Monday, November 19, 2012

Vegetarian With Benefits

I am mostly a vegetarian.

I did not grow up vegetarian.  I grew up in southwest Missouri, in the kind of small town where being a vegetarian isn't cool.  In fact, it's practically un-American.  Saying that I'm a vegetarian gets lots of looks of disbelief, pity, and suspicion.  Also a lot of, "So, what do you eat?  Salad?"

So after growing up in the land of burgers and steaks (but never eating much of them simply because I don't like meat that much) I went away (well, a few hours away) to college and sometime during my junior year, I watched an episode of X-Files that took place at a chicken farm in Arkansas.  I'll spare you the details, but it totally put me off chicken, which was pretty much the only meat I liked to eat anyway, except for the occasional fast-food cheeseburger.  My quasi-boyfriend-at-the-time said, "All meat factories are like that." (As in, disgusting.)  So fine.  It put me off all meat.  No burgers either.  I quit eating anything with a face for an entire year.  Then one day the campus dining hall had toasted ravioli on the menu and my St. Louis-native friends gushed about how amazing they were and so I ate some toasted ravioli.  Delicious?  Yes.  Turns out ravioli, like pretty much everything, is scrumptious when it's breaded and fried.

But late that night, I woke up itching all over and wheezing when I tried to take a deep breath.  My suitemate ended up driving me to the hospital, as I was covered with hives.  This had happened to me a few times as a kid and we had never connected it to any specific cause except "allergies."  I had pretty bad seasonal allergies when I was a kid, so we just assumed that something in the air had really gotten to me.  This time was no different--it never occurred to me that it would be connected to something I'd eaten.  So I went on, mostly not eating meat but not being strict about "rules" of vegetarianism and then one day my order at Taco Bell got mixed up and I was too hungry to care so I ate something with beef in it and...  back to the emergency room.  Again.  While my face got puffy and hives broke out all over my torso, which made me incredibly embarrassed to have to see the cute male nurse as they ran Benadryl straight into my veins.  At least, that's how I remember it.

Finally I got in to see an allergist who glanced at my food diary (they'd told me to keep one after the first incident) and told me she thought I was allergic to beef.  I looked at her in total disbelief. I was raised in rural Missouri!  Beef cows are my neighbors!  I grew up eating meat!

Blood test results came back and confirmed an allergy to beef and pork.

(Looking back on my occasional episodes with hives as a kid, they almost always happened when we were at the farm and had a bonfire.  We always chalked it up to me being allergic to the woodsmoke or something, but now I can see that the hives were linked to eating hot dogs when we'd have a weenie roast.)

So now I had a "good" reason for not eating meat.  I wasn't just being difficult!  I had a real reason that would justify my refusal to eat steak or burgers to all the folks back home.  It was sort of shock, and there was that moment of craving a Sonic cheeseburger just because I knew I couldn't have one, but I'd gone without beef and pork for a year and hadn't missed it.  In fact, the longer I went without meat, the more meat grossed me out.

So I officially quit eating beef and pork because of my allergy, which was no sacrifice at all.  (Fact:  Toasted ravioli is just as good when it's cheese ravioli).  And I gave up poultry again because it just seemed gross.  Plus around this same time they were coming out with the books and documentaries about factory farming practices and the inhumane treatment of animals, and it was horrifying.  And then I went to grad school, where every other person in my department was a vegetarian, and it was like I'd found my place in the world with other non-meat-eaters.

Fast forward through those meatless years to a couple of years ago when I read Barbara Kingsolver's book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, which made me more conscious about what I was eating, particularly trying to eat locally and seasonally.  (I do ok with eating locally when David's garden is going strong...  I'm afraid we don't do a good job of eating seasonally in the winter.)  It was also this book that made me reconsider my stance on not eating animals.

I still hate the thought of factory farms and inhumane treatment of animals, but I also understand that certain beasts are essentially made for human consumption.  It's not like a turkey has some other more fulfilling purpose in life.  I guess you could say that I was convinced by Kingsolver's argument that as long as a turkey has had a good life, then harvesting it to eat is not a crime against turkeydom.  So I adjusted my vegetarianism to occasionally eat poultry, as long as it was a local, free range, "happy" bird and I can manage to not be grossed out by the idea of it.

I don't EVER cook meat (gag, gag, a hundred times gag) and if I see David preparing meat, I'm usually too grossed out to eat it.  Ground beef = gross me out.  So eating meat is still a pretty rare thing for me.  I ate it more often when I was pregnant because I worried about getting enough protein.  And I do eat fish--usually just salmon and tilapia.

So, yeah, I will be eating a little bit of Thanksgiving turkey this year, but the side dishes are MUCH more important, obviously.

Some of my friends have asked if Zuzu will be a vegetarian.  I'd say that she'll probably be a vegetarian-with-benefits also.  David eats meat on a regular basis (he usually buys some portion of a free range, grass-fed cow and splits the meat with someone else, so our freezer is stocked with dead animal), so I'm not going to "forbid" her to eat meat.  Often David cooks a vegetarian meal and then grills himself something on the side, so she could try what he's having, but meat will never be the center of her diet (or ours).  But I'm going to be incredibly cautious about introducing it because of my allergies, so I don't know when she'll actually give it a try.

I think the biggest misconceptions people have about being vegetarian is that there is a sense of deprivation, and that it is impossible to plan a meal if you're not planning it around a meat product.  Not so!  I don't miss eating meat on a regular basis at all.  But then again, I never liked meat that much to begin with.

Good news today--I think my appetite is returning.  At least the thought of lunch (a vegetarian lunch) doesn't gross me out today.  That's real progress.


  1. I had no idea your story. Perhaps me giving you hell yesterday spurred today's post. If so, you're welcome. ;)

    Allergic to beef! I've never heard of such a thing. That's wild!

    I don't have a taste for it, either. I think it's rather gross, but have no issues cooking it (because, who cares if it's gross if I don't have to eat it-- my mentality).

    Such different lives we grew up living. It was WAY cool and every other GIRL in L.A. was a vegetarian. Well, not at age 8 like me, but by high school when anorexia took hold (not on me), nearly all girls were vegetarian because that was one less thing they had to eat since eating was the devil or something. I grew up in L.A. I mean... all that was totally normal. Hippie runs deep in my blood.

    I think St. Louis (and the higher education in general) is very hippie, especially compared to Chicago. I am definitely an anomaly around these parts. Maybe that's why I like St. Louis so much. So many veggie options!

  2. I found Kingsolver's argument about eating meat to be very compelling as well.

    We went vegetarian for a while a couple of years ago and it was GREAT. I am sure we could do it again, but the kids are starting to eat a huge volume of food and it would take some doing to fill them up. As it is, we only buy about one unit of meat a week and have several meatless nights, because that is my preference and I am doing all the cooking and deciding, mwahahaha.

    I went to a workshop this summer about teaching sustainability and you can imagine that crowd would include a large percentage of vegetarians. The catered meals were AWESOME. If I had access to food like that all the time, I would go vegetarian in a heartbeat!

  3. Kingsolver's book really woke me up to the importance of being aware of how food was grown and harvested, and I think once you learn that it's hard to forget it. Hence, my pledge to only purchase organic, ethically-farmed meat. Do I eat a lot of meat? No, not at all. But when I do, I want the cow/pig/chicken to have had a good life, and not have been beaten to death on some factory farm floor.

    I also prefer organic, ethically-farmed meat because it tastes better.

  4. 30 minutes ago I was just telling some of my students that I don't really like meat. I could be a vegetarian, or really a pescatarian, if it weren't for that pesky anemia thing. When I was pregnant, I could NOT brown ground beef. Now, I do it reluctantly (but only Trader Joe's good stuff) but I have to force my mind elsewhere while I do it. My boys are allergic to turkey, so odds are, they'll eat PB&J for Thanksgiving. Me? I'll probably throw down on a ton of sides.

  5. In college, some of my friends simply assumed I was a vegetarian because they never saw me eating meat -- this was because it was so expensive! We still eat meat only sporadically, with many of our favorite dishes not involving it at all. (Bacon, however, is an exception. Before we moved, away from one of the best butchers around, it was pretty much an every-other-week tradition to head over to buy half a kilo of lean bacon, sliced. In fact, how to order that was one of the first things I learned how to say in Dutch.) When we do buy meat, it's often stew beef or pork bitlets, that go into soups, stir fries, or fajitas.

    As for vegetarians being "deprived", I can't tell you how many times I've gone to a restaurant which has a set menu (e.g., at a conference dinner or something), and ordered the vegetarian meal because it looked so tasty compared to the fish and meat options!

  6. I have an idea for your next post (you're welcome), but can you give us meat eaters some good vegetarian recipes - perhaps some of David's favorites? I feel that we (ie Miles) eat too much meat and want to do better job of skipping some meat meals but still getting a good amount of protein.

    We belonged to a CSA last year in GA and I loved it. There isn't one here, but I'll be checking out a farmers marker this weekend that I just found out about. We're very picky on our meat - and only buy grass fed beef, organic, applegate-farms, etc, but still wish we ate a little less of it.

  7. I'm glad you are feeling better. I am going on 18 years as an ovo-lacto vegetarian. For me, it's the texture. Kind of like watercress and celery two other things with textures that horrify. I do not eat turkey or chicken, but I will eat duck if it is cooked right. I cannot remember the last time I had it, but if it were put in front of me now. I would devour it. Kind of like pie. Yum! ~missy

  8. We cut most meat out of our diet several years ago both because of our concerns about the food supply system and because we just feel better without it.

    With Eleanor, we found that every time we served meat, she refused it. Our pediatrician told us that if we just kept encouraging her, eventually she would eat meat. But I couldn't help wonder why we would push her to eat something that isn't truly necessary. She has decided that she likes bacon though. Obviously.

  9. I've been doing Meatless Mondays and letting it creep into other days as well. But mainly I'm excited to read a reference to Toasted Ravioli. As a native St. Louisian who's lived out of the state for years & years, that's one thing I miss!

  10. I've been a vegetarian for 15 years because meat is disgusting (personal opinion) my husband has been for about 8 years and our son is definitely a vegetarian. It's easy in California. Even easier in Santa Cruz than Clovis.. But still easy.
    My friend's daughter is also allergic to beef. Crazy. She gets rashy and an itchy throat.

  11. Oh and I like the kingsolover book. A little preachy but mostly fabulous.

  12. Having developed my own food allergies as an adult (would you believe tomatos? -- and I'm married to an Italian??!!), nothing surprises me about allergies anymore. I think sometimes we instinctively avoid eating the things that are harmful to us.

    I am FAR from being a vegetarian -- love me a good steak now & then -- but I don't eat anywhere near as much meat as I did growing up. Dh grew up eating a lot of beans, lentils & pasta dishes with very little meat in them, & he does a lot of the cooking so... ; ) But I don't mind. I don't usually feel like I'm missing out on much.

    I remember reading awhile back that there was a huge uproar in Congress when the department of health (I think?) SUGGESTED -- not mandated, but SUGGESTED -- that people pick one day of the week to go meatless. Now, I don't think I could ever be a total vegetarian -- & I am concerned when young kids decide they are going veggie, because I'm not sure they are informed enough to be sure they're getting enough protein and iron without it. But I don't think that going meatless for one day of the week is going to kill anyone (quite the opposite, in fact).