Vegetarian: to be or not to be?

Why I embraced vegetarianism… and why I gave it up

One evening as a young teen I was babysitting for some family friends. The baby was safe and sound in bed and all I had to do was eat my dinner and peruse a pile of magazines. I happened upon a blurb about Madonna being a vegetarian and thought, “Oh! That makes sense.” I think it was the first time I’d heard the term. I decided I would eat my last bite of meat that night: the pepperoni on my pizza.

Why did this make sense to me? Because I felt betrayed. I had grown up learning about animals as anthropomorphized creatures in story books and felt horrified when I realized it was these same creatures being led to slaughter and served under a tomato sauce. Vegetarianism made sense because I hated the occasional steak night that everyone else seemed to get so excited about. I hated the tiny, inconvenient bones in fish when it was on the menu. And I remembered meeting a gentle cow who had licked my hand with its rough tongue, only to see this beast again, packed into freezer-sized packages, some weeks later. I did not feel comfortable or even enjoy eating animals.

My eating choices were taken as an affront to good sense.

At age 14, what ensued was a struggle. A struggle with my mother who was – understandably – not happy to have to cook two separate meals, and who assured me that the imitation crab meat she cooked one night was vegetarian. (It wasn’t.) A struggle with traditional food cultures as I lived first in Finland, where fresh vegetables were not plentiful and tofu was unheard of, and then Norway, where I had to scan the bread ingredient labels for fish oil, and finally France, where my eating choices were taken as an affront to good sense. It was also a struggle for me to accept the rules of veganism. I agreed that industrialized dairy farms were bad. But organically raised honey? Was that really a problem? And wool, that was a no-no, too? But I had seen sheep being sheared at Historic Williamsburg as if they were puppies getting a belly rub! Certainly not all wool was bad. Apparently if you are a vegan, all wool is supposed to be bad.

What ensued for me was a pretty bad diet. I was a carb-oholic for my 8 years of veganism, living on large quantities of pasta and bread. Finally during a trip to Greece, I realized that the goats and sheep that had contributed the cheese on the table were just around the corner and seemed to have a pretty nice life. I realized that keeping eggs and dairy out of my diet was not a goal in itself – the goal was to avoid inhumane, industrialized agriculture. I added eggs and dairy back into my life and noticed a remarkable change. I had never disliked eggs, in fact, that was the one food I had truly missed as a vegan. I quickly lost my bread cravings and about 10 pounds. I also felt remarkably better.

I was a vegetarian for 25 years straight before I decided to eat meat again.  If you had told me 20 or 15 or 10 or even five years before this decision that I would learn to eat meat again (and like it), I would have scoffed at you. I had been a strict vegetarian, refusing foods like vegetable soup made with chicken broth and artificial bacon bits in situations where politeness would have dictated otherwise. So what happened?

“What?” I thought. “What could be healthier than vegetarianism?”

A couple of years before my conversion back to meat eating I started meeting people who would tell me they used to be vegetarians but had switched for their health. “What?” I thought. “What could be healthier than vegetarianism?” Then I started meeting holistic health care practitioners that had the same recommendation, suggesting it might help me with some issues I was having, particularly fatigue.

Around this time I realized I was gluten intolerant. I had already been managing a sensitivity to corn for several years. Now in addition to meat and corn I couldn’t eat wheat, which, it turned out, was everywhere. My options were becoming increasingly limited, and I was getting very frustrated.

Simultaneously, I was listening to Michael Pollen a lot. (His tales of the origins of barbecue may have pushed me over the edge). But mostly I was listening to my body and for some reason my body was craving pork. I had never had those cravings previously. But when I suddenly did experience cravings for meat, I could either lie to myself and ignore them – or ask myself what they meant.

Perhaps my body had become depleted of certain things. My B-12 levels were always low, a typical vegetarian problem. I talked about my cravings with friends, and with my acupuncturist. I came up with a plan to try chicken broth from a local farm dedicated to sustainability and humane treatment, and when that went down fine, I bought some of their pork.

I felt a pleasurable tingling in my head, as if a much needed element was being re-introduced into my body.

When I unpackaged the piece of pork, I actually cried. I asked the animal to forgive me and thanked it for its life. I slow-cooked my braise with lots of vegetables in a dutch oven. When I served myself a little bowl of it a few hours later, I felt a pleasurable tingling in my head, as if a much needed element was being re-introduced into my body.

My family was surprised – some of them were shocked – to learn that I was eating meat after nearly a lifetime of adamant vegetarianism. I write this, in part, as a response to that shock. I have not given up caring about animal welfare; I choose my meat, dairy and eggs carefully, as I do my plant-based foods. We are lucky enough to live near a small farm with high values and this is where we get most of our meat, eggs and dairy. I don’t feel comfortable eating meat at most restaurants and usually choose to avoid it in those situations.

My decision as a teenager was within the context of limited options: factory raised meat vs grains and vegetables. It was also based on limited knowledge of ecosystems. Though I started gardening as a teenager, I did not have the view I have now, of the role that animals play in vegetable growing. Compost and animal manure is the best fertilizer for gardens. Synthetic fertilizers on the other hand destroy the land: the ingredients are mined, and their application kills beneficial soil micro-organisms. (It also results in habitat loss for wild animals.) Looking to nature to see how healthy soil is created, we see that animals are an integral part of the system.

The reality of how these animals are treated before they make their way to a styrofoam tray in your grocery store does not make good story book tales for kids.

My choice as a teenager was also against a cultural contradiction: why did the connection between cute farm animal and bloody steak on the dinner plate get erased? I think this is probably because of our distance from the process as a society, but also because of the terrifying reality of industrial agriculture.  In 2016 Chad and I drove by some huge CAFO’s (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) on the border of Texas and New Mexico. The site of all those cows packed together was bad enough but the smell was just terrible. It was the worst thing I have ever smelled in my life, and I used to walk on some pretty stinky city streets, so I’ve smelled some bad things. The reality of how these animals are treated before they make their way to a styrofoam tray in your grocery store does not make good story book tales for kids.

If however, we were to eat less meat, of higher quality, raised sustainably and treated humanely by local farmers, there would be less horrors to hide. We could explain to our kids where their meat comes from. Joel Salatin has a respectable and respectful farming system with his Polyface farm; we need more farms like this.

Less than a year after I began eating meat again, I attended a week long workshop on fermentation and wild foods. Attendees were broken up into smaller groups of about 12 – 15 people. During the bone broth module of the workshop, our group started talking about vegetarianism and we discovered that an overwhelming majority of us – including the instructor – were former long-term vegetarians. One of our fellow attendees, a vegan, had refused to attend the bone-broth module. I overheard her tell someone the next day, “You have to know what to eat to be a healthy vegan.” A couple of us former vegans turned to each other and gave each other a knowing glance.

I looked at the young vegan’s synthetic yoga pants and vinyl purse. Did she realize that animals were dying due to habitat loss and pollution to produce her petroleum-based clothing and accessory choices? Probably not, but maybe she will get it one day.

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