Eating What Feels Right: On Going Vegetarian

Photo by Anna Guerrero

Bert’s Market was a grocery store in my hometown of central Florida that I remember for three reasons: It was always freezing, the place reeked because they butchered their meat on site, and it’s where I learned where the meat we ate came from.

One day, my sisters and I were with our dad at Bert’s when he lifted a package in front of us and made it dance. I was probably too little to know what species of animal the shrink-wrapped feet had belonged to, but Dad confirmed they were once part of a pig when he oinked. My older sister Ashley thought it was hilarious. My younger sister Abby laughed along with Ashley. I cried. And the feet danced “wee-wee-wee all the way home.”  

That might’ve been the first time I said I’d never eat meat again.

When Abby and I were in middle school, we decided to give vegetarian life a try. That night before dinner we had a conversation with Dad about it.

“What kind of tacos are we having?”

“Beef.”

Abby and I decided we wouldn’t be vegetarians that day.

In my adult life I’ve experienced situations that have prompted further consideration of giving up meat; like when I became a pet owner, when I was in a car that hit a raccoon, when I walked the stables at a county fair and saw the animals drawing breath, or that time I witnessed a rabbit’s death in rural Ontario.

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My partner and I are on a nighttime hike on a trail that divides two expansive farm fields. The ground is covered in fresh ankle-deep snow and the moon is so full we don’t need any lights of our own to see. We’re with another couple and their two dogs. Being the only people around for miles, the dogs are off leash. They zigzag across the trail into the trees and return when their owners call. But one time they don’t come back. Their owners run after them.

As we approach, we’re warned, “Shadow got its neck.” There on the snow is a rabbit the size of my new kitten, flailing its poor little head back and forth. I gasp and look away. A brief discussion unfolds, and I walk away as the rabbit is being “put out of its misery” with an on-hand knife. I’m still within earshot for another brief discussion followed by the now-dead rabbit being cut up and fed to the dogs. While the dogs eat their fresh meal, their knife-wielding owner cleans his knife in the snow and announces, “That’s nature for you!”

I ride in silence on the drive home. Tears flood my eyes while I pet my hat resting on my lap.

It’s rabbit fur.

Almost three years since using my hat as a comfort blanket, and decades of thinking about vegetarianism, my current approach is if I won’t kill it myself, I won’t eat it. Animal welfare isn’t the only reason to become a vegetarian, and I certainly don’t believe it’s the only way to show I care about animals — it’s just what feels right to me right now. What follows are longreads that discuss the nuances of why and how people turn to vegetarianism — or don’t. (And that’s okay, too.) 

1. The Animals We Love, The Animals We Eat (Debbie Tacium Ladry, October 2006, The Walrus)

Have you ever looked into the eyes of a cow? Have you ever petted a chicken like you might a cat or dog? Why do we still buy commercially sold milk when we hear about living conditions of dairy cows on industrial farms? Debbie Tacium Ladry, a Quebec-based veterinarian, argues that the scale of industrial farming makes it impossible for us to think about and treat the animals we eat for food in the same way as the animals we share our homes with.

If only eggs would grow in petri dishes instead of inside hens, locked up in tiny cubicles in windowless warehouses, then this most perfect food wouldn’t be spoiled by our knowledge that something about the process seems terribly wrong. The senses we share with animals tell us it is wrong, but because most of us are physically removed from the realities of industrial farms, these instincts and sensations stay buried, and we are soothed instead by the arguments of advertising and accounting.

2. Why I Became a Vegetarian (and Why We Should All Eat Less Meat) (Jane Goodall, April 2017, Jane Goodall’s Good for All News)

Jane Goodall gave up eating meat 50 years ago when she looked down at a pork chop on her plate and considered what it represented: “fear, pain, death.” Citing animal welfare, environmental impact, and health concerns, she encourages us all to eat less meat, or preferably no meat at all.

I continue to ask people to consider what this choice really means on a moral and practical level for animals and the environment. It is the choice to change our individual lives, which will in turn have enormous benefits for all of humanity and all of the other living creatures we share our home with. 

3. Let Them Eat Kale: Vegetarians and The French Revolution (Jessica Stoller-Conrad, July 2012, National Public Radio)

Like most isms, vegetarianism has a political past of its own. And while “political vegetarianism,” as Jessica Stoller-Conrad acknowledges, “did not begin or end with the French revolutionaries,” it can be traced to the French Revolution thanks to the writings of philosopher and political theorist Jean-Jacques Rousseau at the time.

 From his treatise on education, Rousseau writes:

The indifference of children towards meat is one proof that the taste for meat is unnatural; their preference is for vegetable foods, such as milk, pastry, fruit, etc. Beware of changing this natural taste and making children flesh-eaters, if not for their health’s sake, for the sake of their character.

In addition to Rousseau, Stoller-Conrad references Tristam Stuart’s book The Bloodless Revolution: A Cultural History of Vegetarianism: From 1600 to Modern Times as she links 17th and 18th-century thinking to our present-day opinions on vegetarianism, “including effects on land use, animal rights, and health.”

4. Coming Out as a Conscientious Omnivore (Pranidhi Varshney, October 2016, Huffington Post)

After 15 years as a constantly anemic vegetarian, Pranidhi Varshney went back to eating meat because it’s what her body needed to feel strong and balanced. In this piece about her journey to becoming an omnivorous yogi, she discusses how the yoga community idealizes some diets and vilifies others, while arguing “for the freedom to eat what enables us to thrive.”

As I embrace my newly found omnivorism, I’ve developed a deeper sense of gratitude for everything that I eat. I cherish my weekly trips to the farmers market, picking out my favorite fruits and vegetables as the seasons change. I also cherish picking up our bimonthly Amish dairy delivery and I cherish talking to the rancher who raises the bison that nourishes my blood.

5. 5 Reasons People Become Vegetarian (Lisa Maloney, February 2019, Livestrong.com)

For both the vegetarian-curious and the converted, Lisa Maloney has created a beginner’s guide on the subject complete with stats, an overview of the different types of mainstream vegetarian diets out there, and, yes, five reasons why people become vegetarian: religious convictions, environmental concerns, animal welfare, health reasons, personal preference. To finish things off, she even includes some helpful information on nutrition and how to eat a healthful vegetarian diet.  

An estimated 8 million U.S. adults — or about 3 percent of the population — are vegetarians, according to a survey conducted by Harris Polls for the Vegetarian Resource Group. And a whopping 37 percent of the U.S. population “always or sometimes” eats vegetarian when dining out.

6. Carnism: Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs and Wear Cows (Kashmira Gander, September 2017, Independent)

Kashmira Gander interviews psychologist and longtime vegan Melanie Joy about her journey to veganism and “carnism,” a term coined by Joy describing a belief system she believes makes it possible for us to eat some animals but be repulsed by the idea of eating others.

While carnism holds that there’s no such thing as an ethical meat eater, Joy offers meat eaters a way into its ethics as “vegan allies.”

Have you ever wondered why you want to pet your cat, but the idea of grilling Tibbles and eating her in a brioche bun with a few lettuce leaves and relish turns your stomach? And why if Tibbles were a cow, she’d already be dead in your fridge and destined for your dinner plate?

7. The Meat Decision (Justin Lawrence Daugherty, July 2016, Catapult) 

After a mysterious illness led him to eliminate meat from his diet for two weeks, born and raised meat eater Justin Lawrence Daugherty felt better. He went back to eating meat, though. Then gave it up. Then went back.

Through his own journey of eating meat, and reflection on the ethics, politics, history, and social implications of an American carnivorous diet, Daugherty writes about the pacts we make with ourselves. Sometimes those pacts are renegotiated daily.  

I eat fish, even though overfishing threatens oceans and whole species of marine life. I eat cheese despite knowing that dairy cows are mistreated. I eat eggs. I do not know that veganism is right for everyone and I worry that ardent advocacy for vegetarianism is itself evidence of privilege. I woke up with a hangover and ate a double cheeseburger out of a selfish desire to feel well, even though I have no reason to believe there’s a real connection between meat and curing a hangover.

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Alison Fishburn is a writer and recovering Floridian living in Ontario. She’s working on a memoir about the sudden death of her younger sister while learning to grieve. You can find her on Twitter @AlisonFishburn.

Editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands