Friday, July 07, 2006

As veg as I can be

A post on Gabrielle's blog about a luscious lobster dinner made me start thinking about why I've never had lobster. The idea of picking out your dinner from an aquarium and then boiling it alive just doesn't sit well with me. But I eat chicken. I'm intrigued by the circus but could never go because exotic animals being forced to do tricks for our amusement makes me uncomfortable. But a show at Sea World? No problem. Leather shoes? If I must. But leather seats in my car? No way. And just so we're clear: you want to boil a lobster and go to the circus and cruise around in leather seats? Go for it. You make your own choices, and huzzah for that. To each his or her own. Although I may raise a friendly eyebrow at a fur coat or veal parmigiana.

Some may see me as ridiculously inconsistent, but I like what Emerson had to say about that:

"A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds."

One of the pictures in my Georgia Trip set on Flickr is of a chicken truck. It kind of doesn't fit with all the other photos. But when I saw the truck my jaw just dropped. I knew chickens were kept in small cages, but I'd never seen it in person. Sometimes back in CA when I'd be driving on the 210 towards Glendale I'd see cattle trucks, the kind that have pigs or sheep or cows in them. It's hard enough to tell if there are any occupants while you're driving by, let alone snap a photo of them. Often the trucks would be empty and I would feel a sense of relief. But sometimes I could see creatures inside bouncing along for the ride, most likely on their way to become someone's dinner, and I'd feel so sad for them.

I haven't eaten beef or pork (at least not on purpose) since 1993. Occasionally I'll bite into something that I think is mammal-free and it's secretly been prepared with bacon or ham, so I immediately stop. Currently I do eat chicken, turkey, and fish but I was a strict vegetarian for about eight years. I love animals, and once I got to college I felt compelled to walk the talk, so to speak. It was actually pretty easy going meat-free at that time in my life because the cafeteria always had a vegetarian option. My freshman roommate had little faith in my ability to give up meat. She wagered that I couldn't last two weeks, and to this day I think it was partly my stubborn streak, my desire to prove her wrong, that helped me get over the first few weeks, which were naturally the hardest. Every day seemed to present another thing I could no longer have. Chicken nuggets. Pepperoni pizza. Hot dogs. A sub sandwich. Thanksgiving turkey. But after a couple months, once I'd gone through the list and had that moment of lament for each newly verboten item, it was surprisingly easy to get over it.

Now, I was not strict-strict. I still ate milk and cheese and eggs, and I was not a stickler for the no-contact rule. If my friends ordered a pizza, I'd pick off the meat and eat the rest. Or if my dad made a stir fry with sausage I'd pick it out and eat the noodles and veggies. Believe me, I wanted to be a vegan (the kind of vegetarian who doesn't eat/wear/use anything from an animal--no dairy, no honey, no leather, no wool, no silk, etc.). But the thought of giving up cheese and chocolate were just too traumatic to even think about.

My vegetarianism was always a point of curiosity for people. Most could not comprehend why anyone would want to give up meat. It's such a foreign concept in our carnivore culture. The first question was usually, "How do you get enough protein?" The answer, which never seemed to fully appease them, was simply, "You get plenty of protein from non-meat sources." Few asked about iron, which was actually an area that I did lag in. I tried to donate blood in college and they turned me away because I was anemic. People wanted to know why I was a vegetarian--was I doing it for health reasons, environmental reasons, or humane reasons? The answer was really the last two, because let's be honest...potato chips, cookies, and ice cream are all vegetarian! But seriously, the way animals are treated on factory farms is just atrocious. It's been a long time since I've done any research so I can't quote any staggering statistics, but the stories about chickens having their beaks chopped off, baby cows being housed in crates so small that they would live their entire lives never even standing let alone walking, how factory farming methods pollute our air and water, and how feeding grain to animals is so inefficient when half the world is starving--these are the things that stick out in my mind as to why I was a fervent vegetarian.

For some reason my stance began to weaken in regards to chicken about five years ago. Let's face it: being a vegetarian, your options are limited, especially when you go out to restaurants. I was tired of paying full price for menu items even when I'd ask them to hold the most expensive ingredient, or having basically one choice on the menu. I cringed whenever I would be a guest at a friend's house and I'd have to decline what was offered, or they'd have to make something special just for me. Life is just easier when you eat chicken. So I slowly added chicken to my diet. And turkey. (Although this song is still one of my favorite SNL moments!) Fish was not such a big deal because I didn't really like it anyway. I rationalized this by picturing myself in front of a chicken. Did I feel any warmth or "oh how cute" feelings? Not really. But look into a cow's eyes--there's a soul in there.

Photo courtesy of Another Chance Ranch

Then one summer I went to the science museum in Chicago and I saw baby chicks hatching. I was beside myself for my lapse and I immediately forsook all poultry once again. But that lasted only about a year, and now I'm back to eating chicken. I also eat fish, because I've discovered if you buy the right fish, and prepare it properly, it can be really yummy, and the healthy omega-3 oils are good for you.

But occasionally I feel guilty for consuming the flesh of animals. I prefer boneless chicken. That way I can avoid gnawing on skeletons--such a crude reminder of dinner's source. (Much the way we steel ourselves against uncomfortable issues like poverty or disease in order to avoid emotional exhaustion, I attempt to maintain inner peace by distancing myself from my carnivorous reality.) However, one rule I would sooner become a Luddite than break is no mammals, so I will never eat beef, pork, venison, buffalo, etc. I suppose snake is technically allowed, but I can't imagine actually wanting to eat that. When I traveled to Italy a couple years ago, I ate in a tiny restaurant where there wasn't a menu; you ate what the mama cooked. And she cooked beef. I looked at it on the plate and wondered what it would taste like. I put a tiny piece in my mouth and chewed it to find out, and then spit it out because it just wasn't tasty--and it felt wrong. That's not to say that a steak sizzling on the grill doesn't smell good to me, because it does. I just could never eat it.

When it comes down to it, we do the best we can. I may not be as selfless as a full vegetarian, but at least I'm doing something. Every little bit counts.

By the way, I love the new Liberty Mutual commercial--very Pay It Forward. Gives me warm fuzzies. And what a great song.


  1. The good news about the circus nowadays Melissa is that at the circus like the one I recently went to the only animals you will see are a few cats and dogs doing typical dog and cat things that everyone teaches their pets to do. Gone are the days of the elephants, lions, and tigers, oh my!

    I too like that Liberty Mutual commercial.... my only issue is that they show the 1st guy again at the end which feels like they are saying I am not smart enough to remember him from 30 seconds prior. Other than that, it reminds me that I always need to be careful about what I do because someone is always watching and may use my actions as an inspiration for their own good deed.

  2. I'll have a 4x4 animal style, veal parm., and an x-large meat lovers pizza, 24oz. porterhouse, some bacon, ham, hot dogs, sushi, duck, basically anything that was once alive! Like corn, apples, oranges, etc. Isn't everything on God's earth living? Long live the SLAUGHTER!!!!

  3. I watched the commercial again, much closer, and realized that a) it's people OBSERVING other people's acts of kindness, then paying it forward...I originally thought it was the recipients of the acts of kindness who were paying it forward. And b) the first scene Guy #1 picks up the toy for a woman pushing a stroller, and at the end Guy #2 picks up a toy for Guy #1 who's now the pusher of a stroller. I think they did that to show how things can come full circle, not to make the message more obvious to viewers.

    Is it really true that they have just dogs and cats in the circus nowadays? I swear two years ago I saw an elephant outside the Barnum & Bailey tent while driving down Soledad.

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