Food is deeply personal –- what we eat and why is something that people feel quite strongly about. I know many friends who define themselves by their choices: Kosher, Vegan, Vegetarian, Pescetarian, omnivores, carnivores, Halal, raw, Paleo… the list could go on and on.
Because while food is personal, it’s also social. Food is something people gather around (we all need to eat), it’s a cultural marker and for a lot of people, it’s a way for us to show love and affection. When those two sides of food intersect – the intensely personal choices we make and the social settings in which food is often a centerpiece – things can sometimes turn sour.
In his article on Slate entitled “Chicken Stock Doesn’t Count as Meat,” J. Bryan Lowder wrote about the need for vegetarians (and vegans) to be more flexible in their eating habits. He described a scenario in which, when cooking dinner for vegetarian friends, he accidentally added chicken broth to the risotto. His partner witnessed the mix up, suggested throwing it out, and when he refused, was horrified at the prospect of deceiving their friends.
Without going into too much detail about Bryan’s feelings on chicken broth versus vegetable broth, the artisanal nature of his own personal recipe and the percentage of chicken “materials” actual in a broth, Bryan’s basic takeaway was that the vegetarians should stop being difficult and just eat the damn thing. In his mind, the broth isn’t actually meat and so therefore should be a non-issue.
Though the article itself made me angry (and judging by the number of comments, it enraged quite a few people), it also made me think a lot about food choices and how those choices impact our interactions with people who may not necessarily share our same viewpoints.
As a bit of context, I eat a mostly vegan (about 90-95%) and completely gluten-free diet, though I struggle with the idea of boxing myself into categories. Writing that out I can hear the questions in my mind: How? Why? What on earth can you even eat?!?! I don’t usually talk about my food choices because frankly I get a lot of those questions and they’re not always posed in a nice way. In fact, many people can be quite hostile about it.
I get it – my choices might seem strange. They might seem restrictive (hell, sometimes even I feel this way, which is why I try as much as possible to be flexible with myself - hence the “mostly” vegan). And sometimes when people see others making choices that are different and in some ways opposite to their own, they internalize those differences as a judgment about their own decisions – which it’s not. In the time since I started to phase animal products out of my diet, I’ve encountered just as many enraged meat eaters as I have self-righteous vegetarians/vegans (not all vegetarians are assholes – just ask Kate).
As for why I eat this way – it’s something that’s evolved for me over time. Eggs have always been take-it-or leave it for me. Dairy made me feel sick and made my face break out. I’ve never been a huge red-meat eater and pork products aren’t appealing either (yes – even bacon!). Chicken was something I enjoyed, but when I started living alone, it became a hassle to buy, freeze and cook for myself. Plus, my own personal understanding of environmentalism made me question my impact on the larger ecological system through my meat consumption.
Though the switch off from meat was relatively painless for me (I honestly don’t miss it at this point, which I know is not the case for everyone), it’s not easy being vegetarian. It requires a good deal of planning to make sure I get enough protein and the right balance of nutrients to support my long-distance running habit (see Zoe’s article on B12 deficiency).
But like I said – it’s not easy. It’s not a decision I made lightly either, as I’m sure it isn’t for most vegetarians, vegans, people with religious dietary restrictions, Paleo eaters, insert-your-own-personal-way-of-eating-here. Consequently it’s hurtful to regularly have those choices called into question (or worse, dismissed outright as being silly) by people who supposedly care about us. Which is why I think Bryan’s article made me so angry. It wasn’t so much c they’d likely be none the wiser, but wow – how insensitive.
Yes I get that compromise isn’t a one-sided deal: sometimes when I go out to restaurants, I eat fish. It’s hard enough as it is finding a location that multiple friends will enjoy and if I’m the only outlier, I’m willing to flex on occasion. Fish doesn’t make me feel sick like meat would and it’s something I do still enjoy on a limited basis.
Also, though it’s not been an issue for me so far, I’d also be okay with eating meat if placed in a situation where I knew my host would be deeply offended if I refused to eat their dish for cultural reasons (i.e. participating in ceremonies, traveling abroad, etc.). That’s not to say that people who aren’t willing to break their diets are wrong (what works for them, works for them) but I am sensitive to the fact that not everyone is going to want to or be able to accommodate my eating habits.
And I try to take it easy on myself. If I eat meat (intentionally or by mistake), I won’t let it ruin my day – life is stressful enough as it is without having to navigate from within a self-created pressure cooker about my food choices.
Recently, I was out to dinner with my partner for pho. I was starving after a few hours of rock climbing, it was cold out, and all I wanted was a giant bowl of soup. We went to our regular location in Cleveland Park, a favorite of my strictly vegan friend Robert because unlike many pho places I’ve come across in DC, they have a tofu and vegetable option on the menu – perfect for someone who fits the profile of an eater like me. Or so I thought.
But this time when I ordered the “vegetarian” pho, the waiter stopped me nicely and said, “It’s not vegetarian – it’s vegetable. The base is chicken broth – is that okay?” I had to stop and think for few minutes. And yeah I considered a lot of the points Bryan mentioned in his article – well it’s already dead, would I doing any harm in eating it? How much chicken is really in the broth? Would it make me feel sick? If I ate it last time without knowing, what would be the difference in making the conscious choice? And probably most important, how much of an asshole would I feel like if I get up and went to a different restaurant?
In the end I decided to eat it. But it was a decision I was able to make because I felt like my choice would have been respected regardless. And that’s all I think we need – to understand that other people’s decisions, however wildly different from our own, don’t need to become active disagreements or debates. It’s a lesson I’m taking particularly to heart as we enter the fall. You see, my mom, a former vegetarian and probably one of the people I look up to most, has taken up a new hobby in the years since she moved to Virginia…
She hunts. ;)