I’ve been a vegetarian for almost 25 years, which means I’ve probably answered the question “Why are you a vegetarian?” about 25 million times. Usually it is in a situation where only a sentence or two is wanted as an answer, so I’ll say “because I wouldn’t like to kill an animal, and it doesn’t make sense to me to have someone else do it for me.” Which is completely true, but doesn’t really convey the complexity of my thoughts on the subject.
On this blog, I’ve primarily focused on recipes, with a smattering of book and product reviews. I wax philosophical about as often as I wax my mustache or the kitchen floor. But I thought I’d take one article to talk about my choice to be vegetarian.
Let me start with a couple of reasons that aren’t my reason. Some folks are vegetarian for the health benefits. I’ve never been too interested in that angle. It seems that there are some net positives, although, as with any area of nutrition and medical research, there are so many confounding factors it is difficult to say much with certainty. I look at this more as a bonus. Since I’m not getting a lot of saturated fat from meat, it means I probably have a little more leeway to eat extra cheese and chocolate. And French fries. And butter. My weight has stayed quite constant for years, and my vitals are all good. So knock wood.
Then there are people that go veg because of the environment. It takes vastly more grain, water and petroleum inputs to produce a given number of calories and grams of protein of meat than if you eat the grain directly. Again, for me the environmental benefit is a nicely aligned bonus, not a primary reason. Undoubtedly being a vegetarian does mean treading more lightly on the resources of our increasingly crowded planet, and I’m all for that, for the same reasons I recycle or compost. But I think that alone wouldn’t make me 100% vegetarian, it would probably just make me eat relatively little meat, and choose animals low on the food chain.
I’m much closer in philosophy to those who are vegetarian for animal welfare reasons. You’ve seen the pictures of calves in confinement boxes, debeaked chickens, tubes forced down the throats of geese to make foie gras, acres of fish gasping for air in the hold of a ship, and a hundred other horrors of factory farming. I’d personally never want to support that kind of treatment.
In recent years, there has been a huge upsurge in demand for and availability of ethically raised animals. For many folks, that resolves the issue. They choose to partake of meat, but only when they know the animal has been well treated in life and death. I totally get that, and certainly if I were going to eat meat, I’d go that route. In my mind there is no question that it is a vast improvement over industrial methods. That concept also goes hand-in-hand with a commitment to eating the whole animal, which is more honorable than wasting much of it.
For me, the choice is even more personal and visceral. When I look in the eyes of an animal, I simply feel this sense of empathy, and there isn’t a doubt in my mind that they feel pain, can and do suffer, and want to live. Am I anthropomorphizing? Unquestionably. And I’m not foolish enough to think that they feel or emote or remember in the same way as humans. Still, when I see a pig or a chicken, a cow or a goat or a fish, I just never think “boy, I’d like to cut your head off, skin you and eat your muscles”.
I remember feeling this way even as a kid. I never liked even to bait a fishhook. The idea of spearing the living worm was abhorrent to me.
I assume that that basic revulsion towards killing or inflicting pain on animals is there, in me, for a reason. I’m sure that I could learn to override it, but in normal circumstances, why would I want to? Let me be clear: if I ever find myself lost and starving in the woods with a gun (highly unlikely!) and no knowledge of edible plants (sadly, likely), look out deer-boy, you are going down.
I don’t judge other folks. The vast majority of my friends eat animals, as does my wife (rather infrequently). I watch cooking shows and read cookbooks that include lots of meat recipes. I often watch Iron Chef (Japanese or American) and see rather gross butchering that makes my meat eating loved ones utterly nauseous, and I can watch usually with equanimity. Because that is simply what other people choose to do, and I respect their choices. I guess I only gently hope that everyone gives it thought and checks with themselves to make sure there isn’t too big of a disconnect between their beliefs and their choices. I applaud anyone who has made a conscious decision in any direction.
I can’t really argue with the idea that eating meat is a natural, human behavior. Certainly our ancestors have been doing it a long time, though many of our closest primate cousins don’t. It just isn’t the right choice for me.
I’ve also found the argument that vegetarians are responsible for deaths of millions of animals in plowed farm fields to be disturbing and a bit persuasive. I’ve simply had to accept that perfection is not accesible to humans, that we do the best we can. I also undoubtedly step on untold numbers of tiny bugs everyday. Whadaya gonna do?
Along the same lines, I’m a lacto-ovo vegetarian. I eat dairy products and eggs, and I know that often involves cows and chickens living uncomfortable or unhappy lives. I’m simply not willing to go vegan, but again that is a choice I respect. I do try to choose the most ethical dairy and eggs I can get my hands on.
I want to be honest. For me there are significant downsides to being vegetarian. As you know I’m an extremely avid cook, and hope to open a restaurant someday. That path would be drastically easier if I ate and cooked meat. There would be many more restaurants where I could apprentice, and many more potential patrons when I have my own place.
As a cook, I’d probably enjoy the added challenge of learning how to work with a whole additional range of ingredients. And I firmly believe that planning menus around meat is much easier. Simply starting with the “protein”, as it is euphemistically called, lays a big flavorful foundation which requires only simple accompaniments to make a great plate of food. Vegetarian cooking requires generally more prep and more creativity.
Also, I dislike the feeling of social disconnection that comes from not being able to share in other people’s food culture and hospitality, especially when traveling abroad. I recently read an article by another long-standing vegetarian who chose to eat meat while visiting his friends in France. That wouldn’t work for me, but I can understand the impulse. It was a pleasure to travel in India a few years ago, where being vegetarian is a totally normal, accepted way of life.
All of that said, I don’t think of being vegetarian as some sort of privation. I love to cook, I love to eat, I love to drink, I love to share the pleasure of the table with friends. I love the incredible variety of fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes and dairy products that are available. I love the farmer’s market. I love great restaurants whether with 5 stars or 5 greasy tables. I love exploring new cuisines. I love the thrice daily ritual of dining, and the multi-sensory experience in a world that lately seems to be confined to keyboards and pixels. I love when a bite of food makes me say “oh holy shit that is good”.
So there you go. Now you know why I’m a vegetarian, and next time someone asks I can just rattle off this URL, right?
I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments. Are you a vegetarian with similar or different reasons? A pescetarian? Flexitarian? Vegan? Unabashed carnivore? Does my thought process ring true to you or sound ridiculous? Does it make you mad? Talk to me.