Confessions of A Failed Vegetarian
There is a significant lump in a Florida landfill where my used bottles of spray butter are doing the opposite of decomposing. For eternity, these yellow plastic bottles will glow like a caution light; blinking among the dried residue of kohlrabi, unfinished bites of bean burritos and the petrified crusts of fancy bread. These ghosts linger in the landfill as well as my mind, while I toggle between a vegetarian mentality and a habitual desire for convenience.
By my junior year of high school I was tucking my PETA membership card into the pocket of my “Meat Is Murder” tote bag made of recycled soda bottles. I was proud to say that none of my food had a face. My personal politics raged in tandem with my teenaged hormones as I declared anyone who chowed down on animal flesh to be an asshole. Well friends, I am waving to you from the booth of Buffalo Wild Wings and 20 years later, I am that asshole.
Since falling of the meatless wagon, it is reassuring to know that I am not the only veggie eating sell out. A study conducted in 2014 by the Humane Research Council and Harris Interactive Surveys found that 84% of vegetarians go back to eating meat at some point. The main reason cited was that maintaining a plant based diet was just too difficult. I hung tough for five solid years of meat free meals, which sounds momentous, but in actuality was exactly enough peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to feed a stadium full of concert goers. The amount of understanding and preparing it takes to balance a healthy vegetarian diet was not something I had the awareness to grasp in my late high school and early college years. As much as I wanted to stay committed to my convictions, I was at a crossroads: eat the same salad every day for the rest of my life or join in on the chicken wing noshing.
From the ages of 16 to 21, my food intake consisted of a small group of carbohydrates and dairy products. God bless the bean burrito, for it - along with peanut butter - was the vaguest whisper of protein in my diet. My college food budget allowed for many loaves of bread, boxed macaroni and cheese, ice cream and the newest in food technology; spray butter! I would sit on the floor of my apartment with a loaf of fancy bread in my lap and a bottle of spray butter in my hand. Fancy bread is the kind that is made in the grocery store bakery, not the common bread that comes from a factory and stacks along the shelves of the bread aisle.The middle is cloud-like while the crust is just crispy enough that you can bite into a piece without having to use your teeth to tear it apart. In those days, the only thing that could enhance the flavors and textures of fresh baked bread was spray butter. Liquified butter-flavored chemicals, bottled with a user friendly pump on the top...life was good for this vegetarian.
As Oprah had “A Ha!” moments I would consume more than my daily recommended allowance of bread and butterish.
“You get from this life what you have the courage to ask for,” preached Oprah.
Mist, mist, mist, mist, mist.
Chew, chew, chew.
Everyone in Oprah’s audience is going home with a copy of her new favorite book!
Mist, mist, mist, mist, mist.
Chew, chew, chew.
By the time the show was over, half a loaf of bread and 82 mists of spray butter were history. Yet, still I was hungry. “I should probably go get a bean burrito,” I would say to myself. It was my “A Ha!” moment.
By definition, vegetarianism sounds simple; the omission of meat from one’s diet. The landscape of any grocery store has meat representing only a small portion of available food choices, yet still I felt limited. My meals seemed to be on a repeat loop with little variety and nothing all that exciting. While enjoying a bowl brimming with pasta was nice, it didn’t deliver the same closing-their-eyes-on-the-first-bite satisfaction that I noticed when people sunk their teeth into a grilled pork chop.
In the years since I have transitioned back to being an omnivorous eater, the ghosts of my vegetarian past haunt my plate. My knowledge and awareness have expanded. My health has become a more prominent concern. I understand the impact my food choices have on the planet and on my body. I still feel a pang of sadness when I think of how animals are slaughtered and processed into neat packages. And yet.
It won’t feel like Thanksgiving without the turkey. How can you call it a barbecue without a juicy burger? This week has been long and those chicken wings feel so right when they hit my lips. In his book Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer suggests that the emotional and cultural stories we tell ourselves about the food we eat serve as a means to “lull us into a brutal forgetting.” My personal politics return and knock on my door but they don’t seem delicious enough for me to invite in.
I have read the gory details and watched the documentaries. I know how to make informed food choices, but like an unsteady scale, I tip to the side weighed down by forgetting. Countless times throughout an average day I will pop a cookie, a pretzel, a strawberry into my mouth with little consideration of where that item came from. What far away field birthed that berry? What bugs crawled upon it and what pesticides soaked through its bumpy red skin? Whose hands plucked that berry from its stem and tossed it in a bucket full of cousins? After being weighed and packaged and shipped and stocked, how many more hands did that berry pass through before landing in my mouth? One strawberry can travel farther in its short existence than some humans do in a lifetime. While these are interesting points to ponder, it is not the life cycle of a strawberry that causes me to reconsider my food. It is being fully aware of animals’ genetics being altered by mysterious concoctions that will eventually find themselves swirling through my bloodstream. It is contaminated animal meat sending humans to the hospital to ease their writhing and retching. These are the spirits that spook my dinner. The knowing of facts that shake my core. And the not knowing of the intricacies my filet has experienced since it began its life breathing bovine breaths. And yet.
Meat is easy. It’s convenient. Between a bun, on a skewer, rolled up in a wrap, cozy inside a tortilla, atop a pile of mashed potatoes - meat is the leading lady of many meals. Vegetables mean relearning. How will I make a satisfying meal out of kale and parsnips? “What do you do with kohlrabi?” I once found myself asking after discovering four pounds of it in my CSA box. I doubt my ability to pull off meal after meal with vegetables, grains and seeds. The work it demands exceeds my energy and desire. I default to what is easy and convenient trying to ignore the pounds of guilt weighing heavy in my freezer. The phantoms of my politics loiter on my front porch while I gaze at them through windows, over plates of smoked salmon.