07/09/2013 02:04 pm ET Updated Sep 08, 2013

How to Break Bread With Vegetarians (You're Probably Doing It Wrong)


The worst time to be a vegetarian is summertime, when enthusiasm for barbecued foodstuffs hits ravenous, critical mass. The sight of grilled, skewered, and slathered meat becomes as ubiquitous as its human counterpart, no longer stifled by sweater weather. All the excitement over ground round and sodium nitrate can make things kind of awkward in the backyard, though, for those who keep to meatless menus. But while vegetarianism may not exactly be "in" each season, one thing that never goes out of style is "not being a dick." That's a lifestyle choice food-eaters of all sorts can agree on.

New acquaintances choose from a diverse buffet of reactions when they discover you don't eat meat. They offer either congratulations, or 'come on, son's. They pat you on the back with pity, or do a complicated high-five where pinky and thumb simulate the interlocking horns of so many cows who are still alive, thanks to you. The word 'vagatarian' might make an appearance, depending on the terrible people you hang out with. Or perhaps nobody cares at all, which is as it should be. Unfortunately, both sides of the meat divide are often lacking in social nuances on the subject -- and summer tends to serve as a multi-month meat-cotillion that keeps bringing them together.

The hardest thing about vegetarianism, aside from forgoing pigs in a blanket at every wedding forever, is dealing with people's preconceived notions. Complicating matters is the fact that those notions are partially accurate. Some vegetarians truly are obnoxious enough to make everyone else -- other vegetarians included -- fall in romantic love with top sirloin and the vampiric sucking of bone marrow. These broccoli jockeys take all the smug superiority of a born-again presidential candidate and combine it with the burdensome responsibility of surprise babysitting. They come across as insufferable souls who crave kale and despise joy, the living embodiment of Jonathan Safran Foer's humorless vegetarian book -- you know, the one that invokes the holocaust in the introduction.

But not all vegetarians are the worst. Some of us are only medium-annoying to be around. When I stopped eating meat a few years ago, I resolved to be as casual and non-fussy about it as possible. Let others spread the gospel, I decided; I'll just be over here quietly enjoying the house salad with artisanal croutons at this Brazilian steakhouse. As it turns out, this is how the majority of vegetarians I've encountered since behave as well. Most of us just happen to be vegetarians, without letting it become our whole identity like scientologists or white people with dreadlocks.

When having dinner with a vegetarian, it's best to assume that this guest is not quietly hoping the discussion will swing over to food philosophies. Still, people rarely hesitate before asking vegetarians why they don't eat meat, as if the answer couldn't possibly transform lively dinner table discussion into a sad symphony of fork-scrapes. They also seem shocked when, unlike the couple that's designated cheating "hall passes" for celebrities or whatever, we haven't left even one kind of meat option as a loophole. "Not even fish?" they might ask, bewildered. Disbelief then leads directly into maternal concern over whether we're getting enough protein, the entire table inexplicably morphing into one hydra-headed grandma.

Even worse than an infantilizing spinach inquisition is the experience of having somebody peg you, in all regards, as hippie ambassador to the animal kingdom. Some people seem downright offended by vegetarians, just in general, and are always looking for ways to prove that meatlessness is meaningless, because animals are going to suffer at your hands one way or another. It's an exercise in futility, though, to challenge a vegetarian on the supposed hypocrisy of eating eggs or wearing leather or whatever. For one thing, pretty much everybody is a hypocrite about something. More importantly, though, it's entirely possible to not be a hypocrite and still be an asshole.

The eating of meat substitutes is especially an entry-point for weird hostility. To some folks, ordering a veggie burger is tantamount to a Brutus-level betrayal of the cause. "If you want to eat a burger, why don't you just eat a burger?" is an actual question friends have directed my way a bananas amount of times over the last few years. It's as though there wasn't a firm bedrock of beliefs preventing me from going H.A.M. on some ham at all times. Asking a vegetarian why he or she doesn't just order meat misses the point entirely, by implying that there is no point. It was probably just such an uncomprehending individual who cruelly saddled the best-tasting meat substitute of all with a name that sounds like that of the fucking devil. (Hail seitan.)

Historically, when I'm pressed about why I don't just eat a burger instead of opting for a burger-shaped object stuffed with replicate material, I will reluctantly offer what the point is, from my perspective. It's a combination of health reasons, empathy for animals, and disgust toward many practices of the industry surrounding their slaughter. Despite feeling this way, however, I can't avoid getting a guttural, almost emotional response to the smell wafting out of Five Guys when I walk past. I'm willing to settle for my sorry-ass substitute, but I'm only human.

Being a vegetarian means having to power through a lot of cucumber sandwich-shaped social hurdles that come with the territory, as well as trying to avoid adding your own. Since we're the ones who've chosen to be different, though, the onus is on us to deal with it. The various sects of vegetarians and omnivores aren't going to make a model UN and forge peace accords any time soon. (Such an affair would be difficult to cater anyway.) But as long as there's space on every smoky summertime grill for a tomato-basil burger, it shouldn't need to come to that. Besides, vegetarians and meat-lovers should consider uniting to chastise a common enemy: people who refuse to eat carbs ever.

This post was originally published on Medium.

Read Joe Berkowitz's last Huffington Post Blog Post here.