Several years ago, I was visiting my family in the “American Heartland” of Iowa and we were eating at my grandpa’s favorite restaurant – the Marilyn Monroe-themed eatery Norma Jeane’s. I had stopped eating meat a year earlier and I was sure I never wanted my grandpa to know that; his self-made cattle feed business was responsible for my mother living a happy, healthy life – and also for the disappearance of her pet pig.
As I read a menu consisting only of meat products – including the fried chicken my grandpa insisted everyone had to try – I settled on a salad and ordered the meat on the side to avoid questions of why would you order a salad without meat?
Surrounded by a dozen family members and their protein-rich entrees, I looked at the limp iceberg lettuce, content with the dismal meal that lay ahead of me. Seconds later, my enthusiastic grandpa threw a piece of fried chicken thigh onto my sad salad. My dad surreptitiously ate the chicken while I smiled and nodded at my grandpa, who died never knowing I was a vegetarian.
Seeing that crispy, salty, ethically-raised poultry on a bed of nutrient-deficient greens was appealing, but not in an overwhelming way. Every few weeks I have to fish black olives out of a deli sandwich – or worse, eat the ones nudged in melted pizza cheese. But if olive-picking is the biggest dietary challenge I face in life, then I am a very lucky person indeed.
I think I stopped eating meat five years ago. I know it was sometime in the summer and after reading the book Eating Animals. I don’t remember the exact date because it doesn’t really feel like a definitive moment. Eating meat is just something I don’t do.
Most of that money is not going to the small-town meat farmers whom I count as my relatives so much as the corporations that benefit from government subsidies for agricultural production. When my relatives present the best-case scenario – free bacon, freshly slaughtered by people I love, on a small farm where the animals were treated with respect – I’m still not into it.
Eating meat is popular – I get it. Since the beginning of humanity(pdf), people have been eating meat. If we used that logic to justify every daily act, you wouldn’t be reading this on your computer or mobile device. You would also be eating considerably less meat since the amount Americans consume has skyrocketed in the past 50 years, according to USDA estimates (pdf).
My mom is a personal trainer. She believes people eat too much meat. Yet she occasionally encourages me to have an occasional piece of meat because it contains some nutrients that can only be derived from animal products. It’s a reasonable suggestion, but I don’t do it and I console myself knowing that the benefits of a vegetarian diet are enormous, according to every single respected health agency.
There is nothing permanent about my meat-free condition. I could very well embrace meat someday, like I eventually embraced tomatoes. In the office kitchen the other day, a co-worker discovered, after many years of happy hours, that I was vegetarian. This seasoned reporter had once been a vegetarian for eight years. I asked when he had stopped. “It was in Nicaragua, during the revolution,” he said. Things change.
I write this in the liberal Northeast, having been raised in an agricultural, conservative part of granola-crunching California. I am lucky to lead a meat-free life that has plenty of delicious, accessible options. That doesn’t mean I am disgusted when visiting friends in Nashville, watching them eat a delicious piece of salty, saucy barbecue, but I do know that sweet potatoes and collard greens are an excellent substitution.
About two weeks ago, a friend and I ordered a plate of cheese and olives that was meant to constitute dinner, alongside several pints of beer. Watching the bartender pour out the briny, multi-colored olives, I told my friend that I don’t like olives, but I thought maybe this was the day it could all change. He, an ex-vegetarian, was appalled. He encouraged me to try some. I did, and I still think they smell bad, have a weird texture and are too salty.
I know meat is delicious. That’s what people tell me about olives, too.