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My step-mom was instrumental in my decision to become a vegetarian. I met my her when I was 11 after she came to Canada to marry my dad who had met her on his travels in New Zealand. She was the most interesting person I had ever met up to that point in my life. Not only was she very kind, but she had a pretty accent and fascinating stories to tell. Her best stories were about growing up on a sheep farm and then traveling throughout Europe and The Middle East in the early 1980′s. During this time she climbed through the Himilayas and became vegetarian. She was the first vegetarian I had ever met and suddenly I wanted to become one too. I felt like I was meant to be one.
I grew up eating meat and potatoes. Mom served mostly whole foods, cooked very plainly. She baked from scratch. I wanted to learn how to cook but I was relegated to salad-maker-only duty. When I went to visit my dad and step-mom, food creativity abounded. At least I thought so. We ate Vegetable Pie with Grated Potato Crust, whole grain cookies made with honey, a drink called barley water and homemade ice cream! I poured through my step-mom’s cookbooks and started writing out the recipes that appealed to me (I still have the notebook I wrote them in). I started learning how to cook.
At first I wanted to eat like my step-mom to be more like her. But as I grew older it became about the animals. I suddenly realized in a way I had never let myself think about before, that people killed animals so we could eat them, and it didn’t feel right to me.
Flashback. I’m 5. Collecting eggs from the chicken coop. Our rooster, Stormin’ Norman (named after a grumpy uncle of my dad’s), comes flapping at my heels and flies into my face, pecking at me until I drop the eggs. I run as fast as I can to the gate. The next day my dad chopped his head off. As I watched him pluck, slice open and gut the rooster my stomach swirled with revulsion. He invited me to help him pull out the intestines. Curious, I did. I touched all the organs and watched my dad work until nothing was left but Norman’s shell, until he resembled nothing but the cold, naked birds in the supermarket. The memory of blood on my hands and the warm smell of death remain. I was not yet aware of the similarities between the organs of a bird and a human being, but I knew that something that had once been alive was now dead. Something that had had a name and a face and who I didn’t like, but knew, was muck in my hands. It felt surreal and wrong. Of course I wasn’t able to make my feelings understood. I didn’t even understand them myself. We ate that poor, wretched bird the next night. I have never been so conscious of a meal I ate as a child. This was 31 years ago.
I have always assumed that kids raised on farms were indifferent to animal slaughter. Some of my cousins grew up on farms and they didn’t become vegetarian. Some cousins even grew up to hunt animals in the wild. So why was I so sensitive? Was it out of guilt? Because I was the reason the rooster died?
As I got older I became more openly uncomfortable about killing animals. I hated going fishing with my dad. I hated seeing fish flopping desperately in the bottom of the boat, their mouths gapping, their eyes fixed on me as if to say, “Help! Help me please!” I hated watching the fish get bludgeoned. I hated the mess of gutting them. The same smell of death as the blood from the rooster. Thankfully I hated eating them too. I’ve never liked seafood. Eventually I refused to go fishing anymore. The last time I was with my dad when he went fishing, he was actually trapping crabs. As he drove the boat home I sat in the back tossing them back into the water.
When I was 16 I put my foot down. I refused to take Biology 12 after learning it was mandatory to dissect a fetal pig, and I told my mom I was going vegetarian. It was a gradual process. First, I stopped eating red meat that looked like it had been sliced off an animal. No more steaks, pork chops, ribs or roast beef for me. It was hard to stop eating ground beef because my mom put it in just about all my favorite foods, and I wasn’t yet allowed to cook for myself. But I soon started refusing that too. Then I stopped eating chicken. Finally, all that was left was holiday turkey. I went along with that tradition for three or four years before forcing myself to stop. I felt it was hypocritical of me. Turkeys were living beings too. It didn’t matter that I only ate them once or twice a year.
In university, I donated to PETA and made myself watch horrible videos of pigs being slaughtered and rabbits and mice being blinded by chemicals. I wrote big corporations like Unilever and Proctor and Gamble and told them I wouldn’t be buying any of their products until they stopped testing on animals, and I didn’t. I joined a local Animal Rights group and helped save an abused and neglected rabbit that lived next door to me. I read Diet for a New America by John Robbins and The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory by Carol J. Adams. I took part in a public protest against fishing. Fish can feel pain too, you know. Inside, I always knew.
When I was 23 I went vegan. It lasted about a year during which time I beat myself up considerably every time I went to a restaurant where there was nothing to eat but vegetable lasagna lathered in cheese, fettucine alfredo or a veggie burger (made from cheese). Not to mention if I went to someone’s house and they offered me cookies made with butter, cake with eggs or bread with buttermilk, I felt uncomfortable refusing them (probably because of my sweet tooth, but I digress). I questioned the honey in my tea, the silk in my skirt and the leather in my favorite five year old shoes – was it ethical of me to continue wearing them? I felt I was a bad vegan. So because I wasn’t a perfect vegan I stopped trying to be one at all.
Now I’m just a plain old vegetarian. I’ve gone from being an ignorant junk food vegetarian who lived off tofu dogs, mac and cheese, and salad to a well-informed, I-think-I-was-a-nutritionist-in-a-past-life, lentil-loving vegetarian. I’m still vegetarian because I’m against animal suffering, but also for other reasons too. I don’t believe that most human beings need to eat meat to survive. Therefore, I think that animal slaughter is an unnecessary act, harmful to our environment and sometimes even our bodies. Without meat we wouldn’t have to worry about diseases like E-coli, mad cow disease, swine flu, or bird flu, to name a few.
But at 36, things are shifting again. I’m learning new things. I’m questioning some of the foods I have relied on as staples of my diet, like grains (that’s a shocker hey?) and soy foods. I can admit to you that I’ve eaten seafood on a few occasions. I’m not happy about it. In fact, I’m pretty much in denial about it because I still consider myself a vegetarian even though I don’t think I should. However, get this! Learning all I know now, if I had grown up vegetarian and wasn’t upset by the suffering and/or death of animals, I would consider eating meat for the nutritional aspects of it as a part of a whole foods diet. But I am against animal suffering so I don’t think I ever will. But my consciousness is raising.
Next week I plan to talk about raising my children vegetarian.
Please feel free to ask me any questions about my vegetarianism. I am open to all respectful discussion.