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Essay: It’s easy to be a vegetarian now; why does it feel so uncomfortable?

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 6/11/2019 10:00:32 PM
Modified: 6/11/2019 10:00:26 PM

When I was a kid, I spent my summers at a little cottage on a lake about halfway between here and Concord. We weren’t wealthy summer folks — my parents had inherited the cottage from an adopted uncle — so it was a semi-big deal when the five of us walked single file down Route 114 to the Dog House, a take-out joint not much bigger than the boats out on the water, to fill up on hamburgers and hot dogs after long days of swimming and scrambling around in the woods.

The little eatery, with its umbrella-shaded metal tables and huge hand-painted hound, is long gone, but every summer for the past several years the hamburgers and hot dogs have returned for one weekend as part of a fundraiser for the lake’s property owners association. Old friends, newcomers and passersby gather at picnic tables beside the water and the scent of sizzling burgers and dogs — that most American of smells — settles over the lake.

It’s times like these when I really feel the weight of being a vegetarian.

Practically speaking, it’s never been easier to avoid eating meat than it is in America — or at least in this region — today. But in certain, more abstract ways, it also feels as though calling myself a vegetarian has become more problematic. Lately, I’ve begun wondering if I should even be using a label to describe my eating habits at all.

Once, I imagine, committing to vegetarianism was akin to taking a vow of poverty. It was an anti-establishment decision marked by struggle from both a consumer standpoint and a social one. Saying “no, thank you” to mom’s pot roast at Sunday dinner or a hot dog at the ball game must have taken both guts and willpower, considering the lack of alternatives, and of sympathy.

These days, with alternative meat products proliferating and improving all the time — heck, even Burger King has gotten on the bandwagon in a big way — it’s unusual for a vegetarian to find herself making a meal out of squishy white buns, condiments and potato chips.

Attitudes have changed, too, of course. Meat is no longer, well, a sacred cow at the dinner table for most people. Interestingly, the percentage of people who identify as vegetarian in the United States has remained at about 5% for the past 20 years. But in that time, thanks to documentaries like Food Inc. and Eating Animals, the influence of food writers like Michael Pollan and the growing sense of urgency around all things climate-related, it’s become nearly impossible to ignore the reality that meat production, which contributes to greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation and nitrogen pollution, is detrimental to the well-being of innumerable species, humans included.

In other words, people may not be lining up behind me for the quinoa-and-edamame entree at the buffet, but they’re not staring at me with incredulity or trying to guilt me into eating a slice of ham either.

At least, most of the time.

My dad seemed a little sad the last time I passed up the hamburgers and hot dogs I used to love at the Dog House event. That, in turn, made me a little sad, and it got me thinking about the aspect of being a vegetarian I really don’t like.

We live in an era of heightened empathy toward one another’s values, experiences and hardships, whether those include traumatic events or food allergies. As a society, we’re increasingly conscientious about our choice of words and actions.

I’m an uncomfortable recipient of this kind of care. Unlike many of the groups our society is attempting to treat with more fairness and compassion, I haven’t suffered in any way, and I wouldn’t suffer anything more than a bit of queasiness if I indulged in a hamburger. In some ways, I’d rather quietly eat a mustard-and-pickle sandwich than trouble people to make me something satisfying and meatless.

But most of them do.

Obviously, there are also those who bristle at the demands of this new era or grow weary of them. They miss the days when you ate what was put in front of you and soldiered through difficulties without complaint. I’m uncomfortable calling myself a vegetarian around them too, not because I’m timid about my choices but because I see how the label is just one more way of sorting ourselves into tribes who look askance at one another.

Besides, I’m not sure how well the label really functions in today’s world. If the past few decades have taught us anything as consumers, it’s that our food choices are fraught with complexities. One person may be a committed vegetarian but turn a blind eye to the effects of factory-farmed eggs and dairy products. Another may partake in meat but only when it’s produced humanely and sustainably. Still another may avoid meat except on weekends, or, like me, make the occasional exception for a special event or unusual situation.

I visited a food history class at Dartmouth College a few weeks ago, and while there I listened to a student’s podcast about the social challenges of being a vegetarian. She explained that she sometimes eats meat if it meets her ethical standards or when special traditions override her personal code, but that telling people she’s a vegetarian is generally just easier than trying to explain the nuances of her diet.

Lately, I’ve been thinking of taking the opposite approach. There is no law requiring me to produce my vegetarian card when I order a veggie burger. There is no reason I can’t bypass a crock of beef chili without explanation. And if I’m content eating side dishes, is there any need to request a meat alternative?

At the same time, diving into those nuances can sometimes be valuable. There are no easy answers to the question of what to eat. It is nearly impossible to live a life that harms no living creature and does no damage to the Earth. We all have to draw our ethical lines somewhere and then try to live within those lines consistently.

In my case, the term vegetarian goes too far, and also not far enough. It implies a virtue that, in light of our current farming practices, rings fairly empty, and it oversimplifies an issue that’s critical to the future of the planet.

I can’t describe my stance on consuming animal products in a paragraph, much less a word. And that’s fine. If there’s any place we ought to be having thoughtful, in-depth conversations about what matters to us, it’s the dinner table.

Sarah Earle can be reached at searle@vnews.com or 603-727-3268.

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