#3: Vegetarianisming

021410 Austin (6) copy

If it wasn’t for the whole “no meat” thing, I’d have been a vegetarian so many times by now. I’d have been one in high school, to fit in or to stand out or maybe just to piss my parents off and garner a little attention. I’d have been one in college to try to fit in with the hippie, theater-types I thought I was going to be palling around with (I was wrong, it turned out – meat-eating media geek misfits all the way!) I would have been one to make boys like me, to make people think I was cool, to give the illusion of being a person passionate about health/the earth/politics/chickens/anything at all.

I have a lot of vegetarian friends, which proves how evolved I am. Of course, I also have a number of pseudo-vegetarian friends. You know what I mean. I’m a vegetarian, but I eat fish. I’m a vegetarian, but I eat turkey. I’m a vegetarian, but I eat steak. As though the “veg” part of “vegetarian” leaves a lot of wiggle room. It’s kind of like a person being “sort of” sober. You either are or you aren’t.

I feel qualified to make such judgments about these things because it is precisely that kind of commitment to an absolute ideal that has ultimately kept me from seriously considering being vegetarian. Well, that and the meat.

That said, I’m not sure carnivores would come out to bat for me. I’m not a particularly good meat person. I only manage to pass because I operate with a highly evolved sense of denial about handling and eating flesh. I’m grossed out by a lot of meats, including all organ meats and anything too fatty, too pink or too … meaty. I’m extremely squeamish about handling raw meat, cutting it or prepping it. And I simply can’t have anything to do with meat on the bone. I prefer to pretend that my chicken breast or fish filet was just created that way – faceless, body-less, boneless, delicious.

This is, at least philosophically, a problem for me. I believe that we should all be more invested in where our food comes from. I heard them talk about it on NPR, so therefore I know it’s a good idea. I also really, really like the idea of telling people I take ownership over the food I consume. I like the idea of taking responsibility for the environmental impact of the food I consume, the amount of energy it takes to raise and transport it and have it land on my table. I mean, doesn’t that just make me sound like a better person?

Thank goodness there is such a vast chasm – at least in my world – between ideals and reality. I heard a story on the radio (yes, public radio) about a guy who decided that if he was going to eat meat, he should be willing to go the distance. So he decided to raise his own cow, slaughter it himself, then eat it. I can tell you right now that if it were on me to raise or hunt animals, slaughter them and get all up in their innards, I would be a vegetarian so fast it would make your head spin.

I am not entirely without action on this front before now. I’ve made a marginal effort in recent years to eat more food produced locally, a task I find much easier during the warmer months. Do you have any idea what I would have to subsist on if I ate only Michigan-grown foods in winter? I’d spend three months sucking on frozen root veggies.

For those keeping score at home, I have actually made some effort in recent years to eating locally, which is made easier by our farmer’s market in warmer months. And I have, in the past couple of years, made a genuine effort to cut down on my meat consumption, inspired as much by my most recent cholesterol test results as by my increasing guilt over the impact meat has on the environment.

I read somewhere that if we all stopped eating meat for just one day a week, it would patch up the hole in the ozone layer in less than a month. Okay, so maybe I made that up, but apparently the impact would be substantial. And good.

All that said, I’m not sure I could really commit to becoming a vegetarian. But being a vegetarian for seven days? Even I could manage that.

Then it occurred to me that there was a complicating factor. During four of the seven days in question, I’d be in Texas. Texas! A state where the steaks are as big as your head and barbecue is a national treasure. Thank God for Austin, which is just teeming with vegetarians and other crazy types.

(Side note: I recognized that I got a real swell of pride when I made my decision for this week’s change. It seems that feeling like a martyr plays a bigger role than I’d like in this little experiment. Look at me, eating vegetarian in TEXAS. Look at HOW COMMITTED I am. I find myself wondering if it’s really a change for the better if all it does is feed your ego? I’m thinking not.)

I would like to say that going meatless in Austin was a transformative experience, but the truth is that it just wasn’t that much of a challenge. It turns out it’s pretty easy to make this sort of change when you’re on the road, eating out in a place where beans and rice abound. Breakfast tacos filled with potatoes and egg. Burritos stuffed with black beans, cilantro and rice. Enchiladas bubbling with cheese, spinach and mushroom. Chips and salsa, guacamole. Home-made warm tortillas.

It was, for the most part, a piece of cake. Not just cake, but pie and ice cream and candy and pancakes. It turns out that the world is full of really delicious, totally unhealthy, non-meat-centric things to consume, and that really takes the sting out of not being able to order the chicken fajitas.

I should also note that both Chris and I had some sort of mild stomach annoyance while in Texas. Nothing major, but enough to pare back our usual foodthusiasm. It’s fair to say that I might have pouted my way through dinner at one of Austin’s finer barbecue joints if either of us had felt up to checking them out in the first place.

The main challenge came at home, on the last two days of my week as a vegetarian. As much as I like to think I reduce my meat intake, a lot of the recipes I make are meat-centric. My go-to quick dinners at the end of a busy day involve fish or a pre-cooked chicken picked up from the store on the way home. I had to step outside of the box, think of new strategies for getting enough protein and veggies and producing something we might actually eat.

Ultimately, it felt good to be making food that didn’t involve meat, although I wasn’t quite sure why. Because I knew it was better for me? Because I felt I was reducing my carbon footprint with my bowl of pasta? Because I felt somehow more virtuous than those awful meat-eaters?

I think that sort of confusion about my motives helped me understand why I’m not a vegetarian at this point in my life. It isn’t just because I do like me some meat. It’s because, in order to do this I think you have to have a reason for making the commitment, a passion that drives you, whether it’s a love of animals, a passion about health or a staunch commitment to the environment.

I learned this week that I don’t feel that way. I also learned that I can go days without eating meat, that I don’t need it and that I feel good – for whatever reason – when I’m cutting back. Maybe my initial goal of eating vegetarian two days a week needs to be reversed and I should try to only eat meat two days a week. Or maybe I just need to be more mindful of my meat consumption, what kind and where it comes from. Either way, I know now that I can do it. I’m not sure I knew that this time last week.