I'm not a vegetarian, just vegetarianish. I occasionally eat meat such as chicken breasts (off the bone), smoked turkey (to mask the gamy taste), some fish such as tuna/salmon/tilapia (if it's smothered in sauce or garlic encrusted or prepared in some such taste-altering way), ham if my husband goes to the effort to cook it (because I want to be supportive), and bacon, (because, come on, I'm only human). But the last time I ate red meat was December 31, 1989. Before some of you were even born.
I don't miss it at all. In fact, although I love most veggie burgers made from black beans and whole grains, I don't like Boca burgers because they are too greasy and beefy tasting. Yuck. I don't understand fake meat. If I wanted to taste greasy meat I'd eat a hamburger.
I gave up meat altogether at first, then I went back and forth eating some flesh and then not eating any flesh at all, then eating some flesh again. Kinda like how I'm bisexual instead of all-the-way gay. I've also never been a vegan. I love cheese too much. And yogurt. And ice cream. Oh. My. Gosh. How could anyone live without ice cream? I've known lactose intolerant people who gladly put up with the ridicule that comes with being Farty McFartypants just to indulge in an occasional ice cream cone.
I admit the reason I first gave up meat has nothing to do with health or the environment. I first gave up eating meat for the same reason I dyed my bangs blue and stopped shaving my legs when I was a teenager: because it was cool. My favorite novelists and songwriters at the time were vegetarian. Author of The Color Purple, Alice Walker. Michael Stipe of REM. Natalie Merchant of 10,000 Maniacs. Morrissey of The Smiths. k.d. lang. The Indigo Girls. I wanted to be cool like them.
After I'd been meat-free for a couple of years I found myself inside the office of our local Greenpeace Action. I'd seen an ad in the paper for summer jobs so I went in to apply. I was on break from college, living with my girlfriend. I drove a 44 MPG Ford Festiva and recycled my cans. I was a veritable hippie by late '80s-early '90s standards. But I still didn't know much about environmentalism generally or Greenpeace specifically. The real reason I applied is because the ad mentioned that they offered benefits to not just the Greenpeace staffers but also the spouses and cohabitants of the staffers, regardless of gender. Woah! They'd pay for my girlfriend's health insurance?! That is so freaking cool!
I didn't work there long enough for the benefits to kick in. Our job was to canvass neighborhoods, asking people to sign petitions and donate money to the cause. I had too many doors slammed in my face. Too many scary old men scream at me to get off their property. One day this guy scared me so much I literally walked off the job, right then and there. It would be at least an hour before my boss would come pick me up, and these were the days before cell phones, so I just hoofed it. It felt good to break free, to walk off the anxiety.
My girlfriend was a dishwasher at a Mexican restaurant about seven miles west of where I'd been canvassing. When I first began walking, my destination was home, about eleven miles west of where I was. Then I remembered my girlfriend was working that day, so I decided to pay her a visit and catch a ride home with her. If I timed it correctly, I'd make it in about 2 1/2 hours, right about when she'd get off work.
I was tired and sore by the time I plopped my ass down in a booth at her restaurant, but I also felt euphoric and alive. I hadn't walked that far since I'd been an anorexic eleven year old, and I'd forgotten how much I got off on the endorphin high. To this day, there are few things that pick me up when I'm feeling anxious or depressed as much as a long walk.
Two months before I abruptly quit my job, I sat in the Greenpeace Action office on 39th and Wyoming in Kansas City, filling out new-hire paperwork. I sat with a clipboard on my lap, trying to remember my phone number. My girlfriend and I had moved around so much, and this was back when we only had landlines that got switched with each new address, that I often had trouble remembering my own phone number. I could remember the childhood phone number we hadn't used since my family moved when I was six. I still to this day can remember it: 279-2580. Mom must have drilled it into my head in case I ever got lost or something. But the phone number at my current address? Uh, um...
I looked up from my paperwork. I must have looked stumped because my new boss asked me if he could help me with anything.
"Well, this is embarrassing, but I can't remember my phone number," I admitted. I glanced over at a poster on the wall. It pictured a long-lashed cow chewing her cud in a field of golden grain with a beautiful blue sky in the background. Around the poster it listed the top ten reasons to Go Vegetarian!
While my eyes were still fixed on the poster, my new boss said, "That's OK. You know, they say Einstein didn't know his own phone number. When someone would ask for it, he'd say, 'why should I fill my brain with unnecessary information when I can simply look it up in the phone book?'"
I briefly glanced over at my new boss, thinking, is this guy for real? I was used to bosses who ridiculed my forgetfulness, not bosses who compared me to the guy whose last name means genius. I think I'm gonna like this job.
"Here, let me go get you the phone book," my new boss said. He sprung up from his swivel chair and left the room. As I watched him walk out the door, the Go Vegetarian! poster once again caught my eye.
"Number 8: Cow farts contribute to global warming."
I laughed out loud. My new boss could probably hear me. He probably thought I was high. Although I wasn't at all, this was the first job I had where getting high might actually get me somewhere in the organization. I suspected as much when I'd used the restroom earlier and saw the sign above the toilet that said, "If it's yellow, let it mellow. If it's brown, flush it down." Mellow? The only people I'd ever known who used that word carried roach clips in their pockets.
"What's so funny?" my new boss asked as he reentered the room. He was smiling like, hey, don't leave me out of the joke!
"Oh, I was laughing at that poster."
His smile dropped. My new boss looked like I'd hurt his feelings. "Methane gas is a serious problem in our country. The more people go vegetarian, the better for the environment," he explained.
"Oh, yes," I agreed. "It's just, you know...cow farts are funny." I smiled awkwardly and looked down at my Birkenstocks when my new boss wouldn't stop staring at me like I was an idiot. He's right. I never said I was an Einstein.
Despite my boss' humorlessness, Greenpeace would have been a great place for me to work if it weren't 1991. Back then, mainstream suburbanites in our metro area, the ones who had enough money to donate, were not nearly as concerned with saving the environment as they are today. I remember a friend of mine saying that although he loved k.d. lang's voice, he threw away his cassette tape of "Angel with a Lariat" when he saw the ad for Peta that k.d. lang did:
KD Lang's PETA Ad by PETATV
The sad thing is, I didn't even question the guy for his ridiculous reason to stop listening to a great singer. I didn't dare. These were the dark days when you rarely spoke of your vegetarian ways, let alone outed yourself as gay.
Not today. There has never before been a time in history that being gay is such a non-issue to so many people. Yes, there are still people who hate gays, but now they're the ones in the closet. If you heard someone sneer, "What are you some kind of homosexual or something?" back when I was twenty the answer was a definite no, whether you were or not. Today the answer, whether you're gay or not, is a resounding, "What, are you some kind of homophobe?"
Same with vegetarianism. I read today that the United States government is thinking about changing their recommendations for a healthy diet to encourage people to eat less meat. It's the first time they're considering it based on environmental issues and not just human health. Health for the entire planet.
Wow, we've come a long way.
Today I can go to practically any chain restaurant and order a veggie burger. Even one that tastes good. If you're in the neighborhood, I recommend Chili's mushroom and Swiss on a black bean burger. Whether you're a vegetarian or not.
When I gave up beef in 1990, servers would look at me funny when I'd order a cheeseburger with no meat.
"So, you want a grilled cheese sandwich?" They'd ask, cocking one eye.
"Oh, I didn't see the grilled cheese on the menu," I'd say, scanning it again.
"Well, it's not. But what you're saying is you want a hamburger with no hamburger?" They'd say, still not getting it.
"No, a cheeseburger without the meat. A meatless cheeseburger. I mean, if you want to grill it and call it a grilled cheese sandwich, that's great, but I was just trying to make it easier on you since I didn't see any vegetarian items on the menu." I'd say.
They'd nod and smile and walk away like I must be on leave from the mental hospital.
Once a kind waiter offered to help me find something I'd eat. "Oh, you're a vegetarian? We have vegetable soup!" He said.
"Oh yeah, and it's meat-free?" I asked to make sure.
"Of course! It's vegetable soup!" he assured me.
So I gobbled it down. It wasn't until I paid and got my receipt from the cash register which said "vegetable beef soup" that I realized my mistake in assuming everyone knows what vegetarian means. So I guess that means I have eaten beef broth since 1989. Accidentally.
Oh! And one time on purpose. I remember when Katie was born. I was famished afterward. I'd spent most of my time in labor puking out my guts, but as soon as that baby was out of my body I became ravenously hungry. It was in the middle of the night and the kitchen wasn't open yet, so the nurse brought me what they had in the mini fridge at the nurse's station: beef broth and green jello, you know, made with gelatin, which comes from hooves.
I didn't care. I ate it. And it was the most delicious meal I've ever had. It's just that now that I'm not starving, it doesn't sound appealing. As I tell Katie, who is now 8 and often asks me why I don't eat beef, if I were starving I would eat just about anything. Your body has amazing powers to overcome strong distaste when your blood sugar drops. But if I were starving and my only options were a steak or a dirty turnip pulled from the earth, I'd pick the turnip. Not because it's "healthier". Not because it's more humane. People who say they don't eat meat because they have too much respect for life are not considering that turnips have roots and when you eat them they are no longer living. Also, I'm a dog lover, and anyone who loves dogs cannot in good conscious call themselves an animal lover because dogs are unkind to small fuzzy creatures. My sweet, innocent fur-kids turn into wild beasts as they sink their teeth into a freshly caught squirrel, or even worse, a baby bunny. You simply cannot love dogs and be too squeamish about the circle of life.
The reason I'm vegetarianish is as simple as this: I prefer vegetables to beef. It started out because I thought eating that way was cool. Then I felt good about the environmental benefits to vegetarianism. Then I liked how eating low on the food chain gives me the most energy and keeps my cholesterol, blood glucose levels, and blood pressure low. But honestly, it's just a matter of taste. Some people prefer beef. Some people prefer turnips. Some people prefer men. Some people prefer women. And our tastes can change over time. I loved hamburgers and hot dogs when I was a kid. Now? Uh, no thanks.