I read an excerpt in Skinny Bitch about a factory farm employee who sliced off the tip of a pig's snout—“like a piece of bologna”—and threw salt in its face, just to watch it squeal.
That was the moment I decided to become a vegetarian. I mean sure, the book as a whole compelled my choice, and there were other horrific stories aplenty, but I’ve never been able to forget the image of that pig. That was my Grand Klong moment.
I tried to give up meat when I was 10, after I watched an HBO documentary about animal cruelty. It was my first glimpse at the truth about where meat comes from, and it showed in vivid detail the process of how cows are slaughtered. I was horrified as I watched blood spurt from their slit throats, their hides were ripped off while still alive, but my eyes were glued to the screen. I wanted to see more. I somehow knew I was learning something pivotal—a cold, hard truth about the world—and I didn’t want to diminish its impact by turning away.
The film took an odd turn at the end when it touched on how people in various other countries kill the animals they eat. The single most vivid scene I still cannot shake to this day, I mean sometimes it just plays on a reel in my head, over and over, was a lady who tossed a live cat into a vat of boiling water, scooped it out, raked her gloved hand down its back to remove the hair and then tossed its limp and steaming body into a pile before moving on to the next.
The following day, I BEGGED my dad to let me give up meat, and he didn’t really put up a fuss. For lunch, he picked the meatballs out of my Chef Boyardee and made me cheese sandwiches. As for dinner, my dad’s culinary skills were pretty basic and meat was always the focus of our plates. Steaks on the grill, a slab of country ham, baked chicken. I wish I could say we figured it out, but neither of us really knew what to cook if I didn’t eat meat, and back then I was ruled heavily by my stomach (actually, I still am) and as the days drew on, the desire for meat began to overpower the impact of the documentary. After only one week I was back to eating dad’s cheeseburgers.
And I enjoyed meat for the next 21 years: thick, medium-rare filets. Savory pieces of applewood-smoked bacon. Juicy bison burgers. Corn dogs at the fair, slathered in mustard. Fresh chicken salad. Mom’s succulent pot-roast. Pepperoni pizza. A fat, pink salmon covered in lemon juice. Thanksgiving turkey. Honey-baked ham at Easter.
And then, last October, my boss lent me a copy of Skinny Bitch, not to persuade me to go vegan—in fact she was stunned when I told her I gave up meat—but as a “fun” read. What I mean is, the book does tout veganism, but it isn’t just information about the environmental damage caused by and animal cruelty within the factory farm system. There’s also information about how to cultivate a diet free of processed foods, sweets, chemicals and the like, and the authors use some colorful and witty language as they try to convince readers to eschew these things.
(Yeah right like I’m going to give up coffee and bourbon.)
You can read why I decided to be a vegetarian in last year’s post.
And then you can read my other post about the woes of the protein question, wherein I am called an “oversensitive vegetarian” by one disgruntled commenter.
So it’s been nearly one year since I gave up the meat. But I still remember those first few days and weeks vividly. I was constantly worried about being hungry, although I never was. I was even more concerned about eating at functions with pre-fixe menus and eating at friend’s and family’s homes. Case in point, two days in to my newfound lifestyle, I attended my stepsisters Halloween Party. No one in my family knew yet, and I wasn’t comfortable in my decision to say anything. I scanned the tables carefully. Cookies. A Halloween candy dish littered with the familiars: Hershey’s Minis, Smarties, gumballs and Sour Patch Kids. There were also four kinds of chili—all with meat. And hot dogs.
My hunger and vegetarianism were spared however by the existence of nacho chips and melted cheese, but I ate horribly that night. That was the first time I realized vegetarian did not automatically mean healthy, and that I was going to have to wake up and pay attention to foods I could substitute for the texture and heartiness of meat.
Fourteen sugar cookies and stale tortilla chips were not a good start.
So in my (almost) year as a vegetarian, I’d like to share a few things that you, as a new vegetarian, aspiring veg-head or seasoned herbivore, might find helpful. This is by no means a List of Rules. Just sharing my experience.
- Don’t be shy or afraid to tell people about your decision. Others can be your best advocate. I swear in the early days I never remembered to check menus or make special requests unless my friend Nancy reminded me to do so. My pal Susan had no qualms whatsoever once about flagging a waiter at a recent banquet who set down a plate of chicken pasta in front of me. “She’s a vegetarian” she exclaimed and of course they whisked away the offending dish and brought me the veggie (and much fresher looking) alternative. At that point I was so shy about making it public knowledge! Hell I was content to just pick the chicken out of my food, but I’ve since learned to really own my decision. And give others credit—every restaurant I’ve been to since I gave up meat has always been accommodating. Which brings me to my next point.
- Eat at good restaurants. I don’t mean expensive, although that doesn’t hurt either. What I mean is, eat at locally owned restaurants. Get to know the people who cook your food. I eat out a lot, and I am a big foodie, so this one is important to me. Not only will you increase the likelihood of finding a wider selection of healthy vegetarian options on the menu (read: not french fries) but also the chef will probably create a fabulous veggie plate out of fresh and locally grown products.
- If you’re not sure if there’s meat in something, for crying out loud, ASK. This goes hand-in-hand with the first point, so you need to be confident with your vegginess. I wasn’t at first, and I used to pull people aside and ask as though I was telling them I’d peed on the floor or something. Again, people do understand. The more confident you are with your decision, the easier it will be for others around you. Make them feel comfortable. Anyway, I accidentally ate bacon once because I just assumed the dish labeled “Vegetable Casserole” would be meatless (SILLY ME.) Again, ASK.
- Keep the drama to a minimum. Don’t freak out if you accidentally eat bacon. Don’t run to the bathroom and act like you’re going to throw up or whatever. I also highly advise not turning into one of those vegetarians who is constantly saying “I’m a vegetarian,” because there is a difference between pretentiousness and confidence. Also, try very hard not to make every meal with others into a production. I go to a lot of places with friends and family that aren’t specifically vegetarian friendly. Sometimes it’s the house salad for me because literally everything else on the menu has meat in it. But that is what you signed up for so be prepared. Do not sulk at the table. Bring a granola bar or eat something before you leave the house. Do not sigh when someone forgets and asks you if you want a bite of their meatloaf. Donot expect anyone to remember right away. The important people in your life will eventually get it, and will be sweet and accommodating, I promise. It took my folks about six months before they stopped saying “oh, that’s right you don’t eat meat” but now then they keep black bean burgers in the freezer for me when I visit. Friends are quick to point out veggie options on menus and I love them for it. By the way, the reason I get to say this stuff is because at some point I have wanted to or have actually acted in the ways I’ve described. And it’s really unattractive.
I would like to thank Beans&Greens for his amazing post “On being a vegan.” It inspired me to write this, which has completely rekindled my desire to update this sorely under-attended to blog, but also to write more about my experiences and challenges with vegetarianism.
It’s been an interesting year without meat and I look forward to another year of surprising myself with how absolutely delicious meat-free dishes can be, exploring new and crazy ingredients, experimenting in the kitchen and deciding which local chef makes the best veggie plate.