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Principles Before Potsickers (From Foodie to Vegetarian in 10 Not-So-Easy Lessons)

02/24/2012 06:12 pm ET | Updated Apr 25, 2012

On my blog, The Lunch Tray, I made a series of 2012 New Year's resolutions which included trying out vegetarianism for one month (January). Here's the somewhat surprising journey I've taken since then, broken down into ten lessons I've learned:

Lesson One:  Meatless at Home = Piece of Cake (or Tofu)

Going meatless at home turned out to be almost effortless. The transition was probably eased by the fact that I gave up pork and shellfish several years ago (more on that below) and my family only eats meat about 2-3 times a week at home anyway. So all I did was put a bit more thought and effort into my meal planning by creating interesting vegetable and grain pilafs, trying out new vegetarian entrees and revisiting some foods I hadn't had in a while, like tempeh and seitan. I didn't miss the meat at all.

But...

Lesson Two:  Vegetarian + Chow Hound = Oxymoron?

We're a family of avid chow hounds and exploring our city's many great restaurants, from the higher-end eateries to the little ethnic holes-in-the wall, is one of our favorite things to do.

In early January I was challenged right out of the gate when my husband and kids wanted to eat at a burger place we love. Though everything served at the restaurant is house-made, right down to the condiments, there's literally nothing on the menu but burgers and hot dogs. I noticed on the menu that the burgers could be topped with fried eggs, so I made do with a fried egg sandwich; much less successful was my attempt to resist the crispy fries -- finished in duck fat.

But then it got even harder. The next weekend we went to a new Schezwan place my husband had been raving about. I've never been a big burger fan but I adore Chinese food, and while there were a few meat-free dishes on the menu, it just wasn't any fun -- as a card-carrying Foodie -- to feel so constrained while everyone else at the table was exclaiming over their red oil potstickers and spicy noodles with beef.

The end of January couldn't come fast enough.

Lesson Three: Know Your Food Philosophy

A few days later I was making breakfast for my kids and absentmindedly started nibbling on an extra piece of turkey bacon; before I realized what I'd done, I'd eaten the whole thing.  And truthfully, I didn't care very much. I mean, what's one piece of turkey -- and, OK, a little duck fat -- in a month of meals?

And in that moment I asked myself, why not just acknowledge I was a happy "flexitarian" -- someone who just eats less meat  overall -- and leave it at that?  Or, if I really intended to eat meat-free, I needed to be able to articulate to myself the motivation for trying this experiment in the first place.

What, in the end, was my food philosophy?

Lesson Four: My Cat Made Me Do It

I'm embarrassed to admit this to myself, let alone say it publicly, but somewhere in my muddled thinking about vegetarianism lurked an orange and white tabby cat named Clementine.

Here's the back story: Neither I nor my husband were really "animal people" and we were most definitely not "cat people," a class of pet owners I've always regarded with extra suspicion.  But, worn down by years of our kids' nagging for a pet, we made the cold calculation that a cat would require less maintenance than a dog.

We found Clementine in a shelter and while I was initially charmed by her fetching little mustache and limpid hazel eyes, that honeymoon lasted about 24 hours, ending right around the time her undisclosed digestive problems (some genetic, some parasite-induced) manifested themselves all over my floors and carpets.  As the stay-at-home pet owner, it fell to me to manage and medicate those problems, and as I carted yet another baggie of cat poop to the vet for expensive laboratory analysis, I could hardly contain my resentment.  In a crazed moment, I even considered toting the cat back to the shelter (surely there must be some sort of "Lemon Law" for pets?) and just telling the kids she ran away.

But then... well, who really knows what happened? Maybe it was a simple matter of cognitive dissonance.  If you're down on all fours cleaning up the poop of a creature you hate, you're an idiot.  But if you fall passionately in love with said creature, it all makes perfect sense, right?

Three years later, I'm one of those mockable cat owners who doesn't care if their sweater is matted with fur or that their newly upholstered armchair is a very expensive scratching post.  I don't mind rewriting Lunch Tray entries after Clementine has taken one of her unhurried strolls across my keyboard, and at night I'm unable to fall asleep until she's settled into her usual spot, curled up in the crook of my arm, with my poor husband left out in the cold.

And -- yes, because of Clementine -- I'll never be able to look at any animal quite the same way again.  I still remember the precise moment when I realized that pet ownership had fundamentally changed me.  We were taking the rather boring four-hour drive from Houston to Dallas when I looked out the passenger window at a group of cows, a common sight on that stretch of highway.  But for a split second as the car sped past, my gaze locked with a pair of big bovine eyes and I was startled.  It wasn't that I experienced a sudden kinship with this anonymous cow, but all at once I realized that something of Clemmie's nature, the same fundamental... animality, for lack of a better word, was staring back at me.  What I'd previously viewed as almost an inanimate object -- "brown cow by roadside" -- was now inescapably something more.

Lesson Five: Don't Ask Questions You Don't Want Answered

This is where the novelist Jonathan Safran Foer comes in. I had long wanted to read his nonfiction book on vegetarianism, Eating Animals, and since I was now searching for a philosophical grounding for my (maybe) nascent vegetarianism, this seemed like a good time to finally do it.

Eating Animals is a jumble of memoir, humor and philosophy and catchy graphics, but mostly it's a scorching, unstinting expose of factory farming practices in this country, practices which produce 99 percent of the meat we eat. You might think, as I did, that having read The Ominvore's Dilemma and having read or seen Food Inc., there's not much more Safran-Foer could add to this particular discussion.  But you'd be wrong.  The statistics and descriptions he provides, verified by two independent fact-checkers, were astounding. The book was sometimes simply unbearable to read and I was often sorry I'd ever opened it.

But I don't want to share with you the specific details in Eating Animals. And that's because, as I've learned the hard way...

Lesson Six :  Not Everyone Wants to Hear It

As Safran-Foer correctly points out in his book, contentedly eating meat, especially factory-farmed meat, takes a certain amount of willful not-knowing.  The very subject of vegetarianism can make some people uncomfortable, a situation I encountered even during my little one-month experiment.  So if you want to read the book, you know where to find it.  And if you don't, I promise you'll get no judgment here.

Lesson Seven:  Who Knew Lisa Simpson Was a Vegetarian?

Meanwhile, here's what was going on with my kids.  When they first learned of my dabbling in vegetarianism they had the typical kid-centric reaction:  how is this going to affect me?

I assured them nothing in their own lives would change, and I also decided not to expose them to most of the new facts I was learning about factory farming, lest I upset them too much.  (Everyone please take one moment to consider the implications of that sentence.)  In fact, the only tidbit I shared from Eating Animals was Safran-Foer's survey of research on animal intelligence.  I thought my kids, like I, would be tickled to learn about a lady pig who was so eager to visit her pig suitor that she managed to unlock the several gates that separated them, or that fish apparently can recognize each other as individuals and remember which fish can be trusted and which cannot.

But instead of amusing them, I think I inadvertently got their wheels turning: Oh, yeah, that meat on my plate was once an animal.

And then a few days later we sat down together to watch a random rerun of The Simpsons.  In a case of remarkable serendipity, the episode was about Lisa Simpson's journey to vegetarianism, inspired by a visit to a petting zoo.  I thought the episode was hilarious -- until I turned from the TV and saw the stricken look on my kids faces.

Lesson Eight: Putting My Principles Before My Potstickers

As I continued to work my way through Eating Animals, the contours of my food philosophy were taking shape: I decided that I can't ever again eat an animal raised on a factory farm.  Period.

Now, the implications of that statement are seriously painful to me, since I have no illusions that the vast majority of restaurants we enjoy so much (especially the small ethnic ones) are buying anything but factory-farmed meat.  So this rapacious foodie is hereby saying goodbye -- OMG, forever??? -- to lamb biryani, Bosnian sausage sandwiches, those still-untasted red oil potstickers and a host of other delicacies I once enjoyed so enthusiastically. And I'm very much in mourning about it.

Of course, certain upscale or eco-conscious restaurants don't buy factory-farmed meat, and I can always seek out humanely raised meat for my own kitchen. And this leads me to...

Lesson Nine: Going Face-to-Snout (or -Nose or -Beak) With The World's Happiest Animal

Now for the fundamental question has plagued me for the last month and a half: Even if a cow, chicken or sheep had the happiest farm life imaginable, and experienced the most humane slaughter, do I still want to eat it? Because, unlike some people, I don't think it's morally wrong to kill an animal (humanely raised and slaughtered) for food.

One flaw of Safran-Foer's book, in my opinion, is the way he dances around this critical question.  In fact, the most direct answer he provides is not found in the book itself but in an author interview appended to the back my paperback edition.  The interviewer asked if he would eat meat from the "perfect" farm and he replied:

I wouldn't, for two reasons. One, because endorsing the exception is to endorse the rule.  People would see me as another person eating meat. You know, it's like what happened with farmed fish.  Salmon farming was originally created to take pressure off of wild salmon populations... [b]ut what happened was, when more supply was created, there was more demand for while salmon because our eating habits are contagious. There was more salmon on the menu suddenly, and you see your friends eating salmon, and so you eat salmon -- that has more power than does conscientious eating.

There's also the fact that the kind of farming you're talking about can't be scaled.  There's enough humane chicken now raised in America to feed Staten Island, at the rate we're eating chicken... [W]e don't create systems for the exception, we create them for the rule.

Even after my limited experiment, I agree with Safran-Foer that one's eating choices, even if one doesn't proselytize about them, do have a ripple effect. Elsewhere in the book he writes:

As a "solitary eater," your decisions will, in and of themselves, do nothing to alter the industry.  That said, unless you obtain your food in secret and eat it in the closet, you don't eat alone.  We eat as sons and daughters, as families, as communities, as generations, as nations, and increasingly as a globe.  We can't stop our eating from radiating influence even if we want to.

So is that reason enough to avoid the World's Happiest Cow?  That if I partook of the happy cow, I'm still supporting meat-eating at large, which 99 percent of the time is only made possible by a system I protest?

I'm not quite sure how I feel about that.  But I do know that on a gut level adopting a vegetarian diet feels "right" to me at this point in time  -- the same way cutting out pork and shellfish a few years ago, even though I was raised as an secular Jew, also just started to "feel right."  I can't explain either move with much logic and clarity, but since I try to listen to my gut instincts in other aspects of my life, why not do so at the table?

So, for now, anyway, I'm going meat-free.*  I may revisit that decision down the road, resuming the consumption of humanely-raised meat in my own home and from trusted restaurants.  But if my experience with pork and shellfish is instructive, I predict I'll just gradually -- and permanently -- lose the desire to eat any meat at all.

Lesson Ten: Where the Head Cook Goes, The Family Must Follow 

It's just a fact that the idiosyncratic tastes of the parent primarily responsible for food prep will impact how the rest of the family eats. For example, I've never much liked Cajun food, so my family has never seen "blackened" anything on our dinner table and probably never will.

And so it goes with vegetarianism. Whereas before I might have gotten all jazzed up about some Moroccan lamb dish, and then come up with some sides to go with it, now I'm thinking about delicious grain, legume and vegetable dishes and adding meat to the menu (sometimes) as an afterthought. And I no longer have much interest in cooking one-dish meat-based meals like beef stew, since that's going to be a lot of work to create something I can't partake of at all.

So whether they're on board or not, as a practical matter my family's already-reduced meat consumption has been reduced even further. My husband's quite happy with this development; though a Texas-born carnivore, he cares about his health and is happy to eat most of his meat out of the house.  And, interestingly, my kids haven't seemed to notice at all that meat is appearing on the table less often.

Moral Quandaries Yet to Be Solved

Here are a few:

* What about fish?  Jonathan Safran-Foer makes some compelling arguments against eating fish, which of course is also eating an animal.  (In accordance with Lesson Six, I'll let you read these arguments yourself if you'd like.)  But I'm not yet decided on whether I want to eliminate fish from my diet entirely.  For one thing, in the last two months eating fish has made dining out with others -- at least at restaurants with limited menus -- much easier.  So fish, in very limited quantities, remains a part of my diet for now.

Where do I buy meat?  Since I'm still buying some meat for my family, and since I no longer ever want to patronize suppliers of factory-farmed meat, what are my options?  Must I always confine myself to the limited selection at my local farmer's market?  Or can I rely on the Whole Foods rating system which purports to show how humanely animals were raised?    These are questions I'm still working out.

And what about my children?  Ever since I -- and Lisa Simpson! --  inadvertently started the conversation, my kids have expressed some discomfort with the idea of eating meat and are troubled by their limited understanding of factory farming.  But they've also made clear they want to eat all the same foods, including meat, they currently enjoy.  In other words, they're living in the same fuzzy moral universe most American adults find themselves in.

And that's fine with me.

Now, I can hear some of you asking, if you feel so strongly about all this, why aren't you making your children follow suit?  How can you let them eat at a restaurant meat which you strongly suspect was factory-farmed?  My answer is that vegetarianism (or avoiding all but humanely raised meat) is not without some real inconveniences and obstacles.  Eating out becomes more difficult and more limited.  Breaking bread with other people can be fraught.  I have no desire for my kids to shoulder those burdens now, but would rather they observe my example and decide in due course how they feel.  At the very least, they are already de facto "flexitarians," are asking the relevant questions and becoming more conscious eaters along the way.

* * *

So there you have it:  how one blogger -- and (former?) foodie -- went from meat-eater to vegetarian over the course of 30 (well, now almost 60) days. I'll continue down this path for the foreseeable future, and may check back in on The Lunch Tray from time to time to let you know how it's going.

For those of you who managed to read this far, thanks for sticking with me. And I'd be glad to hear what you have to say.