Sunday, September 19, 2010

Why I am a Vegetarian

Seven years ago this month I gave up meat.  Here's my story:

Fairly frequently, I am asked why I am a vegetarian.  Sometimes these inquistors give me options: a) ethical reasons/animal lover, b) for the sake of the planet/environmentalist, c) health nut, d) dislike the taste of meat.  I'm expected to choose an option (people prefer a or b, but tend to argue with those the most) and then shrug with a small smile, dismissing my ideas and opinions in favor of a less controversial or exclusive topic.  And I typically do.

But while I tend to lean quite far to the side of "avoids arguments at all costs," I actually have quite a bit to say on why I became a vegetarian - or more so, why I have continued to be a vegetarian for the past seven years.

The truth?  I became a vegetarian because it was trendy.  It was more or less a misunderstanding that led me to it.  A number of my friends were, and had been for quite some time, vegetarians, and I wanted to give it a try, the same way I took my first swig of beer at seventeen (which I subsequently spit out) and at fifteen abducted my parents' minivan for a brief tour of our small town, friends in tow, driving permit months away.  At the time, I considered myself in transition.  I was at the start of my senior year, fresh out of a long-term relationship (at least in terms of teenage years), and had recently had a very unfortunate mishap with three boxes of hair dye, leaving me with brown, not blond, hair for the first time in many years.  My friends had begun college visits (or for some, already concluded college visits) and were furiously sending off droves of college applications to schools in towns I had no dreams of ever venturing near.  I had yet to take the SAT or even permit myself to think about college for longer than a passing thought.  "College" was a very intangible idea to me at the time, something that would, if I allowed it to, hold me hostage for at least the next four years, then spit me out into the world of adulthood, degree in hand, job-ready (which makes it really quite ironic that now, seven years later, I am teaching college courses).

I went away for the weekend, a very unglamorous trip that involved me babysitting three loud children while their parents attended car shows.  I slept on the ground at the foot of three identical twin beds on a eggcrate sort of thing, yellow and foamy and only minimally better than sleeping on a hard floor.  I sat on the cold, damp late-September sand while three children attempted to bury each other or get eaten alive by seagulls, in turns.  I contemplated piercing my bellybutton (incredibly un-me) and allowed my cell phone to drown in text messages, for once letting myself forget that each message cost a precious 10 cents.

We ate seafood for every meal, and then, on the last day, went to lunch at a sort of tiki bar restaurant.  The parents were asking me questions about my life, then ordered me a pina colada along with their smorgasbord of alcohol.  My 18-year-old lightweight self became tipsy and open, funny and loud-laughing.  I mentioned an idea that had been playing strongly through my head for the past few weeks.  "So you're a vegetarian now?" the mother asked.  I am?  The father went on to tell me about his cousin, or perhaps his niece, who was also a vegetarian.  The three children were running amuck through the darkened bar, disturbing lunch-goers and lushes alike.  I ordered the only vegetarian dish, some sort of wrap filled with tomatoes and lettuce and vinagrette.  It was good - quite good.  And so, that day, I became a vegetarian.

I have always been a picky eater - my mother calls me a "weird eater" - so forgoing meat wasn't entirely difficult at all.  There were concerns about protein, but my parents quickly settled back into their former days as vegetarians many years before, cooking dishes with fake meats and beans and tofu and cheeses as easily as they had formerly prepared chicken and steak.  Those first few months after declaring my vegetarianism I was really only a trendy vegetarian - proud to tell all about my new lifestyle and happy to subsist on pasta and popcorn.  It wasn't until I learned more about vegetarianism, sometime around winter break of my senior year, that my resolve hardened and my forgetfulness cleared.

So now we get to the reasons why I have remained a vegetarian, the reasons I employed on J nearly six years ago to coerce him to convert to a vegetarian diet, and the reasoning that convinced my sister to give vegetarianism a try for six months.  My reasons for being a vegetarian don't necessarily fit nearly into the categories I outlined at the start, but they do spread across all four in some ways.  

I am certainly an animal lover.  Since the time I was 14, my family has rescued and rehomed many, many cats and dogs.  Our house was, for many years, a foster home for abandoned and neglected cats and dogs.  We took in pregnant cats that people had neglected to spay but no longer wanted once they were about to multiply into 4, 5, 6, 7, or more.  We adopted dogs that had spent their entire lives living in puppy mills breeding over and over, living in small, filthy cages and completely unaccustomed to human contact.  We rescued cats from a hoarder, a mid-aged couple living in filth with nearly 150 cats, both dead and alive.  We volunteered on transports with Friends of Rocky Mount Animals, helping move the few lucky dogs saved every few weeks from high-kill NC shelters to foster homes.  On one of those transports, I met Cara, my exceptional dog, friend, and of course, blog mascot.  She was supposed to be put to sleep - killed - that very day, but someone at Friends of Rocky Mount Animals decided she was one of the few dogs at the shelter that day that could potentially find a new home.  She was given a lucky chance.

I have seen the horrors of neglect and abuse, the fear of abandonment, and felt the sick dread of knowing I can only do so much.  One out of every three cats that go into animal shelters come out alive.  Two out of every three are killed.  That is a sad, sick fact, and it is perpetuated by neglect, lack of education about or funds for spay and neuter, and pet shops and puppy/kitty mills.  I read about animal abuse, I have met pets abused and tortured, and one of my own pets was murdered in a cruel, sickening incident of animal abuse.  I am extremely passionate about animal rights and I feel, as an animal rights activist, that I should protect the rights of the animals that we consider food - not pets - as well.

Animals raised for meat are typically not free-roaming, grinning, milk-giving, 6 am cock-a-doodle-doing creatures.  Typically, they are factory farmed, meaning chickens are kept in rusting wire cages, one stacked on another stacked on another.  When they are to be killed, they are hung by their feet with ankle cuffs, then sent down a conveyer line, upside down, to a blade that chops off their heads.  Watching their fellow kind slaughtered ahead of them sends them, obviously, into a terrified panic.  Some will twist their heads up, avoiding the blade that severs their neck, and instead be plummeted into a scalding pot of oil - boiling them to death, while removing feathers.  Cows, as you may have seen in Food, Inc., are kept in similarly deplorable conditions.  They do not roam free through bountiful pastures, but stand knee deep in wet manure, side by side in long rows, until they are shuffled to slaughter, where they will be hung upside down, sliced open, and bled to death.  Veal is even more cruel; instead of waiting until the cow has matured, veal is, as we often disassociate it, baby cow.  Young, unable to even taste an ounce of life, baby cows are lead, wobbling legs and delicates faces, to their cruel, bleeding slaughter, so that a diner may sit down and eat a piece of tender meat with a fork and dull knife.  Pigs, some of the more intelligent animals, are kept in conditions similar to cows.  Often overloaded onto trains or trucks, they are sent to their death (some dying on the trip, others making it to their execution alive).  The smell of blood and sight of their friends being slaughtered sends them into a panic.  They scream, begging for life, until the last second, and then, miraculously, that bleeding, crying animal begging - without words to do so - for life, becomes a piece of bacon popping away in a frying pan, or someone's Easter supper.

It is troubling, startling, and sickening, but as consumers, we typically disassociate ourselves from the process.  They little yellow, styrofoam package with two glistening pink hunks sitting on the grocery shelf barely resembles the chickens we imagine pecking at grain and gifting fresh white eggs on a red-siloed farm. 

There is meat that is considered organic and free-range, allowed somewhat more space to roam and denied of growth hormones that inevitably enter the consumer.  I am thankful that some farmers are still able to produce meat this way, and that some people are able to afford it, but unfortunately, most people can't afford to pay a premium for meat and farms cannot continue to compete with factory farms.  I support farmers - those run by families - and it makes me sad that they are vanishing as our country in continually driven to produce more and more, cheaper and cheaper.  

If everyone in the world were to adopt a vegetarian diet, a feat that would be frankly quite astounding, world hunger would end.  Meat is simply not efficient, and meat is not green.  The resources needed to raise animals for slaughter could in turn provide more than enough food for the entire world.  Most likely, the world will never go entirely vegetarian, but lately people have been recognizing the benefits of eating less meat.  Meatless Monday has grown in popularity, allowing one day weekly where people forgo meat entirely.  Many schools have caught on to this initiative, serving Meatless Monday school lunches.  This is not only healthier, as it promotes good-for-us vegetables, grains, and fruits, but it also benefits our environment and economy.

Now for the final point - the dislike of meat.  I do not dislike the taste of meat.  It would be a lie to said I did.  I was never much of a red meat eater, but I enjoyed turkey and chicken.  Yet now, I oftentimes forget that my diet is any different than the majority.  I eat yogurts and beans, cheeses and tofu, and especially Quorn "chicken" patties and Quorn "turkey" roasts, as well as various brands of vegetarian lunch meats.  Quorn "chicken" patties are one of my favorite foods and yes, they taste like chicken (or what I remember chicken tasting like).  I am not a vegetarian because I dislike the taste of meat.  I do have serious concerns about meat though.  It carries diseases and viruses.  Growth hormones have been proven to cause cancer.  Before I was a vegetarian, I caught colds, illnesses, and flus frequently.  Scarcely a month went by where I wasn't ill.  I very rarely catch ill now.  J has only been sick two times in the last six years we've been together (and one of those times was right before he went vegetarian).  Prior to dating me and adopting a vegetarian diet, he was frequently ill.  His resolve is less based on ethical reasons than on a desire to be healthier and to avoid eating meat because it isn't sanitary.  

What do I hope to provide to you by explicating my reasons for becoming a vegetarian?  Knowledge.  As my mother has always said, knowledge is power, and knowing more will only help you make the choices that guide you through life.  Do I hope to turn every reader to a vegetarian diet?  Of course not.  I hope only that you will take this knowledge and make your own intelligent decisions.  Perhaps make a meatless dinner, or try eating vegetarian for two weeks, or maybe cut out one type of meat for a few days.  Or, perhaps, take what I say with a grain of salt - that is absolutely fine as well.  Is being a vegetarian right for everyone?  Surely not.  Will adopting a vegetarian diet be a healthy decision?  Absolutely.  High blood pressure, high chlorestoral, heart attacks, stroke, and even some cancers are associated with a meat-based diet.  But eating vegetarian without achieving enough protein could also be hazardous to your health (of course, too much protein is also quite bad).  Understanding where meat comes from - and the process that these animals go through, day after day, so that hot burgers may be flipped on greasy grills and chicken can be laid across the top of a dish of pasta - is necessary.  We as a people make our decisions based on knowledge, and this knowledge I have shared today is what helped me make my decision to continue eating vegetarian.  Being aware and conscious of what you eat is important because, as you have surely heard many times, you truly are made of what you eat.

I do not fault those that eat meat, much in the same way I hope none of you will fault me for choosing to be a vegetarian.  To each their own, right?  I simply wanted to share my story with you.  Thanks for listening.


Zara said...

Thank you so much for posting this; I really enjoyed it. I've given up meat for Lent the past two years, and I've considered becoming vegetarian several times. I really don't eat that much meat, but for some reason the step from little meat to no meat seems like a huge one for me. I never have trouble not eating meat during Lent, but the times I've tried to go vegetarian outside of Lent, I've had considerable trouble...however, I am trying to eat less and less meat. Maybe I'll eventually wean myself. :)

Unknown said...

Thanks Brooke, that was very enlightening. I am a meat-eater but prefer not to be ignorant of the process of getting the meat on to my plate so I am aware of some of the practices.
There's nothing that winds me up more than people who are determined to ignore the sometimes brutal facts of where their consumer products come from. So thanks for sharing

Nicole said...

Brooke, this was a VERY interesting read! As a child, my mother was vegetarian for many years and so at times as an adult I have done the same - I do go back to eating meat, but I'm always conscious of where the packages in the grocery store come from. My husband tried to make a go of raising organic, free range chickens, but it's a hard thing to get started and he had to let it go. I think I could go very easily back into being a vegetarian - I don't know if I could ever be completely vegan, though.

rottenotter said...

I'm always really interested in hearing other vegetarians stories :)

I was born a vegetarian and have been ever since, 20 years. Just before I was born my parents decided to go vegetarian because of the diseases associated with meat, I think it was mad cow disease at the time but I'm not certain.

I grew up as a happy, healthy child with no problems having not eaten meat which just proves others can too.

I have a much better and varied diet compared to other friends who eat meat for every meal.

I also grew up with friends who were vegetarian which did made it easier when I was younger as we stuck together on school trips and things.

I'm so grateful for my up bringing as I know I will never eat meat for the rest of my life. I have never tasted meat and never will, I'm really proud of this.

I'm the same, I've always been a huge animal lover, having grown up with two cats and then other animals when I was a teenager. I can't bear the thought of then eating an animal.

Thanks for the great post and I hope this inspires others to become vegetarian :) xxx

Unknown said...

I am a huge animal lover so eating meat is something I strugle with. I mostly only eat chicken and seafood but I really do strugle with it. I tried to be vegeteraian and did it for a month but not very well as I wasn't feeling great. I admire you for being a vegeterian.

Jennifer said...

Loved this post. I'm a vegetarian too and really passionate about it. For my whole life I had had severe stomach issues, always going to the hospital and having tests done and they could never find out what was wrong. Then my sister (a vegetarian) and the book "Skinny Bitch" simultaneously convinced me to become vegetarian and from that day forward, not a single stomach problem. I then associated the fact that I was getting horribly ill every time I ate it. Without exception. It's really not beneficial for the human digestive system. Now that I've stopped I wouldn't eat a piece of meat for a million dollars. If anyone is considering becoming a vegetarian.. I recommend the book "Skinny Bitch." It brings all the awful truths to light... Including the way slaughter animals are tortured and even RAPED before they are killed. It's intense but I think its a must-read!

Erin said...

I loved reading this and found it to be very informative. I really appreciate that you approached the topic with the understanding that you're not trying to change everyone, but your goal is more to spread knowledge.

I'm not a vegetarian, but I eat very little meat. I dislike touching raw meat and cooking it isn't something I enjoy much. Also, when you're on a budget and realize that the cost of meat makes for half of the full meal's cost, it's easier to cut out. Most meals are perfectly wonderful standing on their own without meat in them.

GabZ1985 said...

I liked seeing your point of view on the matter. I also like that you're just sharing your experience, and not trying to convert others. Not that there's anything wrong with trying to get people healthier!

I'm not a vegetarian, but I'm super excited about meat either. I don't like touching raw meat either, as it feels slimy. I guess I wouldn't have any problems living a vegetarian lifestyle for a few weeks, but seeing as I have a lot to learn about nutrition and what not (I eat very poorly), I'd need to get informed first. Something I can do!

Kira said...

I am not a vegetarian either - in fact I enjoy meat. I have had meat on my cousins farm that I was patting last time was there. I have been hovering with vegetarianism for awhile - but I love meat and because of my health a very unadventurous cooker. I feel if I met someone and they cooked good vege only food I would easily give it up.

I think years of throwing up like morning sickness on heaps of food has given me a mental block and I am super cautious about new food. I am slowly when I get better going to include less meat and not make it the feature of the meal.

I also try to be organically as I very much abhor where meat comes from. I don't use leather and as such because I feel we don't need to use animals like back when they were used as the only clothing we had.

Kira said...

I am not a vegetarian either - in fact I enjoy meat. I have had meat on my cousins farm that I was patting last time was there. I have been hovering with vegetarianism for awhile - but I love meat and because of my health a very unadventurous cooker. I feel if I met someone and they cooked good vege only food I would easily give it up.

I think years of throwing up like morning sickness on heaps of food has given me a mental block and I am super cautious about new food. I am slowly when I get better going to include less meat and not make it the feature of the meal.

I also try to be organically as I very much abhor where meat comes from. I don't use leather and as such because I feel we don't need to use animals like back when they were used as the only clothing we had.

Nail Junkie said...

I am a vegetarian as well, I know exactly what you mean about people asking but not wanting to hear the answer I give. I am the only one in my entire family, and that does make it a little more difficult. It is great you had parents who made vegetarian dishes to accomadate you in mealtimes, I am often forgotten when it comes time to serve dinner.

MelmoK said...

I am in no way a vegetarian, in fact I'm a die hard meat eater. However I am glad that you brought up the free range farms.
There are not as few as you might think, they tend to go hand in hand with the 'real food' and 'raw milk' crowd (very interesting reading if you google it). I am lucky enough to have one less then fifteen minutes away where I can purchase pork, beef, raw milk, raw butter and raw cheeses along with free range eggs. He's more then happy to show you his animals who are kept as they are meant to be, they are healthy and happy and it shows.
I did spend some time in a slaughter house awhile back, not all are as terrible as the ones you tend to see on TV, do remember that they tend to like sensationalism.

I have a few friends who are vegetarians and it's always funny to hear people ask them about their choices, nothing they say ever keeps them from going 'but really....don't you MISS it?'. Thanks for sharing your story

Anonymous said...

I'm not a vegetarian but lots of people think I could be cause I don't eat meat a lot. I've thought about it but never resolved to go with it one way or the other. I don't mind vegetarians cause I always have the to each his own thought process.

This is a very well written post. Thanks for sharing.

The Rantings of a Drama Queen's Mum said...

I don't eat red meat or pork. So, that's not really a vegetarian. I stopped eating it in 1984. I'm very picky & don't like many veggies. Lately I really don't know what to eat. I hate cooking chicken/fish (when they are raw) & I would love to stop eating chicken, but as it is I don't have many choices of things to eat. I stopped because I started getting nautious when I ate red meat. I never liked pork. I also hate the idea of eating animals. I wish I liked more veggies & could find some new things to eat. I have found chick peas, hummus & brussel sprouts the past few years. I tried Tofu, but really didn't like it.

Anonymous said...

i realize this is a very old post, but i wanted to wish you well, tell you that i enjoy your blog, and add my 2 cents.
i think that being vegetarian CAN be extremely healthy, but that to go into it without an excellent education on nutritional/vitamins is ignorant and foolhardy - and that this is particularly true with veganism.
for me, personally - i have a medical condition that requires me to get extreme amounts of protein and fat. i monitor this with regular labwork, but in essence, vegetarianism could make me very ill. so, i applaud you for not being a vegetarian that condemns carnivores, and hope that you have a good understanding of your nutritional needs as well. best of luck to you, and keep blogging!

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