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A Vegetarian's Life in a Non-Vegetarian World

Updated on March 13, 2010

A Conversational Survival Guide

After my first year of teaching, I took advantage of the summer off and drove across the USA. It may surprise you, but there are people in our modern world that really don't know what a vegetarian is. I stopped at a diner deep in the heart of cattle country, where healthy eating is trimming the fat off the steak and sopping the gravy with wheat bread instead of white. When I asked if they had any vegetarian dishes the waitress responded, "Oh sure! Turkey or chicken?" 

I smiled politely, shook my head, and ordered what some of my friends call 'rabbit food' (a tossed salad). After a loud clanging of pots and pans, the waitress arrived at my table with a sheepish grin, "The cook tossed the salad alright - all over the floor." Then she leaned in to whisper, "It's probably better anyway. Most people around here don't eat lettuce unless it's on their burgers and I'm sure the stuff was a few days old."

What's a vegetarian to do? I was starving and the nearest town was 70-80 miles away. I searched the menu and found the "heart attack on a plate"-deep-fried mushrooms, onions, zucchini, okra... beer-battered whatever. Instead of these or a casket of fried mozzarella sticks (did I just say 'casket'? Freudian slip), I was happy to choose mashed potatoes, homemade macaroni and cheese, and green bean casserole. Not a bad meal, I thought, as a few folks glanced my way from beneath John Deere caps and cowboy hats.

After eyeing this odd stranger for a bit, the waitress yelled across the counter, "You're a veg'tarian? How come you don't eat meat?" The room became silent. Eyes slowly lifted. Trigger fingers itched. My cautious response was heard by all: "Spiritual reasons: each time we ingest the flesh of a once living being, our souls slightly weaken, making it more difficult to achieve enlightenment."

The waitress stared at me blankly, but I felt the booth behind me shake. "You saying I'm going to HELL because I eat MEAT?"

I escaped thanks to the conveniently greasy floor between myself and a very large belt buckle. I realized on my way out that telling the full truth every time in every setting is NOT the best thing. I made a personal pact as I saw a small crowd of flannel shirts and cowboy boots through the dust in my rear-view mirror: to make my explanations for not eating meat fit the circumstances. My next opportunity came a week later.

Northern California, home of the redwoods, Bigfoot, environmentalists and crusaders for legalizing marijuana. I chose a hip-looking café for lunch. After they saw my east coast license plates, an appropriately hip-looking group invited me to join them. This time I was prepared. "I'm a vegetarian because there are people starving to death while we waste 16 pounds of grain to make one pound of beef. Why not use those 16 pounds of grain to make 16 pounds of food?" I felt the warmth of admiration and continued with even more passion, "If Americans ate just 10% less meat, the amount of grain saved could feed the starving of the world." The eyebrow rings and tattoos nodded with approval as they ordered veggie burgers and plates of steamed vegetables. I left this town high on hipness, surfing the sea of cool.

Sometimes, though, no matter what I say, no matter how many points I make, I am wrong. Wrong wrong wrong. Such a time came one evening, as I was having dinner with a friend and her buff, thick-haired, knows-everything-because-his-daddy's-a-doctor, drives-a-BMW boyfriend. When my friend asked if I was still a vegetarian, I was laughed at and subjected to a lengthy tirade about what a complete imbecile I was. After my usual brief explanations were shot down, I had heard enough. I began MY tirade...

"You need to eat meat because you're a serious athlete? The strongest animals in the world - elephants and gorillas to name but two - are herbivores. Studies have shown that most people eat too much protein and this blocks the body's absorption of vitamins and minerals. All amino acids can be supplied by plant sources alone. The ever-important fiber comes only from plants. A vegetarian diet isn't healthy?" I picked up speed. "Vegetarians are less likely to form kidney or gall stones, have lower risk of getting osteoporosis, have drastically lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol and almost no heart disease. Cancer death rates for vegetarians are one-half to three-quarters of those of non-vegetarians. The most respected oncologist in my town is a vegetarian and raised his children that way. Hmmm... I wonder why? Maybe he knows less about cancer and nutrition than you..."

A young woman sitting behind us interrupted: "I'm sorry, but I couldn't help overhearing. I just published an article on chicken farms and the beef industry. If you saw how disgusting and unsanitary things are, if you had any compassion whatsoever for animals, you'd never eat flesh foods again."

I think Mr. Studmuffin was overwhelmed by all the reasons not to eat meat, but he wasn't giving up. He tried another angle. "But what do you eat? There's really nothing but salad and vegetables." He continued his condescending, belittling manner, "What would you do at business or social functions if you don't eat meat? Or you're on the road and in a hurry?" He looked at me as though I'm socially inept.

"Nothing to eat?" It was my turn for condescension. I smiled sympathetically. "The variety of foods is limited only by one's lack of creativity." I spoke with little pause between sentences. I was inspired.

"Let's start with Italian. Any kind of pasta will work. On pizza you have onions, peppers, tomatoes, mushrooms, olives, pineapple... you name it. Mexican-there's nothing better than a free bowl of warm tortilla chips and salsa while I wait for my bean burrito, cheese and onion enchilada, refried beans, and Spanish rice. Chinese? Vegetable Lo Mien, vegetable stir-fries--broccoli, snap peas, leeks, carrots, those tiny corn cobbies served over rice... even egg rolls. Oh, and don't forget Indian restaurants.

"But if I have a meeting in a good old hot dogs, apple pie establishment? Hmmm... I love grilled cheese and tomato sandwiches. And soup... do I love soup! Tomato, broccoli and cheese, corn chowder, cream of potato, vegetable rice, minestrone, lentil...

"You can order a submarine sandwich - or 'grinder' if you live in the northeast - and fill it with lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, mushrooms, cucumbers, carrots and olives. You can completely forget that you used to put a slice of meat on the thing.

"You've got breads and grains in general. You've got hummus, peanut butter, nuts, legumes... sorbet, frozen yogurt, watermelon, bananas, strawberries... I shouldn't mention some foods but I will: chocolate, cinnamon rolls, donuts, ice cream, potato chips, biscuits, baklava, cheesecake, pudding...

"While we're on the subject of deadly foods, what options does a vegetarian have in fast food restaurants other than french fries and salad? Veggie Whoppers and grilled cheese are on some Burger King menus, along with the BK Veggie. McDonald's cheeseburgers are actually quite good without the meat. Wendy's once offered vegetable pitas and baked potatoes. Kentucky Fried Chicken has corn-on-the-cob, mashed potatoes, green beans, and excellent potato wedges. You can order Taco Bell bean burritos, rice, and Nachos Supreme or Mexican Pizza without the meat.

"And if you can't live your life without the taste of meat, vegetarian 'meats' now taste so much like the real thing you'd be hard-pressed to tell the difference. Chicken patties, chicken nuggets, hamburger patties, ham and cheese rolls, sausage, bacon, hot dogs - you actually know what's in the veggie ones - and more."

By the time I'd finished, I had an audience begging for more and a BMW guy openmouthed and speechless. I left the premises amongst applause and with the satisfaction of knowing that another opinionated butt-wipe finally has a clue.

My former mother-in-law (notice the transitional element) was annually offended that we don't eat her slaved-over-for-hours Thanksgiving turkey. She had often chided me for raising my children as vegetarians. "You should let them eat right until they are old enough to decide on their own." My response is that I wholeheartedly agree! When my children are old enough to increase their chances for disease by choosing less healthy foods, they can do so. Until then, I have the responsibility of providing them with their best chance for good health.

I'll admit that before switching some ten years ago, I thought that being a vegetarian meant I would eat only salads, tofu, fruits, and bread. I thought that I would die of meat-withdrawal symptoms, quickly tire of leafy green vegetables and go crazy as I fruitlessly (no pun intended) search for places to eat. On the contrary, I've found that it's actually quite easy to simply not add meat to my meals.

And if you're ever deep in the heart of cattle country and you find yourself waist-deep in cowboy boots and belt buckles, remember the lessons learned; cater your answer to those around you, starting with your love for your mother: "My mother died just last year from eating bad meat, OK?"


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