This March will mark 10 years since I stopped eating meat. Sort of. I would consider myself to be a pollo-pescatarian, with some quirks thrown in. My husband calls me a non-practicing vegetarian.
I remember the moment I decided to become a vegetarian. It was, I believe, the 19th of March, 2003. I was in New York City attending a conference for my high school writing pursuits: print newspaper and literary magazine. The Columbia Scholastic Press Association’s 79th annual Spring Convention was being held at Columbia University. We spent all mornings and afternoons attending seminars and award ceremonies for about four or five days. We ate breakfast and lunch in one of Columbia University’s cafeterias and for most of us it was our first time semi-living on a college campus. Perhaps it was the liberal arts vibe that I soaked up as I wandered the oak-paneled halls of the legendary institution. Perhaps it was the fact that the US had just declared war on Iraq, and as a 16-year-old I felt largely impotent in my abilities to affect real change or garner control over the rolling tides around me.
The image that sticks with me from the moment I made my decision is that of a half-eaten hamburger atop a white plastic tray being conveyor-belted away towards a back room. As with most cafeterias, Columbia’s had a station for you to throw away your napkins and recycle your drink cans, and then you were to place your tray on the rolling rubber mats where it returned to the bowels of the kitchen to be cleaned. As I dropped my tray on the belt, I noticed that a student before me had not emptied his tray of garbage, but had placed it as is on the transporter. On it were several plates in various degrees of consumption (the cafeteria had several food stations, like pizza, stir-fry, burgers, etc.); his eyes were obviously bigger than his stomach. What struck me hardest was the perfectly good hamburger, fully loaded, with a single bite taken out of it, glowing at me like a waxing moon.
An almost audible curtain thumped down in my mind. It was like I was seeing something for the first time, or seeing something I knew before in a whole new light. I was utterly appalled with this nonchalant attitude of wastefulness. I looked around the cafeteria and saw that this boy was definitely not the only one who had over-filled and under-consumed. I had this moment of clarity, wherein I decided that as much as I could help it, I would not contribute to wastefulness.
I ate vegetarian for the rest of the trip, and then I returned home, where the reality of what I was proposing hit me. I lived in the South; this means meat. Meat at every meal. Preferably pork. Growing up in a good Southern Reform Jewish household, we used our grill/smoker almost as much as our oven. My parents were both certified Memphis in May BBQ judges, and they took my brother and I to competitions around the South when we were kids. My dad has been on barbecue teams for as long as I can remember. We ate brisket and pot roast for special holidays, and slow-cooked pork for football game days. I remember one particular 4th of July, all day on the lake and a whole pig on the smoker until the fireworks started. One of the first campfire meals I learned to make was Dutch-oven beef stew. You get the idea. How was I to re-enter this lifestyle with my new sense of morality?
As an aside here, let me outline the true nature of my decision. At the time, I did not have a problem with people eating meat. My initial transformation had nothing to do with killing practices, animal cruelty, or overfishing. In fact, I’ll admit that I did very little research into slaughterhouses or the living conditions of food animals. I did no research into sustainable fishing practices, farmed vs. wild-caught fish, or the Bovine Growth Hormone. My base reason for quitting meat was this: In America, as advanced as we are, we do not need meat to survive. We are not eating to the best of our abilities, cleanly and with a conscience. We are massively wasting a protein source that could help people in other countries live better, healthier, and longer. As evidenced by the once-bitten hamburger, we are not showing responsibility or respect to the products we consume. I did not want to further any resource squandering. I knew that my not eating a hamburger didn’t mean that a starving kid in Ethiopia would get that equivalent of food sent to him. I simply did not want to be part of a culture of wasters any longer.
Still, I was a teenager living at home. I felt bad about forcing my family to abstain along with me. I felt bad that my mom would have to make me something special every time she cooked for the family. I didn’t want my proclivities to be a burden. So I gave a little: I conceded to continue to eat poultry (which meant chicken and turkey, since I had never really eaten duck anyway). This meant that my mom could still make things for the family, like meatloaf, but she could do it with ground turkey instead of ground beef, which satisfied my ideals and was actually a healthier choice for everyone else anyway. I had the opportunity, when I moved away for college, to become a true vegetarian. But over the years, I’ve gotten so used to the way I eat, I’ve never bothered to go back and re-evaluate it.
I have, however, done more research. I looked into the health benefits of poultry vs. seafood, and added certain fishes to my diet. (I’m allergic to a lot of seafood, so this wasn’t a huge hassle.) I do wish that the conditions that the animals are kept in were better, and I wish sometimes that the demand for flesh wasn’t so high. But I’ve never forced my beliefs on anyone. By default my husband eats my diet for dinners, but he loads up on bacon on the weekends to reset his karma. My basic life motto is “live and let live,” and I try to feel as good as I can about the choices I’m presented with and responsible for while I’m on this earth.
Flexibility with my personal definition of vegetarianism helps when I travel too, because although my choices are still limited, they are not nearly as restricted as if I were a vegan or a fruitarian. If I were a true vegetarian, I would be confined to ordering mostly salads at restaurants, and would miss out on some incredible opportunities to try exotic foods. I already miss out on some things, but I’m content with my weird predilection, and I’ve been doing it for so long now I wouldn’t even know how to get back on the meat wagon.