhouses and economy. I was just bummed out that a cow had to die so that I could have a hamburger.
Which isn’t a bad reason–it’s just kind of, well, an emotional reason. Kudos again to my parents for allowing me my feeble stab at independence, for humoring and/or encouraging it, even–but the real test (how serious about this am I?) definately didn’t come until I was doing my own grocery shopping, and preparing my own meals.
Four: This is a battle that didn’t end with a bite of turkey sandwich, oh no. Mitch and I even flirted off and on with veganism (the no dairy sort) in a half-assed way, but, again, we were turning down plates of food that we had no business refusing–and that just didn’t sit well with either of us.*
We reached a compromise: at home, we eat vegetarian. If you come to our house for dinner, you’ll most likely end up with a plate of eggplant curry, or tofu stir-fry–not because we’re out to make a statement, but because that’s what we have. We try not to buy meat (though we slip now and then at restaurants, as a treat–mmm…Fiamma Burger…), but if somebody prepares a dinner for us, oh, you can bet we’ll eat every scrap.
Because, to me, people should always be more important than any political/spiritual/social agenda that I can think up. It’s not just about stepping delicately around hurt feelings–it’s about recognizing the lengths people go to to prepare a meal for me, and not letting that effort (that love) go unacknowledged.
When Mitch’s grandma gets up early to make a full spread of corned beef & cabbage (with from-scratch pecan pie for desert!), just for us, God help me if I go heavy on the cabbage and pass back the corned beef untouched.
God help me if I don’t take seconds.
*Mitch also had a stint of vegetarianism–more “socially-minded” than mine, and instigated by a much-admired roommate–but he worked his way back into the meat-stream as well, and for reasons similar to mine.