I am not an animal lover. I mean I think they’re great. I am as gentle with our rescue dog as I would be with a child. I take time choosing his food and I care about his feelings and I have compassion. I like animals. I show affection for them and I want to stop cruelty in the form of torture, testing, and neglect. I do care, but I am not that kind of vegetarian. I became a vegetarian because I love people.
I was working at a relatively refined Tuesday night soup kitchen called Dignity Diner. Hungry and homeless people came to be served a meal and to spend time in casual conversation with people who wanted to listen. The Chicago Vegetarian Society prepared the food. Usually they didn’t let the college kids who volunteered into the kitchen. We were allowed to serve and dine with the people but there was a line we didn’t get to cross. They weren’t exclusive or anything, they just had a certain way of doing things and wanted to handle the food, but I soon earned their trust. I showed up weekly and I was open to hearing about the vegetarian lifestyle.
My sister was already a vegetarian and I was really a lover of food in all forms. In fact, in the previous year, when I went on a spiritual journey to find deeper meaning in life (quite a struggle for a 18-year-old who had grown up without any religious experiences at all), I used to frequent the Hare Krishna temple on Sunday evenings just for the free vegan meal. Yum! Don’t ask me what they actually served there. Some things were bright pink and purple and might have been flowers but they tasted like horseradish and love and I couldn’t get enough. As I listened and volunteered myself across the line at the kitchen of Dignity Diner, I knew I was starting a new journey that would last a long time.
I had read Upton Sinclair’s work on the meat-packing industry. I spent time thumbing through vegetarian literature at Healing Earth Resources over vegan chocolate mousse. I even went out to eat at Lawry’s Steak House and refused to touch any beef. I had made some steps. Later that week, however, I ate off the value menu at McDonald’s. I was in process, but I was open to it all.
I really didn’t need much convincing once I started listening to the man with coke-bottle glasses who was liberally tossing the salad with Spike: if the land used to graze animals was converted to growing vegetables and grains, more people could eat. It was obvious to me as I looked around at the hungry and homeless people lining up for the 100 seats at the Dignity Diner each Tuesday that this was important. Later I would figure out that food distribution and population issues would also affect any plan like this. It wasn’t as simple as that. Perhaps becoming vegetarian wouldn’t change the world right away, but there was a benefit to refusing to support an industry that so obviously catered to a certain kind of elite and caused great harm doing so.
The months of hemming and hawing came to an end. I had made a decision. I was vegan for eight years and have not touched meat in the 15 years since I made that decision. My children have been vegetarian or vegan since conception. For our thirteen years of marriage, my husband and I have never considered eating meat. He introduced me to feminist theories surrounding vegetarianism: the hearty meat being reserved for the kings first and then the men and the less desirable veggies for the women and the poor. I saw the connections between the objectification of women and the politics of the meat industry. I saw the correlation between the consumption of most dairy products and chronic health issues. I spent over ten years breastfeeding my four sons until they each weaned as toddlers, so that they would receive the benefits of the milk of their own species.
In fact, only our most poverty stricken years and our second son’s severe reaction to soy products led us to start consuming any dairy products at all. Had WIC and the Food Banks been willing to provide us with rice-based alternatives, I am not sure we would have started eating it all. Even now, we work on adding more coconut and avocado and agave to our diets and less dairy and eggs and refined sugar.
We are gentler than we used to be when asked why we are vegetarians even as we are more and more convinced that everyone would benefit from not eating meat. We have found subtle ways of inquiring about how foods are prepared while still making sure people know that there are vegetarians out there and we aren’t going to “cheat” even once. Vegetarianism is more difficult here in suburban Phoenix where there are less budget-friendly ethnic restaurants and no Chicago Diner (although we love Green and know that we are missing nothing by not having ever eaten “real” buffalo wings).
In the end, we are vegetarians. We like animals. We love people. We believe we are called to a life of loving others and this is one way we can do it. We wish everyone would consider meat-free eating and we will answer when asked about it. We like to challenge people to try new foods and we love that our children beg for broccoli and artichokes and sugar-snap peas. We think the world would be a better place if we all considered the impact of our food the way vegetarians and vegans do and acted upon their convictions. We aren’t weak. We participate in marathons and half-marathons. Our second son is a gymnast. Our children love running the two mile loop around our house. We are healthy and strong and thankful for the lesser negative impact we make with our lifestyle, one small step at a time.