“Think occasionally of the suffering of which you spare yourself the sight.”
While listening to the radio program The Splendid Table on Minnesota Public Radio, I heard what I considered to be a disturbing piece. One of the guests was a chef from New York who proclaimed that he is anti vegetarianism. His gripe had nothing to do with the health, climate change, sustainability, or morality. Instead, he was anti vegetarian because he felt that by not eating meat you are cutting yourself off from most of the world. In his words, “Being a vegetarian is an insult to cultures that have been established for thousands of years.” He even went so far as to call vegetarians selfish and insular. Yikes!
Since the late 1970s, I have experimented with several plant-based different diets. For quite a few years I was able to call myself a complete lacto-ovo vegetarian and for a very short time in the early 1980s I went vegan (that was before it was even a thing). These days, I maintain a diet that leans heavily towards plants, but very occasionally I add some poultry and fish. I still avoid pork and red meat (cow, goat, lamb, etc.) and there have been very few times in the past 40+ years when either has passed my lips.
While I do not subscribe to the claim that vegetarians reject other people’s culture, I do understand what the chef was saying about the social significance of food. I appreciate food as a way for people to culturally identify themselves and come together as friends and family. Here is the Twin Cities, we are blessed with a plethora of ethnic restaurants — Cuban, Thai, Vietnamese, Korean, Indian, Ethiopian, Somali, Mexican, Cambodian, Nepalese, Filipino, Argentine, Russian, Japanese…the list goes on and on. I fully get how they express more than just food. They are touchstones to faraway lands and ways of life. I also see how plants, and not meat, are at the center of most of these cuisines. A culture doesn’t survive for thousands of years without taking full advantage of the earth’s rich bounty.
There are few celebrations in our lives that do not involve food and eating. We have holiday traditions that expect certain types of foods. Here in America, there is turkey on Thanksgiving, ham on Easter (which I have never understood), and hotdogs and hamburgers on the fourth of July. Those days can be difficult on vegetarians as they are forced to explain why they choose to not partake in the feast that others so heartily enjoy. I know all too well the looks one receives when you explain that your “turkey” is made from wheat and soy.
Since adding poultry and fish to my diet, I find it easier to fit in during social settings. Rubber chicken is still the de facto meal at most of the conferences I attend. There are still those awkward moments, though, when I load my plate high with potato salad, pickles, and beans and skip the barbeque beef. Thankfully, since more people now know at least one other person who eats little or no meat, the looks are beginning to diminish. As for me, I don’t care one hoot about what others choose to eat. I have my preferences and you have yours.
I have learned that flexibility is essential in nearly every human interaction. I know people who would not eat meat under any circumstance and while I appreciate their resolve and conviction, I find it easier to adapt to the situation at hand. There are a number of ways to respect my hosts while honoring my convictions.
Most times not eating meat is extremely easy, and when it’s not, I don’t consider myself as being selfish. In fact, placing that label on me is far more selfish than my taking an extra helping of green beans or bok choy.
Now, who’s hungry for my world famous tofu tacos or chana saag?