Becoming a Vegetarian Was and Is Surprisingly Easy.
People always ask me why I’m a vegetarian and I usually respond by saying something like “all the obvious reasons”. I do this because I know that it is a major buzz kill to hear about animal abuse and the insane environmental pollution (not going to do that here), because this person probably doesn’t really want to talk about it, and I usually don’t either. I, quite consciously, do not want to add to the reputation of vegetarians/vegans being smug and preachy. So, I will only unleash that demon if people continue to pry ***Unless, of course, you are one of my close friends or family members… then I will occasionally try the random guilt trip (in my family we were taught the persuasive power of a good guilt trip through frequent repetition), but this is mostly just for fun.
Sometimes people will ask whether it was difficult to stop eating meat and I can honestly say that, no, it was really quite easy. I had a much harder time with quitting cigarettes. I also want to make it clear that it was relatively easy to do without support from others because, well, it’s not exactly a crowd-pleaser—meaning budding vegetarians will need enough resolve to do it on their own.
I ate all kinds of meat up until my sophomore year of college in 2006. In the beginning, my family was FAR from supportive of my decision. My dad said—in his typical arrogant style—that I was doing something stupid and it wouldn’t last long. I credit my dad’s negativity and flippant reaction for my enduring resolve in those early days—nothing like a little motivation out of spite! My brothers absolutely love that I am a vegetarian (then and now) because they get to use the same jokes over and over again, like pretending to have hidden meat in my food and doing the ‘You Don’t Make Friends With Salad’-dance from “The Simpsons” episode when Lisa became a vegetarian. My mother—even though she was the most supportive in the family—tried to trick me into eating soup with chicken and chicken broth and successfully convinced me to eat fish by cooking salmon for me without warning every time I came home.
None of my friends were vegetarians. Most of them did offer some support in the form of often ordering some appetizers without meat when we went out together. I remember being excited when a High School friend’s new boyfriend was a strict vegetarian. However, despite being veg for 10+ years prior to meeting her, that situation ended in his enthusiastic return to all meats and their current marriage (due IMO to her being the dominant partner in the relationship). More recently, my roommate and best-friend did go through the transition, but sad to say this was not due to my occasional (passionate!) guilt trips. Just a few months after that she and her boyfriend (who is very very Polish, making it extra difficult) became vegans and have since maintained that for the last two-ish years.
The Nuts and Bolts about Quitting Meat
Full disclosure: I am actually a pescatarian. Meaning, I eat eggs and fish and cheese. I think this is a great way to start the transition to vegetarian or veganism. (I am stuck at this phase and this is addressed in the section below).The reasons this and other non-vegan vegetarian diets are insanely easy is that you still have some unmodified options at almost every restaurant/food establishment. Lacto-ovo vegetarians include dairy and eggs in their diet.
**Some people believe that eating fish means you’re not really a vegetarian. I don’t know what to say about that, other than, yeah I can understand that point of view. I now only eat fish caught by friends, family members, and/or myself. This is because there is no doubt that fishing sustainability limitations were followed when it is local, I personally know the source, and because being from LI, I enjoy going fishing once or twice a year (and someday I will have my own chicken coop!). I also believe people should not worry so much about the label. encouraging all people to eat less meat is a more realistic goal than trying to convince everyone to go vegan—at least in my experience. If all people ate beef once a week/month/year it would make a huge improvement on the current trend of most people eating it one or more times every damn day*
The biggest concern/issue people tend to ask about is how I get protein/where I get protein. There is no dearth of protein in a vegetarian diet… I literally never even think about it. Eggs, nuts, legumes, avocado, soy and nut milks, peas, spinach, mushrooms, peanut butter, oatmeal, hummus, edamame, tofu, tempeh (and obviously fish), are all packed in protein. **There is a commonly cited misconception about needing protein from such and such a source to live. That’s bullshit—unless you are a cat. Cat’s need meat to live. Cats are carnivores. Look at their teeth. Now look at yours. They are different. Cats have all pointy sharp teeth to tear meat from the bone. Humans have monkey-like teeth with both canines for tearing and molars for chewing. Humans are omnivores. Our species also have a very strong liver and high sensitivity for smelling rot and decay—which means our ancestors probably scavenged a large proportion of the meat they ate.
For vegans, the only nutrient their diet may lack is vitamin B12. Of note: Humans only need 2-10 micrograms a day and most people would need ~5 years of no B12 before having any actual health problems. Nowadays, lots of foods are fortified with vitamin B12 including pretty much all the nut milks. It’s also available in all forms of dietary supplement. B12 comes from microorganisms in animal products. If you are a vegetarian or pescatarian you can get it in eggs (cage-free, cruelty-free, free-roaming, organic recommended).
Strange as it sounds, humans do not actually need dairy in their diet. Vitamin D and calcium are plentiful in nondairy sources. You can get enough calcium by eating things like kale and broccoli. In fact, when you consume animal products like milk you get phosphorus along with calcium, and phosphorus leeches calcium from your bones (some sources report that getting calcium from plants is more efficient). And I’ve always struggled with the whole concept of people eating cow milk. Cows produce milk for their babies. How come people feel it is necessary to use cow milk but not, like, milk from dog/elk/moose/cat/monkey/horse/nameananimal? Or human milk? Babies DO need milk. Human milk. No one else does.
Here’s a Quick Introduction to Fake Meat:
One of the reasons that quitting meat never felt like a sacrifice is because of all the wonderful meat substitutes that are available at any grocery store. I’m not really sure whether to call it “meatless meat” or “faux/fake” meat, or whatever, so bare with me.
All vegan hot-dogs taste exactly like hot-dogs. I got one at Met Stadium that tasted so real I was a little concerned I was given the wrong order (until the last bite which was a bit soggy).
Gardein has excellent faux “beef strips”, faux turkey, and sweet and sour chicken (the meatballs are not terrible). It’s a highly recommended brand!
Morning star is one of the most accessible brands I know of. I eat their fake chicken nuggets all the time. In the beginning, I struggled the most with giving up chicken caesar wraps, but now I just make them myself with Morning Star fake chicken. Morning Star has a huge range of products including various burgers, chicken patties, “beef” grounds, fake chicken strips, you name it. My meat-eater boyfriend loved their “sirloin” veggie burger. I am obsessed with the black bean burger.
Mock Duck– Thai restaurants and many Chinese restaurants have a menu item often referred to as “mock duck”. It is delicious. It’s actually something that Buddhist monks have made for centuries using wheat gluten and soy sauce. It comes in many forms like mock squid and mock prawn. There is a rich tradition and culinary history of making mock meats in many Asian countries.
Tempeh and Seitan are excellent meat substitutes and high in protein. Seitan is made from wheat gluten and i believe “mock-duck” is technically seitan. Tempeh is made from tofu, but much more firm and ‘meat-like’ in consistency than regular tofu. They are both great tasting and come in many variations.
There are thousands of flavors/variations of veggie burger. If you are going to a BBQ, it is so easy to grab a veggie burger from your freezer and not have to worry about diet accommodations. Boca Burgers are very recognizable. All Burger Kings offer veggie burgers (MorningStar) and White Castle now offers both veggie and bean sliders.
Have you heard of Quorn? Their meatless chicken is some of the best I’ve had. One of the coolest things about Quorn is actually their story of origin. It is a British product that was developed in response to the prediction that there would be a worldwide shortage of protein-rich foods by the 1980s. Mycoprotein is the magic ingredient in Quorn. Mycoprotein is a single-cell protein made of the filamentous fungus (Fusarium venenatum) that was discovered in a soil sample in 1967. It is a fermented “vat raised” fungus that is kinda like a really tiny mushroom, but not a mushroom (side note: some of their products contain eggs, and all the eggs are free range).
Last, but certainly NOT least: The Impossible Burger. This product was launched very recently. It is so damn real tasting that many vegan and veggies can’t handle it (that is the warning we got from our waiter). It’s a little too close to the real thing! It is a 100% veg burger with iron, and was developed to appeal directly to meat-eaters as a more sustainable alternative. The addition of iron gives it a pink appearance that changes to a brown/grey when cooked–just like a regular hamburger. I can’t say enough about how real it tastes (although this is coming from a chick who has not eaten a meat hamburger in 12 years). I wish it was available everywhere. Right now it is only available through restaurants and they are all listed on the Impossible Burger website by city. All the Bareburger restaurants sell impossible burgers. Check out the website for more info.
Other brands of note: Beyond Meat, Dr. Praeger’s, Amy’s, Sweet Earth, and Lightlife. There are tons more that I haven’t had the chance to try. Shout out to Veggie Patch which sadly no longer exists, but had the best nuggets I’ve ever eaten. Click here for a ranking of fake meat products by a non-vegetarian.
Being a Vegan is Hard for Some Surprising Reasons
I don’t feel like a good person for being a vegetarian/pescatarian. Well, sometimes I do, but not really. This is largely because I know deep inside that I should really try a lot harder to be a vegan—or at the very least a “real” vegetarian.
I love vegan food. I use a lot of vegan products. I try not to buy leather and obviously don’t use fur. My mayo is vegan, my milk is almond and coconut, and my ice cream is dairy-free coconut cream (because it tastes so damn good). BUT cheese (like sugar) is my drug. And I’ve been obsessed with flavored coffee creamers since childhood. And I don’t want to cause a scene at weddings. And I am making excuses.
But besides limitations and obvious inconveniences, there is another reason I haven’t yet made the decision to take that next step, and I think it’s best described as stigma.
Despite not actually being a vegan, I try to educate people about what I call the “Vegan Catch-22”. There is a widely accepted stereotype that vegans are smug braggarts and have holier-than-thou attitudes toward non-vegans. People absolutely LOVE to hate them. Hating vegans is extra fun because it doesn’t make you a racist or a sexist!! And the stigma does have an effect (well… at least for one person). I really don’t want people to judge me immediately when they hear that word and then see me as some kinda Debby-Downer jerk! Here is a sampling of the myriad memes to illustrate my point:
In grad school I took a class on oppression, and the main things I took away from it was (1) that fear underlies hatred of the “other” and (2) that being “oppressed” means being damned if you do and damned if you don’t.
Now hear me out: Following a vegan diet requires that the vegan knows what is in the food. Anytime a vegan goes to a non-vegan restaurant—which is MOST of the time unless you happen to live in an incredibly progressive city I’ve never heard of—they have to ask if animal products are used in many menu offerings like batter, soup, sandwiches, dressing, etc. So, vegans are not always going around announcing their veganism so much as they are asking what’s in the food in order to make modifications and follow their diet restrictions/lifestyle. Of course vegetarians do this too, but less so, obviously because they are not restricted from nearly as many products/foods. But, Paleos do it too. Lactose Intolerant people do it. Gluten Free people do it a lot!!! And yet they are not perceived as smug assholes!
I believe, like all hatred, it is rooted in fear. I find I can best illustrate this fear using an analogy about another hotly debated topic: Guns. We know that gun owners don’t want their guns taken away. The culture of the NRA has whipped a lot of gun owners into a frenzied-reactionary state of no-compromise. They believe that any restrictions on guns will lead to a slippery slope that ends in overturning the second amendment. They fear that enhanced federal background checks (or whatever) is just the first step to their guns being ripped from their hands by the big bad government. And if the Feds can do that, than WHO KNOWS what is the next freedom that will be taken away!
Vegans, veganism, vegetarians and the like are viewed with contempt due to a version of this same type of fear. Veggies are instantly viewed as suspect. The feeling it gives the majority of non-vegans (not all of them!) can best be described as “this person wants to take my meat away”. And not to digress but, meat has a lot of deeply ingrained cultural components—particularly around the topic of masculinity. Which is kinda insane considering going to the store and buying pre-packed/cleaned meats is far from difficult. Like, what about standing over a grill proves you’re so alpha? You’re not cavemen anymore risking your lives to tackle an enormous snuffalussagus/mammoth… but, we may as well be. Going to Arby’s for a MEAT sandwich does not in any way prove that you can kill anything with your bare hands! This stuff is deeply ingrained in our psyche/culture/collective consciousness, and how often do you hear anyone question it? I mean, I do like, anytime I see that fucking Arby’s commercial, but I’ve never heard anyone else bring it up!
Paleos, Gluten-Frees and the like are not grouped into this category because there is no threat, no moral component, no ties to deeply ingrained beliefs about what it means to be a man, and because those dietary choices are deemed benign as akin to a medical excuse. I notice that people who opt to the vegan diet for health and/or weight loss reasons are quick to let you know this. They say things like “I’m vegan because” without being asked because this gets them OUT OF the category of smug vegan—even though most veggies who do it for moral/environmental reasons desperately want to avoid that whole song and dance.
The truth is, most vegans/vegetarians don’t want to take anyone’s meat away. I promise.
And honestly, one of the reasons I feel comfortable discussing this stuff (anonymously lol) is because I am NOT a vegan. Because if I were, then even asking these questions would make me one of THOSE vegans. That’s a catch-22.
Life Ambivalence and the Coveted ‘Ah-Ha’ Moments
I hope that putting my thoughts into words will help me take that next step—but I kinda also hope not. Like most aspects of my life (relationship, job…) I am idling in ambivalence. I think sometimes we wait for the “ah-ha” moment to come; hoping it will knock us on our asses with bright light and brute force. I realize that this is not how it usually goes with life changes and lifestyle choices. For example, I think ending a relationship is much harder when you are not doing it to be with someone else—instead maybe it’s that fuzzy or even vague feeling of knowing the person is not really the one for you or knowing you just don’t want to spend the rest of your life with that person. I think it’s easy to go on for years with the wrong person or settle in an “okay” relationship because nothing smacked you out of it, or because it was just the path of least resistance.
IMO, we are lucky when there is an identifiable moment that strikes us. It makes change and/or commitment to change a helluva lot easier. And unlike many other things in life, there is actually a pretty effective way to reach that moment if you are on the fence about quitting meat. Any number of documentaries about the meat industry will push most empathic people—at least temporarily—over the edge. I think people innately know the power behind this stuff and that’s probably why many refuse to watch and/or talk about these topics. Ignorance is Bliss! I used to say that there should be a lot more public advertisement of where meat actually comes from, so that people can’t elect to be so far removed that they pretend it grows on grocery store shelves. Anyway, these videos are absolutely brutal and made worse because they are the truth and happening hundreds, thousands… millions of times every single day. (I recommend the PETA classic Meet Your Meat and for the sustainability angle, Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret). Watching one such documentary was the impetus for my bff and her boyfriend to go vegan and it was one of the major motivations for me as well.
I can name a few people I’ve met along the way who got there another way. I worked with an awesome psychiatrist in an emergency room who was super obsessed with her pug—named ‘Dumpling’. She happened across some stories about the dog meat festival going on in some parts of Asia and it greatly affected her (and she was actually of Korean heritage). After that she saw all animals as dogs/pugs/Dumpling and could no longer justify eating any of them. I dated a guy who had a similar experience with his dog, Charlie. He and his family are obsessed with their adorably-goofy looking mutt. He never had pets growing up and they inherited the puppy suddenly and not expecting to fall so deeply in love. He started to see every animal as a version of Charlie: seals were sea-Charlies, kangaroos were Australian Charlies, etc etc. He decided to stop eating red meat without my guilt trips (he did get a lot of encouragement, and a lot of exposure to vegetarian foods as a byproduct of our relationship). And then there’s the very recent incident this past weekend, when on a road trip with two girlfriends we were passed by a truck filled with live chickens on the way to slaughter—about 3 times. The smell was unbelievably pungent and vile… and you could not avoid looking into the chickens terrified little eyes. They were all huddled together heading to certain death and likely seeing the sun for the first time in their lives. Many of the chickens had patches of feathers ripped out (by themselves or their peers) usually around their anus. My two friends said they were done with eating chicken. It was not a choice to see the truck, it just happened. One of them seems very scarred from it, so maybe it will stick. Here’s a clip (sound on!):
Apparently there is a Perdue factory in Delaware.