Saturday, January 3


I have been a vegetarian for nearly two years now. More precisely, lacto-ovo vegetarian because I like few things more than a quality cheese shop, a breakfast of granola and jelly mixed into plain yogurt and omelets filled with fried onions and celery. For the most part, I have enjoyed being a vegetarian immensely. It has broken old eating habits and meal standards, clearing the way for new ingredients, new recipes and new tastes. I have made extensive use of New Recipes from Moosewood Restaurant, a cookbook I would have otherwise never considered. I made my first risotto and couscous dishes. Beans are now a regular part of my diet, and I am still just beginning to explore the possibilities in them. Cutting out the meat has cut my grocery bills as well. The only real difficulties have been in the limited vegetarian options at some restaurants (I'm looking at you Outback Steakhouse), and the decision to go vegetarian just months before my semester abroad in Munich and missing out on all of Germany's wonderful meats. Bratwurst, weisswurst, kebab ... it doesn't feel like any less of a mistake in hindsight.

Since I began, the question "Why?" has been posed several times. In the beginning the answer was simple. It was my Lenten sacrifice. Before then meat was a very regular part of my diet. Giving it up was a challenge. After Easter and being meat clean for 40 days I went back to eating meat. A week or two later, I returned to vegetarianism. Had I been more honest when people asked me my reasons during Lent, I would have told them it was a test run to see whether I really could go without meat. The truth was I had been contemplating vegetarianism for some time but had never seen any reason to try it out. After the successful Lent, my direction was pretty well set.

It still strikes me as odd when someone asks me why I am a vegetarian. When I was still in high school, I assumed the only reason one would practice vegetarianism was a concern for animal rights, the desire to minimize animal pain, to not turn cows and chickens into means for an end. It turns out there are a lot of reasons people turn to vegetarianism, and Wikipedia has an impressive list of possiblities. Many people practice varying levels of vegetarianism according to their religion. Buddhists and Jains are probably the most prominent, but Eastern Orthodox fasts can be pretty core. Probably a growing number practice for environmental reasons since producing meat requires so much energy and cows produce so much methane. Some simply cannot afford meat. Some dislike the taste. Some avoid meat for health reasons.

I, however, choose vegetarianism as a form of solidarity. Put in the simplest terms, American levels of meat consumption are not possible on a global scale. In 2000, the average American ate just under four pounds of meat every week. Though I have a lot of faith in science to do amazing things, there is no way the Earth could ever sustain enough cows, pigs and chickens for everyone to eat so much. As China and India and their billions become more affluent and hungry for animal bits, this will become more apparent. I like to say that I will return to a meat diet when it is possible for all the world to eat as much as me. I expect this to be far less than is currently available to the average American.

The interesting thing is, this particular justification for vegetarianism does not preclude all meat consumption. The more reasonable conclusion from this thought process would be flexitarianism, eating a minimal amount of meat. Still, I practice full-blown vegetarianism out of a sense of fairness. It seems wrong to me to enjoy animal flesh while millions of others are happy to get their daily bowl of rice. I know the world is not fair, I know there a lot of other things I could give up which others lack and I know self-denial does nothing for others, but in this instance, I will do what I can to make the world a wee bit more fair.

Still, there are occasions in which I will eat meat, mostly when guest etiquette demands it. If someone prepares a meal without knowing I am a vegetarian or if it is that important to my host, I think it is appropriate to try a little bit of meat. I am still trying to find the perfect balance of these values, but I believe it is the right way to go. A more clear example appeared when I spent a month at the orphanage and education center in Jakarta. I had no problem then with sharing their meals of fish. I figured they were the sort of people with whom I was seeking solidarity. If they could enjoy a little flesh, I could too.

For the curious, I miss hamburgers and pork tenderloin the most. And Oma's rouladen.

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