“I give you three months,” one of my best friends said when I came home from my freshman year at college and announced I had become a vegetarian.
That was 35 years ago. Vegetarianism was harder then. In the 1980s there were few soy-based artificial meat products. Restaurants based on the cuisines of poverty — Chinese, Indian, Mexican – were the only places I could eat out. Nowadays, I am sometimes not the only one carrying soy burgers in my purse to a BBQ, objecting to sausage on all the pizzas, or ordering a dinner of side dishes.
Normally outspoken, I have spent decades refraining from discussing the reasons for my choices and looking the other way when people I otherwise admire eat veal. I don’t want to contribute to the impression that vegetarians are sanctimonious.
There are disadvantages to a vegetarian lifestyle, but there are advantages, too. It is economical, despite the high cost of good fruits and vegetables. Moreover, I have never experienced “food poisoning” — the reaction to eating poorly prepared or maintained food that is oddly prevalent among meat eaters. On the other hand, we vegetarians feel awkward when we must inconvenience a hostess by telling her we don’t eat meat. (No, not chicken, either. Um, no, not even free-range fish. Could I bring something? Like, a lasagna?)
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Face to face with vegetarians, many meat eaters feel moved to explain why they aren’t vegetarian. He loves animals, but his metabolism won’t allow it. She knows she would be leaner, but her doctor told her she needs to eat red meat because she was once anemic. They tried it as a family, but it was too hard on the kids.
Relax, omnivores. We aren’t judging you. We know it’s hard to give up meat. Some of us did it for our health. Others, like me, avoid meat because of conditions animals are kept in, but we still eat many foods that really aren’t good for us. Either way, we are doing what we can to live with our own consciences. Maybe the meat eaters we know donate to worthwhile charities, or help homeless folks by the side of the road, or volunteer at an animal shelter. There are many ways to help the world.
A growing reason for this eating choice is that it will help save the earth. United Nations studies have found that carbon emissions from cow belches and flatulence — yes, really — are one of the two most significant contributors to global warming. If most Americans ate no meat only one day a week, it would make a difference.
Surprisingly, it is still difficult to get a vegetarian meal at many restaurants in Tacoma. Although most chefs will prepare fettuccini Alfredo or a plate of steamed vegetables on request, at one waterfront restaurant I must ask a small friend to order grilled cheese from the children’s menu, then trade with me. I haven’t yet visited our newest waterfront “special occasion” establishment, because its menu lists no entrees I can eat and doesn’t promise to adapt any dishes.
All of this seems strange, since Seattle is ranked by Vegetarian Times as the second-best U.S. city for vegetarians, and since vegetarianism is growing rapidly, especially among young people. Ten percent of Americans eat a vegetarian or vegan diet, and an additional seven percent identify themselves as at least “tending toward” vegetarianism. Why would any restaurant turn away ten percent of the population? Vegetarians belong to every age bracket and social, political and ethnic group. We celebrate anniversaries, have birthdays and go to proms. We generally are accompanied by meat-eating friends, who won’t celebrate somewhere we cannot.
But change is coming. A California law went into effect last year requiring “calves raised for veal, egg-laying hens and pregnant pigs be confined only in ways that allow these animals to lie down, stand up, fully extend their limbs and turn around freely.” It has made more free-range eggs available nationwide.
And science, which contributed to the development of the cruelly efficient factory farm in the 1940s, has now developed test-tube meat — animal tissue grown in laboratories sans animal body, brain or sensation — which should appear in stores within five years. There is a “yuk” response from most people I’ve spoken with. But in 30 years, it may seem normal to harvest meat this way, and perhaps my grandchildren will not need to be the weird eaters of the future in order to live cruelty-free.
Barbara Parsons is a writer and educator who lives in Tacoma’s North End and teaches at Pierce College and Tacoma Community College. She is one of six reader columnists who write for this page. Email her at BBParsons@live.com.