I’m a vegetarian, an almost-vegan these days (How you doin’ oatmeal chocolate chip cookies from Potbelly?). I’m a shy vegetarian, though - not because I’m ashamed or embarrassed, but because I realize what a lightning rod the word “vegetarian” can be.
Case in point: I was at a friend’s potluck a few months ago. I brought my vegan mac ‘n cheese, which everyone seemed to like even before they knew what was in it. Eventually someone mentioned the lack of dairy in my dish, and then this guy meandered over to me and said: “So you’re a vegan? You know that cows want to be milked, right?”
Whenever somebody starts to defend modern animal agriculture I get a little tickle of excitement in my gut because I loves me a good debate about the merits of vegetarianism. Seriously, I have several vegan cookbooks in my pantry; I attended a seminar with the founder of Farm Sanctuary and summarily adopted (symbolically, of course) one of their goats for Christmas; I subscribe to at least a dozen farm animal protection groups on Facebook; and I’m hoping to some day memorize this epic speech by Australian Philanthropist Philip Wollen in a debate called “Animals Should Be Taken Off the Menu":
So bring. it. on.
But, I had just met this guy, so I bit my tongue and responded diplomatically, “That’s just not true, but we don’t have to get into all of that right now. Tell me more about where you grew up?”
Deep down, I love when people want to talk to me about vegetarianism. That you care about where your food comes from, even if you disagree with me, makes me smile on the inside.
But I stay mum on the outside. I usually bite my tongue at these kinds of provocations because I never want people to feel like I’m different from them because of my food choices. That’s a very common complaint about vegetarians, isn’t it? That we think of ourselves as “better” than meat eaters. However, I think this defensiveness quietly asserts the opposite. Slaughtering animals for human consumption has been and always will be a violent, guilt-inducing act, especially nowadays. We all cringe at undercover PETA videos, and free-range eggs and organic meats have a growing market share because, deep down, everyone cares about animal welfare. We are all compassionate; we are all “better.” As a vegetarian, I may be more consistent with my values, but my values match yours. We are the same.
The biggest reason I bite my tongue at questions about my food choices is because I’m starting to realize how divergent opinions can reinforce each other. I leave my vegetarian dish to do the talking for me at the dinner table because the best way to get people to eat less meat might be to stop trying to convince them. I'll explore that idea in my next post.