Vegetarians, and their Hezbollah-like splinter-faction, the vegans, are a persistent irritant to any chef worth a damn. To me, life without veal stock, pork fat, sausage, organ meat, demi-glace, or even stinky cheese is a life not worth living. Vegetarians are the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit, an affront to all I stand for, the pure enjoyment of food. The body, these waterheads imagine, is a temple that should not be polluted by animal protein. It’s healthier, they insist, though every vegetarian waiter I’ve worked with is brought down by any rumor of a cold. Oh, I’ll accommodate them, I’ll rummage around for something to feed them, for a “vegetarian plate,” if called on to do so. Fourteen dollars for a few slices of grilled eggplant and zucchini suits my food cost fine.
I generally do my cooking each week on Thursday, or Wednesday if I’ve really got my act together. This Wednesday and Thursday found me in Minnesota, however, so this week I am posting some general musings in place of a recipe. During my trip to the “land of 10,000 lakes,” the subject of my being a vegetarian came up several times, as I was traveling with a handful of carnivores that I did not know very well and had, as a result, never broken bread with before. The questions I fielded covered where I get my protein from (nowhere, basically, because I am an unhealthy vegetarian), how long I’ve been a vegetarian (ten-ish years), and why I became a vegetarian. The last question is just as easily answered as the others (because my love for animals and outrage at the scenes I witnessed in a PETA video overcame my appetite for meat), but it leads me to ponder a different question: why am I still a vegetarian? I can’t answer that question presently, but I had begun thinking about it before my trip to Minnesota. What follows is an essay that I’ve written on this subject (instead of the short post that I promised).
My last meal was Chinese food. Sesame chicken and beef with broccoli. And some vegetable dishes, but those weren’t the memorable parts of this meal. I should clarify that this was my last meal as an omnivore, not my last meal on earth. In retrospect, I would’ve chosen something different had I known how the night would end. Lobster maybe, or a pastrami Reuben. At the the very least I would have chosen a better Chinese restaurant. Following my good but not great meal, I went upstairs to do homework on the computer. I honestly can’t remember how I ended up on the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) website, but I’ll never forget what I found there. After browsing for a bit I came across the short documentary “Meet Your Meat.”
The twelve minute film, narrated by actor and animal activist Alec Baldwin, consists of footage collected by people, presumably undercover PETA supporters, documenting the incredibly cruel treatment that animals suffer in the factory farming system and the horrendous conditions in which this treatment takes place. Among the many atrocities depicted, I witnessed my sesame chicken living out its final days in squalor, crammed into a too small cage with many other chickens. To keep them from fighting one another their beaks were cut or burned off while the birds were fully conscious. My beef with broccoli was in the film as well. Dairy cows were kept constantly pregnant so they would always be producing milk which was not wasted on their calves as they were taken from their mothers before being properly weaned to be slaughtered and turned into veal. Scene after scene showed animals, clearly distressed and terrified, in filthy, overcrowded areas.
Contrasting with the heart-wrenching images of animals were the stomach-turning images of the humans who were all too happy to inflict pain on these already suffering beings. Instead of letting the animals live out their last days in comfort and die with dignity, workers performed the beak and horn cutting procedures without anesthesia. Instead of killing the animals quickly and painlessly, workers took pleasure in the ordeal. Chickens were beaten to death, cows had their throats slit and were forced to slowly bleed out. All of this occurred in full view of other animals that were moments away from meeting the same fate. There’s a chance that one day I will be able to erase the images of the last moments of those animals from my mind—although I sincerely doubt it—but I will never be able to cleanse my mind of the crimes committed by humans in that film. To this day it is one of the most horrific things I have ever witnessed.
Converting to vegetarianism was a process that began when I was fifteen. I’d thought about it for a while, I’d even given it a few tries. It made sense to stop eating meat. I’d always been an animal lover. But I’d also always been a bacon lover which is probably why it took a few failed attempts to commit to the lifestyle change. The story was always the same. I would make a grand declaration that I had decided to give up eating meat. For several days I would be a strict vegetarian. A vegetarian whose dedication other vegetarians would envy. A vegetarian who would eventually look down at my plate and realize, too late, that I was halfway through a cheeseburger or a steak. But that all changed after watching “Meet Your Meat.” A chef friend of mine told me that PETA relied on the “shock factor” of their campaigns to spread their message, and I’ll admit that he wasn’t wrong. Regardless of what tricks PETA may have used to convert me, it was a done deal; there would be no more halfhearted declarations. From the moment the video ended, I pledged to put my meat-eating days behind me. And for the past ten years (with two exceptions), I have remained faithful.
Immediately after giving up meat, I began having vivid, meat-themed dreams. In my dreams, I was at a buffet piling any meat within reach onto my plate, passing on all of the vegetables. I was participating in, and dominating, a barbecue ribs eating competition. In a series of reoccurring dreams, I would be doing seemingly non-meat related things (going on dates, studying, interviewing for jobs, etc.), but always in a McDonald’s restaurant. In real life, I barely went to McDonald’s, even as a meat-eater, and would certainly never consider going on a date there. I expected the physical effects of becoming a vegetarian, but it was clearly affecting me mentally as well. After a month or two, however, my dreams returned to normal. Eventually, I didn’t have to remind myself not to eat meat. Being a vegetarian was no longer as difficult as it had been during all of my previous attempts. It became routine; I ate on autopilot.
Earlier when I said Chinese food was my last meal I was maybe being a little dramatic. I have returned to eating meat twice in the last decade. The first instance occurred about a year after giving it up to appease my mother’s fears that I would suffer from malnourishment while at summer camp if I didn’t resume eating meat. The second instance occurred just a few years ago when I awoke from surgery, still groggy from the general anesthesia, and demanded a BLT. The first reversion lasted about two months, the second about six months. When I gave up vegetarianism at my mother’s behest I always knew I would go back to it as soon as possible. When I made the decision for myself it was not as easy to pick up where I left off. On top of the fact that a restaurant had opened that served delicious chicken wings at an extremely reasonable price every Tuesday, my attitude toward being a vegetarian was not the same as it had been years earlier.
I finally decided to end my break from vegetarianism with a New Year’s resolution vowing to be not just a vegetarian but a better vegetarian than I had previously been. No longer would I eat food prepared with meat stocks, made from animal bones. Furthermore, I would be a healthier vegetarian. My mother used to say that I was a “carbohydratarian”; it’s true that I wasn’t eating meat, but I really wasn’t eating a traditional vegetarian’s diet either. I would eat more fresh vegetables and meat substitutes, such as tofu and tempeh, and less pizza and french fries.
Approaching vegetarianism with this new resolve made me a stricter herbivore, but it didn’t help my ethical dilemma. Over time I had become jaded about my vegetarian lifestyle. I stopped eating meat to do my part to save animals. But my not eating meat wasn’t making a difference. And I didn’t feel any better about myself for it. The only reason I remained a vegetarian was because I’d already devoted roughly ten years of my life to it; it seemed like a shame to throw that away because I was having a crisis of faith. I used to wonder how the people filming “Meet Your Meat” could stand by and do nothing for the animals in their videos. Why stand on the sidelines with a camera? Why not step in and stop what they were watching? Now I understand that they had to stand by to get their footage so that they could alert the world to the injustices occurring and help many animals instead of just those onscreen. Now I just wonder how I can stand by and do nothing about something that I feel so strongly about.
In the decade that has passed, the graphic images of “Meet Your Meat” have not faded from my memory, but they have been pushed into the background. In fact, I’ve distanced myself from PETA in general. While I believe that they are trying to bring about good changes, they do so in ways that tend to be too radical for my tastes; for instance, they aggressively believe in euthanizing shelter animals, and that just doesn’t go over well with me or with the wonderful rescue mutt laying at my feet. However, while I may not always agree with their views, I really respect how vehemently they fight for what they believe. PETA knows what they stand for and will go to extreme lengths to defend their stances. I envy their certainty and their willingness to take action. I avoid their website because I don’t like the harsh truths I’m faced with there. I assuage my guilt over wearing sheepskin boots with the technicality that I’m not eating the boots. I’m not a bad vegetarian because I used to eat food made with meat stocks or because I spent half of 2012 gorging myself on chicken wings; those things are in the past. I’m a bad vegetarian because, presently, I’m apathetic in my vegetarianism. I could commit to a step forward and become a vegan, cutting out all animal products in my diet and my daily life. Or I could become a better educated vegetarian, research the farms that produce the eggs and dairy products that I consume. Or I could continue doing nothing, in which case, I may as well go back to eating meat for all the difference I’m currently making.
To make up for posting a long essay with no pictures as opposed to a short post about grilling hot dogs or something equally easy to cook, here are two pictures of my adorable dog (the first was taken while I was in Minnesota and shows the stuffed bunny that she claimed for herself and has not destroyed yet because she is a good girl, and the second depicts our joyous reunion).