Last night I had a dream that I ate a chicken nugget. I was a vegetarian in my dream, too, but I was hungry and it was easy and I thought “It’s just a chicken nugget.” It tasted disgusting. I ran outside and spit out the masticated bits of ‘meat,’ bent at the waist over a railing. I woke up with that same bad taste in my mouth.
In a way, this dream exemplifies how I feel about food since I quit eating meat back in November. The ignorance is gone from my dining experience. It is simultaneously liberating and imprisoning, but ultimately, I feel, one of the best decisions I’ve made. Gone are the days of ignoring the idea of meat as an animal so I can enjoy my food, or blindly grabbing whatever cafeteria option seems most convenient, delicious, and filling.
Food is thought, now. Food is entirely conscious. I know what I’m putting into my body and I want to feel good about it. I don’t want to have to pretend that I’m not eating a once-living being, from an industry that is, on the whole, harming our environment immensely and practicing blasé cruelty. I don’t want to pretend that all meat is created equal, that it can’t harm my health as well. I had never pretended in other areas of my health and life, so why here? Why did I make an exception for meat?
I guess it was partly cultural. Meat is a staple. Having meat in a home used to be a special occasion for many families; it still is for some, but most households eat meat at least a few times a week. Holidays are built around food—meat, specifically. Turkey for Thanksgiving, ham for Christmas, hot dogs and burgers on the Fourth of July. There’s also gefilte fish for those of us in the Jewish faith (but actually no, because there has not and will not ever be a Passover seder during which I ingest gefilte fish). Meat pervades our society; it is seen as a necessity for most meals and the main source of our protein. I’m generalizing a bit, yes, but I feel it is the overarching thought of food in America: we need meat.
It’s incredibly easy to be ignorant of the issues. Last spring, Jonathan Safran Foer, the author of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, came to speak at my college. It was and still is my favorite book, so I couldn’t wait to hear him talk about his experience with it. He did, and then some. But then the conversation shifted to center on his nonfiction book, Eating Animals, in which he documents his foray into the world of both factory and small farm meat, and chronicles the journey leading to his ultimate commitment to vegetarianism. At the time, I only payed half attention to the questions about this book. I didn’t know anything about it and I certainly wasn’t interested in becoming a vegetarian. I wanted to remain unaware of the issues, because I didn’t want to change my lifestyle.
Fast forward one year later, and that book sits on my shelf, read thoroughly and a permanent addition to my personal library.
So what changed?
For the first couple months of this school year, the thought of eliminating meat in my diet started flitting around my brain now and again. I wanted to know more, but wasn’t sure where to start or if I cared enough. Then one day, at a drama rehearsal, I got into a lengthy conversation with a friend of mine, who is a vegan. She informed me mostly of the environmental impacts of factory farms and the meat industry. I was shocked and disturbed and sad, and it clicked. I started to eat meat with less frequency and did a little bit of my own research online, wondering if I could really do this.
The last meat I ate was turkey. The deli meat, processed kind, with cheddar and mustard on ciabatta bread. It was the Monday after Thanksgiving, and yes, I ate my fair share of turkey then, too. I just… stopped, without a definite decision that it was going to be that day. I didn’t feel like I could continue to eat meat and also stay true to myself and the type of life I wanted to lead. I just could not ignore the consequences anymore.
Since I became a vegetarian, I feel so much better, both physically and mentally. Knowing, of course, that vegetarianism is only healthy if you commit to it being so, I am conscious when I walk into the cafeteria or a restaurant. I pick more healthful options, aware that I have to get enough of all the good stuff without choosing the easy way out. And because I no longer choose ignorance in regards to meat, I can take action against the ignorance in other aspects of my life.
Though it’s far from difficult to accomodate this lifestyle at Vassar, it can be nearly impossible at restaurants. You never notice that every sandwich on the menu starts with the word ‘chicken’ until you don’t eat it anymore. It’s also more pressure when I go to the homes of others. I don’t want to be the difficult one, but it’s too important for me to make exceptions every time I’m not in my own space.
That said, I’m still working out the kinks. I’m not a vegan, and haven’t researched it enough to know if it really is the right choice. I have an intense love affair with cheese, so that would be a process, though I could see it happening at some point in the future. I’m also a big lover of travel, and am currently unsure if I would keep up the strict vegetarianism in foreign countries. I mean, the culture! But I haven’t faced it yet. We’ll see. I’m absolutely not perfect, but I’m still in the young stages of this decision, and I’m constantly reading and learning.
I’m not here to judge or preach, just to share. For some, meat would be incredibly difficult to give up. For me, it wasn’t. And I am all the better for it. It worked. For me. What I am passionate about, though, is the education. I spent many cognizant years actively turning a blind eye to the seedy meat industry, the suffering of animals, and the detrimental effect meat could have on my health. I think everyone should, at the very least, know what’s going into their body and how it got to their plate.
I cannot see a time in the future that I won’t consider myself a vegetarian. If I get to study abroad in Russia next semester, I might choose to sample some cultural delights, but I won’t completely give up the lifestyle I’ve spent many months cultivating and adjusting to. It’s a responsibility I’ve taken upon myself, and I’m finally at peace with my food.
by Sarah Zickel