I became a vegetarian in November of 1989, my senior year of college. I've told the story a million times, and I've really gotten rather tired of telling it. But for you, Internet, I'll tell it one more time. I was something of a lefty at the time. I'd voted for Jesse Jackson in the '88 presidential primaries. I was a member of Amnesty International (I still approve of much of their work). I wanted our nation's problems solved, and I hadn't yet realized that our government could never be trusted with the task. But that's another story. I tell you this to explain why I attended a "Human Rights Festival" on my campus. A couple of dozen organizations had set up booths. I was stuck late in chem lab, so I only got there just before the event closed down. I quickly made my way around the booths, picking up literature to look at while I ate my dinner.
It being close to Thanksgiving, dinner had a thanksgiving theme. This being a university cafeteria, dinner was poorly cooked. The mashed potatoes were gluey, the gravy - firm. The vegetables were overcooked, and the turkey undercooked. As I ate my undercooked turkey, I flipped through the literature I’d grabbed. Those who know me, will know that I have a penchant for selecting obviously inappropriate reading material. For example, when camping alone in the north woods, I decided to read The Shining. All night long, I'd been sure that animated malevolent bushes stalked my campsite. I believe they were especially dense in the zone between me and the outhouse. If there were a novel called “Betcha Can’t Stop me Before I Blow Up This Airplane, American Pig-dog”, I’d probably read it while passing through airport security. I'm an idiot that way. (Yeah, yeah, and other ways, too.) With that in mind, it’s easy to see how I’d end up reading animal rights propaganda from PETA while eating undercooked turkey. (The astute reader will note that PETA had no business being at a human rights rally. I suggest that the astute reader take it up with PETA and let me get on with it).
Now, the PETA propaganda was over the top. It was obvious to the casual reader that some things were being over-stated. Were there stories of brave chickens rescuing their owners who were trapped in combines? Truthfully, I don't recall. But as always, PETA pushed things further than good sense allowed. But I also sensed some truth in the propaganda. The undercooked turkey was all too clearly a slice of an animal, and there didn't seem to be a good reason for me to be eating it. I wasn’t convinced, and never have been, that eating meat was wrong, but maybe it was unnecessary. The next several days, I spent my spare time in the university library, looking up nutritional requirements, trying to determine if there was a need for humans to eat meat. There didn’t seem to be. B12 was the sticking point, but only for those who abstained from all animal proteins. I'd avoide the problem by eating eggs and dairy. The evidence pointed toward mankind’s digestive tract being well suited for an omnivorous diet. But with modern science, I could, perhaps, obtain what I needed without bringing death to my fellow creatures. I took the plunge. The last meat I ate was the bacon topping on a Perkins salad. November 2009 would mark twenty years since I last purposely ate meat.
Converting to vegetarianism was actually a lot of fun for me. It was like working on a big lateral thinking puzzle. (Yes, this is a thing I consider fun. Sue me.) First, there was deciding what I would and wouldn’t eat, based on health and ethics. Would I eat honey? dairy? eggs? What else followed logically from this stance? If I wasn’t eating meat, would I still wear leather? What about silk? Wool? What could I substitute for things I was eliminating? What hidden animal products were there in processed foods? How would I approach being around others who still ate meat? Would I continue working at the campus burger place? And how would I explain and defend my decision?
Over the coming months, I developed my own personal strain of vegetarianism. I wouldn’t eat gelatin, but I would eat dairy and eggs. I wouldn’t eat things that looked vegetarian (packaged rice mix, vegetable soup) if they contained things from animals (gelatin, chicken broth). But, if the issue was unclear (magnesium stearate? White sugar?), I’d stay on the more relaxed side of the street. I learned about the culture of vegetarianism, famous vegetarians in history, protein matching, and that PETA was a bunch of out of control dicks just looking to get some press. (But, don’t blame an idea for the person who holds it!)
Over the years, I became comfortable with my vegetarianism. It became second nature, with a monumental inertia all its own. I automatically checked labels in the grocery store. I avoided the likelier hidden meat in restaurants, didn't even consider eating the soup, or the gravy. I developed responses to counter those who felt a personal mission to get me to eat meat again. (Yes, I'd kill a bear that was attacking me... or try to. Yes, I’d eat meat if it was the only way to keep from starving. In fact, I'd eat _you_ if it were the only way to keep from starving!) And I coasted.
Years passed. Decades, even. I experimented with world cuisines, found all sorts of amazing food I’d never otherwise have tried. This energized my vegetarianism. I met a wonderful woman, a meat-eater who accepted my vegetarian ways. I met vegetarians who wouldn’t eat veggies cooked near meat. I met vegans. Their angst helped push me to stay relaxed. My family and friends helped a lot. Everyone really bent over backwards to be sure I'd have something to eat. But sometimes I felt like I was missing out. I ate veggie riblets while everyone else raved about the brisket. I had to grab a sandwich before heading to the wedding reception. I had to push up to the front of the crowd to grab a piece of the cheese pizza before it was gone. Every lunch meeting required an email. I was stuck eating only desserts at the potluck. These things bugged me a little, but I coped.
I’ve noticed lately , though, that the intensity of my feelings for vegetarianism are fading. My passion has cooled. I'm no longer feel that I'm really accomplishing anything by being vegetarian. I'm not even sure that there's anything to accomplish. I've always been apalled at people who subject their dogs and cats to vegetarian diets. I figure, if you don't want to kill animals to feed your pets, get pets that don't eat meat. It seemed unnatural to do otherwise. I knew that my diet was unnatural, too. My body is evolved to prefer a variety of meat and non-meat sustenance. I've never felt strongly that there was anything immoral about eating meat. Killing an animal for food merely seemed... unnecessary. Add to that the environmentally expense of meat-eating, and the constant calls for us to eat more plant-based foods, and it seemed I'd be better off just not messing with it.
The problem that has arisen is that, while eating animals still looks like a non-necessity, it's becoming more and more of a pain. I recently discovered that I was becoming lactose intolerant. If I have more than a slice or two of cheese I get stomach cramps and … well, you don’t want to know. This means that I’ve effectively become an ovo-vegetarian, rather than ovo-lacto. That's only a step away from vegan, and it’s a tough road to follow, perhaps a tougher road than I care to follow. A childish part of my brain also thinks it's more than a little unfair. I've given up every sort of meat, and now my body tells me that I have to give up cheese and ice cream, too?! And as I approached 40, I felt my body begin to fall apart. Persistent joint aches, slowed healing, colitis, tooth grinding. How much of this was due to age, stress and weight, how much due to subtle deficiencies due to my vegetarian diet?
I tried increasing my egg intake to keep my protein levels up, and saw my cholesterol skyrocket. And I noticed I was eating less and less healthily. I’d developed a habit of filling up on hors doeuvre at parties, in case I couldn’t eat the main dish. Soon I was filling up on them even if I knew I'd have enough to eat later. I also wondered how much of my overeating was due to unfulfilled cravings. After all, my favorite snack foods are those loaded with MSG, a concentrated source of the umami flavor also provided by meat.
And more and more, I felt like I was missing out. I didn’t try the fish at the roadside stand in Jamaica. I didn’t try the barbecue at Doumar’s in Virginia. I’ve never had a buffalo wing, foi gras, or escargot. I have to settle for a single menu option at many restaurants. I couldn't try something new off of a menu if I couldn't be certain it didn't contain meat (and my experience with wait staff is that they're usually guessing when they answer questions on the topic). I worried I wouldn't find ANYTHING to eat if we visited Prague... os Singapore... or anywhere else, it seemed. I was beginning to resent my vegetarianism. And that seemed like a stupid thing to do to myself. I'd become a vegetarian because I wanted to. No one had told me I had to. Why was I forcing it?
So. For the past few months, I’ve been re-evaluating my vegetarianism. It's been a part of my life for nearly 20 years, so this isn't something I'd change lightly. But, in the end, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s no longer for me. And if I'm honest with myself, a lot of that decision is just due to being fed up with it. I have immense respect anyone who follows a vegetarian diet (so long as they don't harrass people about it - hello PETA!). It’s clear that a vegetarian diet can be better for the environment, better for the animals, and is ethically on safer ground. But it’s not for me any more. I’ve decided that as of today, I will not call myself a vegetarian.
But it’s a little more complicated than just switching to meat and potatoes again tomorrow morning. Although I don't consider myself a vegetarian any longer, I will still eat a mostly vegetarian diet for the time being. I plan to ease into this, adding small amounts of meat to my diet here and there, as the opportunity presents. I'm targetting a diet with some meat in it, not a diet with mostly meat in it. Something along the lines of what most of the world eats on a daily basis. And my dietary habits may take a while to shift. I have to admit - I’m more than a bit nervous about this. The physical issues alone are frightening, much less the lifestyle adjustment to a total change in my diet. I wonder how my digestive system will react to suddenly having to cope with meat again. Will meat even taste good to me any more? I’m nervous about taking that first bite of a hamburger. Will it gross me out? Will I gag? (Will I go crazy, order 10 more, and scarf them all down in one sitting?) Time will tell. But for now, I’m not a vegetarian, I’m just a guy who doesn’t really eat much meat.
(My thanks go out to my wife and kids, and to the rest of my family, friends, and co-workers who have been so supportive of my dietary choices over the last 19+ years, and who have gone out of their way to make sure there was something I could eat. It has really touched me how willing to help people have been, and how many people have taken extra trouble to make sure the guy with the weird eating habits would be comfortable when it came time to eat. I'm sure I haven't thanked you all enough for all you've done, so thanks, and thanks again. Now... what's for dinner?)