Monday, February 20, 2012

Why is there bacon mixed in with these potatoes? and other concerns

When I was a kid one of my favorite meals was Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. On summer afternoons I'd beg my dad to make me half a box of the synthetic powdered cheesy pasta and I'd sit around on the couch watching Nickelodeon or Disney Channel as I consumed the unhealthy contents of my lunch.

But I didn't eat Kraft Macaroni and Cheese like everyone else. A bowl of the stuff was not enough to satisfy me. My dad somehow got me into the habit of including MorningStar Farms Sausage Links as a side dish to my wonderfully unnatural and chemically enhanced meal.

So a few years down the road when I became a vegetarian, I already knew what alternatives there were to meat. I was already a fan and while in some ways the transition was strange and foreign, perhaps it was significantly easier for someone like me rather than, say, someone who comes from a family made up entirely of omnivores. Even though I lacked will power in general, I certainly had prepared my taste buds for this defining moment of my life.

My dad has been a vegetarian since as far back as I can remember and it never bothered me in the slightest. When I was little, he allowed me to eat whatever I wanted. He would buy me cold cuts to make school lunches with. He drove me to In-N-Out to rot my insides with a burger and fries. He let me get the Meat Lovers' pasta at Spaghetti Factory. He never once forced abstinence from meat into my mind or my diet.

I didn't really think about what the value was in going veggie until I was 17 or so. I had just finished reading Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer. The main character of the book is Oskar Schell who is a hippie dippy young boy who self identifies as a vegan, tambourine playing pacifist. I've always been very liberal so the idea of this little boy being the Haight-Ashbury prototype child was an appealing image to me.

It wasn't until I read Foer's next book, Eating Animals, that I would try my own hand at being that tree-hugging, animal-loving person that people look at weirdly when she asks if the potatoes have bacon bits mixed in. The book opened up my eyes to the world of factory farming, of inhumane treatment of animals who are force fed hormones and kept in unhealthy, terrifying conditions and then eventually shipped off after premature growth for mechanized slaughter.

There was one page in particular that struck me. The book, no bigger than an 8.5x11 piece of paper explained that factory farms house chickens in cages no larger than the space on a single page. The animals are stuffed together like sardines in a can. But the difference between sardines and these chickens is one very crucial thing - these chickens are alive.

I started to feel sick at the idea that I was contributing in some way, however small, to letting these farms continue to exist. By buying Tyson meats and eating McDonald's hamburgers, I wasn't exactly creating the problem, but I wasn't helping either. I was egging it on through ignorance and indifference.

By the time I was 18, I had become a full-fledged vegetarian. Though I still grappled with the fact that meat didn't fully repulse me, I knew that for me the costs outweighed the benefits of a carnivorous life. I needed to know I wasn't a part of what was going on behind closed doors at farms around the country.

So when I came to college, I was elated to find that the dining halls and places around my campus were very vegetarian and vegan-friendly. Coming from an Orange County background, I was virtually alienated from anyone (other than my dad and my close friends) who thought vegetarianism was a legitimate way of life.

But I was kind of wrong in my initial views of my dietary life at school. While my friends are all incredibly accepting of my lifestyle choices, I've come in regular contact with individuals who instead of being open to ideas other than theirs about food and farming, combat it head on by being crude and insensitive.

For me, vegetarianism is a life choice. It is part of my path towards overall kindness and pacifism, an extension of my belief in fair treatment of all creatures - human or not. I never decided to do this for status or recognition. I didn't make the choice because it was the zeitgeist or because all my friends were doing it.

And because it is a life choice, I've never been one to indoctrinate others. While I am known to at times make a passing comment as to how the scent of a certain meat product bothers me, or perhaps the irony of purported humanitarians going from aiding life one minute to eating it the next, I have never endeavored to convert anyone.

My dad gave me the freedom to make my own dietary choices when I was young and I made them. I ate meat for the first 17 years of my life with no consequences and no remorse. But he also gave me the freedom to learn about my choices myself and therefore become even more passionate about my choice to abstain from meat-eating. It's the fact that I was let loose to formulate my opinions that made me want to make this choice all the more.

But unlike my dad, a lot of society (and some of my school) basks in their own carnivorous tendencies and in doing so become zealots and preachers of their cause.

One day in my biology class this quarter, my professor asked the class if we thought our dinners the night before had been balanced and if not, then why. One jock (I'm stereotyping, but he seemed pretty athletic) raised his hand and went on a tangent about how the dining halls on campus had so much tofu and "gross" vegan food, and sometimes he couldn't find enough meat for dinner.

I held my tongue in that instant, but as soon as I got out of class I had to call my dad and go on my own mini-tangent about the selectively blind viewpoint of this annoying boy in my bio class. If you look at the USDA's MyPlate initiative diagram, you will notice that not even a quarter of the plate is dedicated to protein. So disregarding the sheer stupidity of Mr. Jock's comment that he couldn't find meat (there is absolutely always meat in the dining hall except on the rare (single) occasion that we had a special vegan dinner), his suggestion that he couldn't find "enough" was even more of a falsehood. Factoring in the protein in other parts of his meal, from eggs to beans and legumes and otherwise, he was surely getting his necessary amount of protein for the day, not even counting the big slab of meat that probably graces his daily plate. The dining hall was not depriving him of a healthy diet. The only thing he was deprived of was an awareness of the food pyramid.

This boy, coupled with the many individuals who have jokingly poked at me by either waving a slab of turkey in front of my face, talking about how much they love meat or killing animals, or something less flamboyant, have all proved that the real indoctrinators are not the vegetarians at all.

The people I know, from my dad to a few of my friends, who have dabbled in vegetarianism are some of the least assuming eaters I know. They make healthy food choices and allow themselves to conform to the desires of others in choosing restaurants. They find options. They eat whatever is available to them on the menu.

But some people on the opposite end of the spectrum, those who might call themselves "meatetarians" if the word existed, become inherently cruel and rude at the dinner table. Instead of keeping to themselves, they glorify their own "free will"-enabled decision to partake in the flesh of animals. Even ask these people to go to a vegan restaurant and they shudder, or worse, laugh.

I don't have any problem with people making the decision to continue to eat meat. I would never try to force anyone into making dietary decisions based on my beliefs because I understand that priorities differ from person to person. No one should be expected to want to be vegetarian and no one should be forced into it.

But in return, at the very least, I expect the same respect paid to me by those who do eat meat. If someone I was friends with was repulsed by mushrooms or olives - or on a food-unrelated level, offended by an issue or a physical object - I would never wave it in their face like a symbol of my pride at not feeling the same way they do.

My dad never waved vegetables in front of me. And in return, I respected him for his choice to refrain from eating meat. We survived by the motto of "live and let live," allowing ourselves to co-exist with different values and accommodating each other's choices with kindness and courtesy.

A decade ago, I loved eating macaroni and cheese with soy sausage links. I opened my mind to the possibilities of dietary choice, and to the fact that meat-eating is not a fact of life. But long before that, I had made the decision to open my mind to a greater cause - the cause of mutual respect. And above anything else, I believe this is one moral expectation that no one should be exempt from, vegetarian or not.

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