On Vegetarianism


I’ve been thinking about the ethical aspects of eating meat. I’ve always enjoyed reading about “being” veggie – whether it’s All Flesh is Grass by Gene Logsdon, or The China Study by T. Colin Campbell and Thomas M. Campbell II, or Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan, or Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal Vegetable Miracle. All wonderful books, by the way. My most recent “read” is a cookbook – as cookbooks go, these days – with half the book filled with “food porn” and lifestyle photos of a very healthy-appearing, well-adjusted family. It’s The Plantpower Way by Rich Roll and his wife Julie Piatt. And one thing that struck me (again) as I read it was the misconstrued concern by those who eat meat about vegetarian diets not being able to sustain a muscled being.

Just think: most meat we eat (“Flesh” is more accurate, as it reminds one of what is actually being eaten) comes from animals who are themselves eating vegetarian diets, be they grasses or other greens, grains, berries, herbs, or various vegetables and fruits. They have produced a nice, fleshy, muscular body somehow. So to think that we cannot sustain ourselves without animal flesh is simply erroneous.

My first encounter with organized ethical protests against eating animal flesh was at the Farm Sanctuary in Watkins Glen, Upstate New York. Back in the 90s, it was a rough-at-the-edges place – basically, a huge piece of land strewn with various rescued animals and a barn on the property that was converted to an information area: posters plastered with printed material on the ethical concerns of eating meat. Volunteers worked on the farm, helping to take care of the several hundred animals who’d been brought or dropped off there, and who otherwise would have been left to languish then die, then be incinerated. Many were livestock who had suffered from minor ailments or dehydration, or working animals who had suffered an injury and were no longer useful.

There, they were nursed back to health and cared for and left to graze or otherwise peacefully pass their days until they died a natural death.

I didn’t need much persuasion to convert to vegetarianism. I’ve never been a fan of eating flesh. I shudder at the thought of killing a live being, especially one that can make expressions with its eyes or face. That’s my weakness, is the intense feeling of oneness with a being that feels pain. I felt it with a worm that we dissected in high school. I felt it with the 3 lab mice I practiced “sacrificing” when I was a lab tech in college – thereafter, refusing to “sacrifice” any more, as I was overcome with waves of nausea after each one.

I can’t say that I think about the ethical aspects of meat-eating with any frequency, though lately I’ve been thinking about it more. After 5 years of not eating meat, I reverted to eating some meat, for no other reason than convenience (being surrounded by people – including my husband – who were not vegetarian) and a nagging mild anemia.

But what really gets to me now is how far-removed we are from the actual process of killing an animal for its flesh. When my family lived in Taiwan, the chickens we ate were killed and feathered moments before they went through the chopper and were bagged for us to take home. When I was in China staying at a rural hostel years ago, I woke early in the morning to the sounds outside our open window of ear-piercing, screeching screams – like a woman being brutally slaughtered – which turned out to be a pig getting its throat slit for butchering to bring to market. These are experiences I feel are important and necessary for anyone to live through before they sit down to a meal of animal flesh. Only then can those dining on animal flesh truly appreciate the source of their sustenance, and the fact that they are eating a once-live, breathing, thinking, feeling being. Granted, my personal spiritual belief is that all living beings have souls which leave their bodies once death ensues. So the flesh one eats is only the vessel that contained the soul. Yet, it was not a natural death that the animal experienced to provide for your meal – unless you ate road kill.

So there you have it. All I ask of myself is to think about the process any animal lived through before it arrived on the dinner table to become my food. It’s a really good reason for me to be judicious about the source of animal flesh I eat, and the amount. In general, I find myself eating more vegetables though. I find that being mindful of eating a well-rounded, tasty vegetarian diet is not only satisfying but much cleaner on the palate and in the kitchen.

One last thought: eating vegetables and grains as a primary diet is a different mindset. So when you cook with them, celebrate them for what they are. Cook to bring out their best. Try not to disguise them or pass them for what they are not.

Send me your thoughts. In the meantime, since I’m big on lists, here’s a list of my favorite vegetarian cookbooks, not comprehensive by any means:

Sundays at Moosewood Restaurant by the Moosewood Collective. Published in 1990, this was my first cookbook, period. I didn’t even realize it was vegetarian until I had cooked several things out of it. I taught myself how to cook out of this book, so it holds a soft spot in my heart.

The Vegan Gourmet by Susann Geiskopf-Hadler and Mindy Toomay – a slim volume chock-full of delicious recipes. I love that it provides nutrition information, and that it celebrates vegetables and grains as themselves, rather than attempting to fit them into molds for a meat-based kitchen.

Local Vegetarian Cooking by Debra Daniels-Zeller. I bought this gem from the farmer’s market in Yakima, Washington. It celebrates produce and goods from the Pacific Northwest. It also contains wonderful prose about local farms, farmers, and ways to improvise on a dish.

Happy eating.

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