When I was 14 years old, I made the choice to become an ovo-lacto vegetarian. I would eat animal products (like eggs and milk) but not meat. It was not an easy transition. My grandfather raised cattle, sheep, goats, pigs and chickens – many of which wound up at the slaughterhouse. I still remember my first vegetarian Thanksgiving. My regal Grandpa Harold was amused. He didn’t think I’d last, and there was no way I was getting the satisfaction of him thinking my decision was anything other than typical teenage rebellion. My Gram was positive that I’d die within a week due to lack of protein — she tried to sneak meat into my food for the next decade. Ron, our farm foreman, was outraged. He told me as I passed him the potatoes, that what I was doing was an insult to my family, to our way of life, and directly to my Grandfather. Grandpa’s eyes twinkled. He always did like a little sass.
I did last, though – as a strict ovo-lacto vegetarian for 14 further years, until I moved to Honduras and had to fish for food. I got pretty skinny before I got good at it. I still don’t eat red meat.
Why would I become a vegetarian when bacon tastes so good? Almost every meat eater in my life has asked me some derivation of that question, and I’ve thought about it for a long time. I originally stopped eating meat because my best friend in high school, Karen, quit and got really thin. I was vain and chunky – but that’s not why I kept going.
When I was little, we lived on our family farm. There weren’t a lot of other kids around, and my parents worked all the time. My brother wasn’t born until I was 3, and I really wasn’t keen on the whole idea of having a baby around anyway. At some point, against everyone’s wishes, my Grandfather gave me a young goat to keep me company. Her name was Schwanlea. I spent every minute I could with that goat, and continually freed her when the Rev tried to pen her up. She got on top of the cars and ate the garden. She ate everything. When my little brother started to toddle, I taught her to run at full speed across the yard and knock him diapers over tea kettle. This did not win me any big-sister-of-the-year awards, and wound up getting poor Schwanlea de-horned. Eventually, we moved away from the farm. Schwanlea stayed behind. I got to see her on holidays, and she always remembered me. Grandpa bred her and built himself a good sized goat herd. I always missed her. I still do.
We moved to Montana first, and then to South Dakota. I recall one winter supper especially. I was maybe six or seven years old at the time, and we were eating weird tasting spaghetti.
“What kind of meat is this,” the G.P. asked.
“Goat,” replied my Mother.
It was one of Schwanlea’s kids. My Grandpa had shipped us the meat. I threw up and cried myself to sleep for about two weeks after that. From then on, I was suspicious about meat. You never know when you might be eating your best friend.
Grandpa always warned us not to name the lambs.
There are many other experiences that made meat distasteful to me, but fundamentally I think that animals are sentient – that they have feelings, that they know that they exist, that they understand pain and feel joy. There is a bitter algebra at play here. How can I eat a chicken and not eat a cow? It boils down to this: everyone has a level. If I can kill, slaughter, and prepare meat without overwhelming guilt or sorrow, then I can eat it. If I’m not morally or emotionally strong enough to do it myself, then I shouldn’t eat it. Killing is a regrettable business. It’s not one that we should hand off to other people lightly, at least I don’t feel that I should. Meat doesn’t come only from the supermarket.
Other people are different. The Rev for example could bottle feed a baby calf while saying, “Oh baby calf, you’re so cute! I’ll eat your face.” And she means it. It would take about four hours of actual hunger before Mom started getting out the cookbooks looking for the best recipe for “Neighbor’s Cat.” Dad (who used to kill badgers with a hammer to protect the farm) seems to think that killing is a distasteful but necessary part of being a man. I know how to fish and snap a chicken’s neck. We all have levels. That we have a choice in what we eat is an amazing luxury.
People get angry with me because I don’t eat enough meat, or because I eat too much. New vegetarians are often preachy. I’m I was insufferable at age 14. What you find out though, is that no matter how vegan you happen to be, there’s someone out there who is more so. This is true of every single vegetarian … except one. That guy has the right to get holier-than-thou on everyone else, but I’ll bet he’s pretty tired from all the foraging.
I once knew a young Buddhist acolyte. He lived in Canada, and every fall on a certain holy day, the monks would go to a local pet store and buy every goldfish. The slow, but joyous procession would march down to the river bank, and set all the fish free at once. Then, having done their good deed, they would turn and dance joyously back to the monastery, the acolytes bringing up the rear. My friend said it took a minute, but that all the goldfish died due to the shock from the cold Canadian water. “Plop…plop…plop…they all floated to the top.” He didn’t think the monks knew.
On the other hand, meat eaters are often just as aggressive, and have been known to literally try to shove hamburgers into my mouth. They pretend it’s a joke. I don’t hang out with people like that twice.
The choices I make in this world – what I eat, what I wear, who I love – are not necessarily an indictment of the way anyone else chooses to live their life. My choices are an expression of myself. You aren’t me. You don’t have to understand. You don’t have to do it, too.
We don’t all fit into the same sized pants. Why would anyone ever think we could all fit into the same lives? Relax. I’m not going to eat you.