What’s Stopping Me From Becoming A Vegetarian?

April 17, 2013 | By | COMMENTS

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I’m on the edge. This story got me there, this one (which I could only read part of) almost pushed me over. Superbugs and industrial slaughterhouses are facts that live in my brain now and they reside there with images from Food Inc., essays by Michael Pollan, and all the other tracts and screeds I’ve read indicting America’s meat industry. My brain isn’t the problem; my brain is convinced. If my brain had its way, I’d become a vegetarian tomorrow.

The problem is my appetite. The problem is going to Austin, Texas and knowing I have to try Franklin BBQ. The problem is going to the San Gabriel valley and wanting to try authentic dumplings. I’m not a meat junkie, I’m an experience junkie. And the thing that’s stopping me from becoming a vegetarian is my desire to stay open to any and all food experiences. I want to be able to eat my way around the world and I can’t do that if I’m always monitoring where my meat comes from, if it’s ethical or not. Most of the time it’s not.

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One thing that’s resonating for me, right now, is this interview with Temple Grandin from last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine. When asked why she eats meat as someone with extraordinary compassion towards animals, she says: “Nature’s very harsh. There is nothing about how nature kills things that is kind. When cattle are raised right, they have a really good life. When they go to the meat plant now, they just walk up the chute; it’s no more stressful than going to the veterinary chute.”

She continues later to say: “I also think about the hyenas ripping the guts out of something, and that did not happen to that steak. The way the wolves kill things is not that nice. Cats will kill you first, but wolves just rip you open and dine on live guts.”

There are two subjects to look at here: 1. Eating animals in general; 2. Eating animals within the American industrial meat complex.

Generally speaking, I have no problem with #1. As Grandin points out, nature is brutal and part of being an adult is making peace with that brutality. It’s #2 that should concern even the most ardent meat-eater. Our meat industry is a diseased institution and that disease is starting to seep its way out into the general public. For our own welfare, and nothing more, we should start seriously thinking about where our meat comes from.

Which brings me back to square one: what my brain knows versus what my body wants. If we go out for dim sum tomorrow and you bite into a pork bun and say, “This is seriously the best pork bun I’ve ever had,” am I going to skip it because I don’t know the provenance of the pork?

I wish I could tell you that I would, but the truth is I wouldn’t. I’m an experience junkie and as much as I want to take the higher ground, I can’t cut myself off from experience. All I can do is be mindful of where that meat comes from knowing full well that being mindful doesn’t solve any problems.

My brain anticipates all your cries of “guilty” but my appetite is holding its ears.

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Categories: Essays

  • shel

    Eat kosher!

    Consumption of bugs is a huge issue for kosher consumer and lengthy measure are taken to ensure the cleanlinessof fruits and vegetables.

  • http://www.facebook.com/amanda.l.reid Amanda Milsom Reid

    I think what you’re saying is a great first step for any of us. My brain tells me the same things; I know that a plant-based diet is good for me, good for my planet, etc. But I know for a fact that when I go to visit friends in Austin next week I will be going to Franklin BBQ (having been twice already and knowing it’s worth it!). The more that we as consumers demand change from the food industry the more options we will have. I try to do my bit, I really do. I buy local, free-range, organic and fair trade whenever I can BUT I also recognize that not everyone can afford to do that and that is the real tragedy. The food that gets subsidized by our government is the stuff that is killing us.

  • http://twitter.com/sheaSec Tim Shea

    What’s stopping me? I simply don’t like most plants. And tofu makes me ill. But I do make an effort to buy meat directly from the farm versus the chain.

  • Anonymous

    I just wrote about this (sort of) over at Scientific American, in response to an old piece by Michael Ruhlman. It gets directly at the question of the mass “farming” of livestock. I’d be interested in your opinion. http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/thoughtful-animal/2013/04/12/is-meat-eating-a-conservation-tactic/

  • http://www.nomnomcat.com/ Alice @ Nom Nom Cat

    “Experience junkie”! What a great way of putting it!

    I gave up land animals for 2 years after I had to watch the documentary Earthlings for a freshman seminar. Don’t watch it unless you have a strong stomach. I want to keep nomming vicariously through your dumpling and BBQ filled adventures. :3

  • cybercita

    I stopped eating meat about six years ago after reading too much about the meat industry. I do have definitely have some serious regrets from time to time {like now I can never go on a NYC Chinatown tour with Calvin Trillin… and will I never again eat chicken soup with matzo balls or my grandmother’s liver kolaches?} but mostly I am pretty content with my choices and feel much, much better since I switched to a plant based diet.

    I think it’s important for people to understand the harsh reality behind those neatly trimmed, shrink wrapped packages.

  • Joseph

    When I was a child (early 20s) I was a vegetarian. I am not really sure why, it was just the thing that a lot of young, white, upper middle-class , liberal kids did. As I grew older and able to travel I found myself looking silly going to foreign countries to experience their culture, which a big part is food, and asking around for vegetarian food. To many cultures that is an insult. I enjoy travel and experiences and I also don’t want to limit my chances of exploring them all. I limit my intake of meat because I know that a lot of meat is not healthy. The human animal is an omnivore. We are designed to eat both meat and vegetables. I say everything in moderation and I really enjoy exploring cultures, cuisines and life in general.

  • Suzanne

    Thank you for a timely and thoughtful post. I have now been vegetarian for 17 days because of the similar gnawing voice in my head. I am making a conscious choice every time I put something in my mouth. Truthfully I really miss the taste of meat and dining is such an important experience. I have yet to explore ethically raised and processed animals available here in Austin but I want to.

  • John Ranta

    I think you are being hypocritical. There are two kinds of meat. Meat raised in CAFOs, unhealthy for us and for the animals. And meat raised on pasture, without hormones and antibiotics. They are not the same, yet you conflate them. We humans evolved to eat meat. Corporations evolved to make the highest profit margins they can, health and animal welfare be damned. Don’t stop eating meat. Start taking responsibility for how your meat is raised, and insist on humanely raised, pasture fed meat. Your confusing of two very different issues is annoying.

  • Jessie Stanbrook

    I’m torn too. Great post.

  • Adam Amateur Gourmet

    John, did you read my whole post? I say exactly that at the very end.

  • Yvette

    I was raised a meat-eater but married someone who was raised vegetarian (lacto-ovo) so as I began to cook for him, I just focused on vegetarian meals and we also decided to raise our kids as vegetarian because it was just easier for me to not eat meat than for him to start eating it! I tried that lifestyle for 8 years in So. Cal, where there are many vegetarian options when dining out but when we moved to Montana I tired of eating pasta (or another grain) with vegetables at most restaurants and desired to experience the variety of food again (it’s Montana, we have great beef!), like you described in your post.

    Because of my familial situation, I have really put a lot of thought into my choice of diet and what I’m teaching my children. I do eat meat again, but mostly at restaurants, and I am privileged to live in a town (Bozeman) that adheres to the “Buy Local” slogan and the majority of meats and cheeses from which I can choose are raised in our valley. I’m not going to say that I always know the source, but in general it is my aim. At home, I tend to mostly cook vegetarian, but once, maybe twice a week I make two versions of a recipe, so I can enjoy meat occasionally but not every day. As for my kids, they know, obviously, that ultimately it is their choice, and since they have been given many options my hope is just that they have a lot of variety in their diet, and in general eat with optimal health in mind. Thank you for addressing this topic, it really resonated with me! (Also, I grew up in the San Gabriel Valley and enjoy reading when you’ve had a delightful food experience there).

  • shaynik

    That doesn’t get around the experience-junkie problem one bit (a problem which i share). you can’t insist on humanely raised, pastured meat and also be open to al the food experiences that life has to offer. the best little hole in the the wall ____ in ____ town/city is probably not going to have ‘good’ non-industrial meat.

  • Mallory Frayn

    I went vegetarian over a year ago now and I thought I would miss meat/the whole experience tied with eating it too. But you really do get used to it. I was even in Italy over Christmas, surrounded by tonnes of prosciuttos and salamis, all of which I used to love eating. It was strange not feeling like I was missing out, but I definitely didn’t. I’m of the belief though that even if you go vegetarian and want meat every now and then, there’s no reason why you can’t. I did it for myself, not for anyone else. So it doesn’t matter if people look and go,”Oh…I thought she was a vegetarian”, it’s none of their business. If you feel as though you are missing out on an opportunity, go for it. At the end of the day we only have one life on this planet and you can’t deprive yourself.

  • Shelly

    Why do you think you won’t have similar junkie experiences with plant based foods? I’ve been meat free for mostly ethical reasons for 5 years. Over time you train your brain not to miss certain foods, especially when reason tells you it’s no good for you, the animal or our Earth. You will experiences new flavors by seeking creative new recipes and restaurants that serve healthy foods. This is the best time ever to be a vegan or vegetarian, flexitarian, pescatarian….embrace it. Enjoy it! Vegetarians also salivate thinking of their favorite dishes and experiences!

  • Lina

    I think it’s a personal choice and whichever one you choose, I look forward to reading about it! I rarely eat meat now, but I have such a rebellious personality that if meat was “forbidden” I may crave it more.

  • Ajp3141

    I totally understand the dilemma. As a foodie, it is so easy to block out the source of the food because, perhaps, we’re more focused on the experience of eating it. However, aside from the grotesque conditions of slaughterhouses in this country, and the mystery of our meats, I do think the problem may lie in the way we view the killing of animals. What, really, makes us think that as a culture we should be able to kill any animal we choose, willy nilly? Our ancestors had to kill animals for survival. But we don’t need to do that anymore, and we especially don’t need to do it in the immense volumes and conditions that we do. So, perhaps that’s the dilemma. Why do we feel we have the right to kill SO many animals so often, when we have access to delicious foods that are plant based. At least, we don’t need to have meat every single day!

  • Emma

    I have the exact same concerns and rationales. My current compromise is trying to cook meat from ethical sources at home, and cook vegetarian when I can’t find or afford it, but eat meat without questioning where it came from when I’m a guest at someone’s house, and when eating out a few times a month if it’s a menu option I’m excited about. It’s not perfect but it’s better than nothing, right?

  • shaynik

    It irks me that food consumption choices are treated as if they’re more important politcally and ethically than other sorts of consumption choices, so much so that we construct them into identitie. Vegetarian and vegan are things one *is* not things one does; there’s no such corrolate for, say, someone who won’t buy new clothes that were produced in sweatshops – no ‘unionmade-ian’ identity. It forces food choices into black and white dichotomies, and that makes it harder to concieve of and implement choices like: cutting back on factory farmed meat; eating local to the extent you can afford it; being mostly vegan except when traveling and confronted with the opportunity to try ‘the most awesome ____ in the world!’; etc.

  • ag

    Im basically a vegetarian, but if and when I want to eat meat, it must be meat that I know was raised humanely. For, me it’s a no brainer. Re eggs, I’m careful at home, but haven’t gone full throttle otherwise. So maybe I’m not as good as I should be; the convenience and temptation line gets drawn somewhere. But somewhere is better than nowhere, me thinks.

  • ag

    This is actually not true. Kosher meat has many problems as far as ethical treatment of animals goes.

  • http://twitter.com/Tom_gilligan Thomas Gilligan

    I was brought up a vegetarian and began eating meat at nineteen because,l ike

  • Tessy

    I’m not a vegetarian; I just don’t like meat. This confuses people.
    I stopped being a vegetarian when I first moved overseas and noticed other vegetarians at potluck meals turning up their noses demonstratively at dishes with meat in them. It was never about compassion for the animals that much. I’d like to be that empathetic, but I’m not. However, I’ve become acquainted with someone who raises pigs. She posts pictures of them on Facebook. So when I thought of buying something from her recently this little scene played out in my head: My friend running after one of those cute little creatures clever held high in the air. She’s calling out, “Come here piggies. Tessy wants to make ham for Easter.” I don’t remember exactly what I made in the end, but it wasn’t organic free range ham. Someone here has commented on what it’s like to try to order a vegetarian meal in Montana. You’ll perhaps be unhappy to know that order a vegetarian meal here in Ireland’s South West is pretty much the same. Looking forward to my summer visit to California!

  • Noga

    My compromise is to eat less meat and listen to my body. Our bodies certainly don’t require us to consume meat on a daily basis so I just try to eat like a vegetarian and once in a while I eat meat, especially when I feel that my body needs it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jim-Corcoran/1591985520 Jim Corcoran

    There are many reasons why the number of vegans has doubled in the US in less than 3 years. Here are two uplifting videos to help everyone understand why so many people are making this life affirming choice: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fKr4HZ7ukSE and http://www.veganvideo.org/.

  • Stirring Things Up

    To be fair, your tastebuds adjust and you begin to taste plant foods differently. You’ll start to even crave them. Perhaps a summer of exploring farmer’s market veggies and trying new recipes would help you bring more plant-based foods into your diet? :)

  • http://twitter.com/JennyLau Jenny Lau

    I’m with you on this one Emma. In fact I experience a crisis of conscience a couple of years ago and decided to make the change to buy and cook ethically sourced meat only (now chronicled on my blog: http://meatinabox.wordpress.com/). When eating out I try and choose restaurants with reassured provenance. When eating at friends’ houses, it’s probably rude to question it so I won’t ask, but I won’t turn it down either. The other issue that I think is just as important is volume. Meat should, as it traditionally was, be seen as a luxury treat. For our benefit, and for the environment’s benefit.

    I don’t think our relationship with meat needs to be all-or-nothing – we can all make an effort to eat responsibly.

  • Joseph

    Too many times I have gone to eat in a restaurant with a group and invariably there is someone who has to announce “is there anything I can eat here?” It seems to to me that a lot of people who are vegans or vegetarians love to be the center of attention. They sit at the table looking sad because the host didn’t bother going out of their way to to make them a special meal because the pot roast wasn’t raised in a friendly enough way. While most people in the world go to bed hungry every night we in the western world concern ourselves with such issues like how polite we are to the pigs that will end up as bacon on our breakfast table. If we were as concerned about each other as much as we are concerned about the animals we eat the world would be a much better place. We do love our first-world problems don’t we?

  • http://twitter.com/meghanssj Meghanssj

    I’m one of your vegetarian readers. I quit eating meat as a 6 year old because I didn’t like it and became assertive enough to turn it down while away from home. I still cook meat though, I think it is part of a healthy diet for most people. I feel fortunate that I can buy beef from my husband’s uncle, and most other meat from the farmer’s market where I can talk to the farmer who raised the animal. I get the warm fuzzy feeling from the fact that we get to do this, but we know this privilege isn’t available to all. The issues with the production of meat in the U.S. originated with a desire for us all to eat well. Unfortunately, those good intentions have gone somewhat awry with CAFOs. When a person can, I believe they should avoid industrial meat. But skip every pork bun of unknown providence? That is a little extreme. You would also need to verify the origin, harvest and transport methods of every bean, french fry and banana to know that you aren’t seriously harming another person, animal or the environment, or all three. It is true that with great power comes great responsibility. We are responsible to think and talk about these things, and vote with our dollars as much as we can, but I don’t think all joy needs to be lost in the process.

  • Rachel

    I’ve been a vegetarian since I was 9, when my mum finally realised that I would sit at the table for hours rather than eat the meat/fish she’d given me. I don’t have ethical qualms, I’ll eat jelly and Haribo sweets and parmesan, I just can’t stand the texture/flavour/smell of any meat I’ve ever eaten. I’ll try new meats, but none of them get much further than the first chew. Most don’t get into my mouth after I’ve smelt them. I don’t know what it is, I just can’t stand it. (I also can’t abide mushrooms, so eating out for me can be hard!)

    I don’t kick up a fuss at people’s houses/restaurants, it’s my choice, just like it’d be my choice not to eat anything with say, carrots in, if I hated them. I’m happy to just go round and eat the starch/veg/side dish/salad, whatever.

  • Rachel

    I’ve been a vegetarian since I was 9, when my mum finally realised that I would sit at the table for hours rather than eat the meat/fish she’d given me. I don’t have ethical qualms, I’ll eat jelly and Haribo sweets and parmesan, I just can’t stand the texture/flavour/smell of any meat I’ve ever eaten. I’ll try new meats, but none of them get much further than the first chew. Most don’t get into my mouth after I’ve smelt them. I don’t know what it is, I just can’t stand it. (I also can’t abide mushrooms, so eating out for me can be hard!)

    I don’t kick up a fuss at people’s houses/restaurants, it’s my choice, just like it’d be my choice not to eat anything with say, carrots in, if I hated them. I’m happy to just go round and eat the starch/veg/side dish/salad, whatever.

  • Marie

    Frankin BBQ is a very legitimate reason to not be vegetarian. The wait is worth that Texas brisket and BBQ sauce.

  • K Z

    I think diets for reasons of sourcing and production can easily become problematic across the board. Quinoa, for example, is not without its problems – the swift rise to popularity is having negative effects on farmers in South America. I think the safest and easiest choice, without having to subscribe too completely to a rabid food mob, is to focus on sourcing most of what you personally purchase and cook locally. I like to focus on what’s in my control and then not worry too much about what’s not in my control – when it comes to dining out, or other people’s houses, for example.

    Side note: I liked Mark Bittman’s point in one of his cookbooks about the value of meat as a flavoring element — I do think that Americans eat way too much protein compared to the rest of the world, and given our average lifestyles we probably don’t need as much as we’re eating. But the important part of this is that if something is bothering you, control what you can, and live gracefully. People that impart food decisions on others just create negativity and animosity among the diet “tribes”. Having been both a vegetarian and a meat eater, I was just as offended when a meat eater told me that vegetarianism was stupid as I was when a vegetarian told me I shouldn’t be eating meat.

  • Gregory Stanton

    You can’t solve the world’s problems by yourself, and you shouldn’t compromise your quality of life and health in the attempt. It’s not true either that vegetarians are healthier — they have their own unique set of problems. If you object to American farming practices, eat free-range as much as you can. Where is this guilt coming from?

  • Tunie

    A tricky question because wolves don’t have the choices that humans do. That we have evolved our experience of life to include choice automatically inserts a new level of awareness that refines into the question of the moment: does a moral imperative apply or not?

  • Gregory Stanton

    Brilliant. Thanks for this! Puts it in perspective.

  • Nick

    Your analogy about wild animals falls apart faster than the melt-in-your-mouth braised BBQ pork that’s too delicious for you to give up. Wolves live in the wild and have to tear the guts out of cows and whatever else they can get their paws on to survive.

    However, as relatively affluent white males with an evolved consciousness, you and I no longer have to kill animals to survive, nor even to sufficiently nourish ourselves. On an earth with a rapidly growing population, there’s nothing benevolent about raising animals for our own culinary pleasure that consume resources like grain and antibiotics while emitting CO2. These animals would not be alive if we did not breed them. Slaughtering them, no matter how humanely, isn’t rescuing them from a savage disembowelment, as you suggest. Calling mother nature cruel as a rationalization for the meat industry, whether it be of the CAFO or the “humane,” grass-fed variety, is just silly. Admit that you’re addicted to the taste and the high you get from eating meat (which you basically did), and leave it at that.

    But I could be wrong. Be sure to let me know the next time your local farmer saves a wild boar from a wolf, raises him on his farm for the next three years, and then turns him into a salami.

  • http://twitter.com/kinglet749 kinglet749

    Thank you for writing this. It is absolutely true- we must vote with our dollars. I joined a meat CSA. It is different, but feels as good as the day I quit gasoline.

  • Nashy ahmed

    We inform to
    you, I am a big supplier in international markets from early

    2006 in
    worldwide food markets. We also ISO-9001-2008 certified

    The Indian
    farmar association has also launched, an “AGRO-ORGANIC FOODS

    MARKETS”
    from 2006, again indicating the trend in the markets towards both

    Achieving
    and being to do demonstrate environmental compliance.

    This is a
    period of great change in India with respect to environmental,

    Improvements
    and only time will see who are the winner and who are the

    Losers.

    Organic raw foods and food supplements for human
    beings.

  • Ashley

    What’s wrong with a mostly veg diet, with some special occasions when you dine on meat. That’s my philosophy: Veg for ordinary days, but never miss an extraordinary meal.

    Metro(poetry)lis: http://bit.ly/XovMGW

  • Jan

    I have sharp teeth, and I have pointy teeth, and I’m going to use them ALL!

  • Caz

    Your argument is the exact reason I too am not a vegetarian. I manage my conscious by eating 90% vegetarian at home. Purchasing ethically raised animals when I do cook meat. And make in-the-moment decision when eating out. If I’m engaging in a new experience I’ll go for the meat of unknown origins, if I’m just eating with friends at a restaurant I’ve visited before or a place with really inventive vegetarian options I’ll stick with veggie dishes and be happy with my decisions.

  • Scott

    If you’ve had trouble getting into mealess eating try “American Wholefoods
    Cuisine.” It changed my life.

  • BillyBob

    why would you want your tastebuds to change? Viva la meat!

  • Ttrockwood

    Have you read mark bittman’s “vegan before 6″ book? His point of view sounds similar and writes about finding a balance between delicious meat free meals and indulgence for both health and environmental reasons.
    I think he is brilliant.