Sample text for Living among meat eaters : the vegetarian's survival handbook / Carol J. Adams.


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Counter When Worlds Collide

We all live among meat eaters. When I was a meat eater, I never thought about this fact. Once I became a vegetarian, it was inescapable. If nothing else, popular culture reminds us at every turn:

Eat low on the food chain. Barbecue a vegetarian. -- Bumper sticker in Texas

Screw vegetarians. -- Postcard from Oregon

Vegetarians Not Welcome. -- Billboard at the border to South Dakota, mid-1990s

VEGETARIANS WELCOME . . . to watch us eat steak. -- A Minnesota steak house

I didn't fight my way to the top of the food chain to be a vegetarian! -- Bumper sticker in California

Horrifying Vegetarians Since 1980. -- Recurring ad in the New York Times for a steak house

I like animals. They're delicious. -- Bumper sticker in New York

Because meat eaters are in our lives, we are in theirs. And then what happens? Our worlds collide. Here are stories of collisions from vegetarians around the country:

"Just before Thanksgiving, I was having a conversation with a meat eater. When he learned I was a vegetarian he said, 'So I guess you don't celebrate Thanksgiving.' "

"Once I was forced to eat at a barbecue/grill/steak house. Of course, I was doubtful going in, but I consoled myself with the assumption that most such places sport a salad bar. The funniest part was a chalkboard sign at the entrance advertising that the vegetable of the day was . . . 'Chicken and dumplings!!!' Yow. I knew I was in trouble at that point. Still I forged ahead, but to my dismay I found that nearly every item at the salad bar (except the iceberg lettuce) contained meat in some form or another-'for flavoring.' Oh well."

"I adopted a turkey from Farm Sanctuary for Thanksgiving, and my mother and brother were trying to figure out how to get that particular bird on the Thanksgiving table to thwart my efforts."

"When I explained to someone why I was a vegetarian, he said, 'If we don't kill the cows, they will die.' "

"Two years ago when my father died, I went back to the small town in rural southern Indiana for the funeral. The neighbors had a potluck dinner for the family after the services and there was not one dish without meat or by-product! Even the wilted lettuce salad had bacon grease. I ended up going to the local sub shop for a veggie sandwich. I was upset, but didn't say anything since the neighbors were trying to be helpful. In the middle of cow country where all meals have meat and potatoes, people just don't seem to realize it is possible to live without meat."

"They simply don't understand that I don't miss meat and I'd probably drop dead if I ate it. I'm not missing out on anything. I never get the urge to go have a closet Big Mac. I get very defensive when someone gives me a knowing grin and says, 'A little meat won't hurt you, just try some, it's really gooood.' "

"A woman I met recently would not eat popcorn that I offered her as she said it was part of a violent process when the chemical reactions occur to make it pop. She then turned around and ate meat for lunch."

"I pointed out a comparison of [the] water required to yield one pound of beef versus one pound of vegetables to my father, a GP. He replied, 'Paranoid, neurotic.' "

"Someone introduced me as 'Paige, she's vegan.' And the woman I was introduced to asked, 'Where's Vega?' "

When we are meat eaters living among meat eaters, our world is reflected back to us, confirming our choices. When we become vegetarians, we stop being reflections; we may even be accused of breaking the mirror.

"Meat eaters always ask with derision whether or not I'm associated with PETA; they think that my food looks unappetizing; one fellow likened my alfalfa sprouts to 'shaving my Chia Pet.' "

" 'What do you eat, salad?' Grrr. . . . I can't understand why what I eat (or don't) seems to bother people so much. I'm like a novelty at work. The vegetarian. I can't argue my point of view without getting into an unwanted debate, trying to justify myself."

"I feel like bonking people over the head sometimes when they say, 'What do you eat?' especially because when I start in with my recipes for various Indian, Italian, and other dishes they quickly change the topic. They wanted the question to be rhetorical. One friend asked me this same question repeatedly, and clearly didn't give a damn what my answer was! She seemed more bent on convincing herself that vegetarianism would be impractical than on observing the patience necessary to think about it. I almost wanted to say, 'Oh, cardboard boxes and aluminum cans.' "

"I am sixteen and ever since I turned vegetarian four years ago, I have not gotten much support from my peers. In fact, when I told a good friend of mine, she became extremely defensive. The next day she had written the following on her backpack: 'We were not put at the top of the food chain to eat vegetables.' I wasn't terribly hurt by the comment or anything, but [by] the fact that she had been fine with all the other oddities of my character, except for this one. I was now introduced as 'Erika . . . the vegetarian,' accompanied by the rolling of her eyes in a sarcastic manner. I suppose things are better than when my mother was in college and people called her a communist for her vegetarianism."

Just when we think our work is done, we discover that it has only begun: the challenge isn't becoming a vegetarian; it is being a vegetarian.

"When I was thirteen and newly vegetarian, a friend of my parents offered me tortellini salad, saying it was vegetarian. And after I had eaten it he laughed as if he had played a marvelous trick on me and told me the tortellini was filled with veal. I don't know still if it really was. But I am still shocked that an adult could derive joy from 'playing' that sort of trick on a child."

"Every time I visit a friend in California, she goes through a great fuss to be sure she's hidden all the meat. She also makes a big fuss about how difficult it is to feed me, and how worried she is that I won't get enough to eat. She never forgets to tell me about her vegetarian aunt, who lived to be well over ninety but, supposedly, always had a lot of gas."

"When I flew home from France, the airline did not get my request for a vegan meal, and all they had was chicken or steak. I explained to the flight attendant that I do not eat meat, and asked if I could have the vegan sidedishes. She was nice, but then another attendant told me that chicken was not meat, and when I said that it came from an animal, he insisted that chicken is vegetarian. He would not give me the sides unless I took the chicken, but finally the other flight attendant told him it was my choice."

Once we stop eating meat for whatever reason, the meat-eating world seems less welcoming. Plenty of books exist that tell you how to become a vegetarian.* This book discusses how to relate to others after you have taken that advice. This book is not about diet; it is about self-understanding and interpersonal relationships.

THE PROBLEM

When my son was in second grade, the discussion one week focused on nutrition. The children were handed a chart about the food groups provided by the American Dairy Association. One of the charts was called the "meat group." Depicted on this page, besides various forms of meat, were images of tofu and peanut butter. The discussion about the "meat group" began.

After a while, Douglas stated that he did not eat meat.

Another child exclaimed, "But I would die if I didn't eat meat."

At home, Douglas described that day's interaction. He told of the child who exclaimed, "But I would die if I didn't eat meat." Looking at us, concerned for that boy's confusion, he said, "But I don't eat meat and I'm not dead."

This is the gestalt shift that Mary Midgley describes in the epigraph to this book: meat eaters and vegetarians see the others' diet completely differently. We see the meat eaters' food as death (the death of the animals especially); they see it as life-giving-they get nourishment from it. In fact, to extend Midgley's insight: we see our diet as a choice of life (whether it is our own, healthier life, the life of the animals, or the life of the planet); meat eaters see our diet as death (if not actually death, as this second-grader feared, then the death of traditions, of pleasure as they know it, of their control over food choices).

When adults ask, "How do you survive as a vegetarian?" they are asking two questions at once: survive meaning, 1) How do you "make do?" and 2) Can you really survive on that food? To take away meat may not mean literal death, but it implies to them the loss of everything associated with the pleasures of eating. To them, our diet is one of scarcity, limitation, loss, deprivation; and their diet is one of abundance, choice, enjoyment. This is the gestalt shift. More than anything else, this explains the oft-heard exclamation, "I'd die without a hamburger."

How you live your vegetarian life can become a challenge because of this conflict in meaning-we see death in their meals, they see it in ours. Attempts will be made to disempower your viewpoint. Your diet is the issue, but you become the target.

Imagine that the gestalt shift is like the shifting of the tectonic plates when an earthquake occurs. An intense amount of energy is released; and the world is changed. Sometimes after an earthquake, we have to rebuild. So, too, with the gestalt shift.

To you, your vegetarianism is a natural progression in eating habits and philosophy. To nonvegetarians, it represents a profound disjunction. Most meat eaters experience it as a judgment on them as well, and get defensive. Vegetarians sigh and say to themselves, Here we go again.

I asked vegetarians to send me their pet peeves about meat eaters. What a lengthy list I compiled! A recurring "peeve" was that meat eaters experience our vegetarianism as a judgment on them:

Vegetarians' Pet Peeve: Defensiveness

"People take my culinary decisions so personally!"

"People apologizing to me for eating meat."

"Meat eaters who ask me why I am a vegetarian and, when I tell them, accuse me of preaching, proselytizing, judging them."

"When they make rude comments that make others laugh and are hard to recover from without being rude yourself. You feel alienated and attacked. You also feel their stupidity and are tempted to lash out at it."

"I find that most of the time people try to disgust me by making stupid comments like 'So you're a vegetarian. . . . So I guess a nice piece of animal flesh is out of the question.' I find this totally absurd and rude. What are they trying to prove? I don't try to force my opinion on anyone, and I don't criticize their choices, and I expect the same respect for mine."

"I haaaaaaate when people challenge me about it, because in no way am I forcing my opinions on everyone, so why should they force theirs on me?"

"I spend twice as much time defending my diet as eating it."

In the category of frustrating interactions, the question "How do you survive?" and its variations was a close second:

"People who ask, 'What do you eat?' "

"The @#$%! protein myth."

"Trying to convince my father that I'm not going to die."

"People who think I eat fish."

"People who ask, 'But do you eat animal crackers?' "

Another set of pet peeves was organized around the fact that we vegetarians become an easy target. This shows up in so many ways:

"People who blame my diet if I get ill. If I'm sick it must be because I'm a vegetarian. If I'm tired it must be because I'm a vegetarian."

"You are afraid to give any bad impressions, because everyone you meet will tell somebody else, 'I met a vegan once. She seemed weary and unhappy to me.' They'll conveniently forget that you just ran two blocks to catch a school bus that left early."

"Being teased at many a meal."

"When someone heard I am vegetarian, he said, 'Oh, what about your husband. Is he normal?' "

"Being looked at as a freak or extremist."

Meat eaters, seeing themselves as the normal ones, often throw curveballs at you, trying to bring you back into the meat-eating world:

"Having my grandmother call me long-distance from her deathbed, asking me to please eat . . . MEAT LOAF!"

"Meat eaters who try to bring me back into the fold."

"Meat eaters who want to talk sense into me."

"People purposefully not disclosing nonvegan food contents to get me to 'try' something."

"People who try to get me to eat meat."

Meat eaters seem clueless at times about what your life-giving foods are. Consequently, the frustrations of actually eating with meat eaters are many:

"Being told, 'You can pick the meat off.' "

"People who don't understand that I won't 'pick the meat out.' "

"Being duped about what is in the food."

"Having someone tell me a dish does not contain meat and it does, and then they say, 'Oh, that little bit of meat doesn't matter.' "

"My family insists on calling Gardenburgers 'Stinkyburgers.' "

"People who say about a restaurant, 'Oh, it's okay. They have a salad bar.' "

"When the table is full of people and I'm asked in front of everyone why I don't eat meat."

"Relatives who bring foods like Kentucky Fried Chicken when I invite them over for a meal."

Little things and daily frustrations often remind us of the conflict in meaning that organizes our world. The world is structured for meat eaters:

"There's a 'meat' compartment in every refrigerator."

"Microsoft Word redlines veganism." [Microsoft Word speller doesn't have "vegan" in its dictionary.]

"It's not easy to find a vegan friend."

Finally, there is simply the olfactory problem. Many vegetarians reported that they were discomforted by "the smell of meat" and "the smell of meat eaters."


Library of Congress subject headings for this publication: Vegetarian cookery