Saturday, July 16, 2005

25 Years in the Life of a Vegetarian

This summer marks the 25th anniversary of my conscious decision to become a vegetarian. Essentially I have been a vegetarian from birth, but it wasn't until the summer I was 6 years old that I said "Mom, I'm going to be a vegetarian from now on."

I did not know how unusual vegetarianism was thought to be until I was 8 or 9 years old, when I started going to public school in a rural area. Before that time, I had attended school at a Montessori and Free School (a European concept that is more liberal than an Ivy League college), where vegetarianism was quite common. I had also gone to a private school and a public school in a Southern University town, and public school in New Orleans.

In the rural public school system in the eighties, I stood out. At that time, around here at least, it wasn't considered cool or unique or socially-conscious to not eat meat. It was just plain weird. With every friend I made, I would have the same conversation:

THEM: You don't eat meat?
ME: No.
THEM: Not even hamburgers?
ME: No.
THEM: What about chicken?
ME: No.
THEM: Not even hot dogs?
ME: No.
THEM: Is it against your religion?
ME: No.
THEM: Is it because you love the animals and you don't want to hurt them?
ME: No.
THEM: Then why?
ME: Because I want to be just like my mom.

Its true. That really was the reason I made the conscious decision to not eat meat. My mother did not force me to not eat meat. She just never served it. I spent summers in Virginia as a child though, and I'm sure there were times I ate meat when I visited my father and his family (they REALLY thought vegetarians were weird). I can't be positive that I actually ate meat though, because I can't recall what it tastes like and I don't have any real memories of eating it.

During the summer I was 6 years old, mom and I drove to California, ostensibly to live there, though we only lasted there a month or so before we went to Louisiana. On the drive back East, we stopped at a grocery store to stock up on cheese & crackers, our favorite on-the-road-meal. I remember watching mom go into the store (it was the seventies and it was still okay to leave your child in the car for 2 minutes while you went into a store) and thinking that I wanted to be just like her when I grew up. When she got back to the car, I told her. I don't remember what she said. As a matter of fact, the whole memory could be faulty. I was, after all, only 6 years old, and it was 25 years ago, but I like the way I remember it.

I was never sorry that I was a vegetarian, and the way others reacted never made me feel like a pariah; it more of an annoyance at others' stupidity and close-mindedness that bothered me. There were always moments though, especially in middle school when I would try real hard to not advertise that I didn't eat meat. The toughest times were when I would spend the night at my friends' houses and their parents would get so stressed out about figuring out what to feed me. No one ever understood that side dishes were my main dishes. At a normal dinner table with a meat dish and two vegetable side dishes, I would just serve myself extra helpings of the vegetables. The parents were often horrified and would end up ordering cheese pizzas for me. I hated putting people out like that. Mom understood my discomfort, and she also trusted me to make sure I got balanced meals (I was extremely conscious about getting enough protein, which is really the only nutrient that you have to careful to get when you stop eating meat). When I would go on week-long trips with my church youth group, mom would take me to the health food store to buy me a case of protein-rich Tiger's Milk bars to pack in my suitcase. Meal-replacement bars weren't a big grocery-store item back in the late-eighties, and the way I remember it, Tiger's Milk bars were the original to that fad.

By the time high school was coming to a close, my friends came to think it was cool that I didn't eat meat, and I had frankly given up on caring what other people thought about it. Oddly enough, it wasn't until I was in college that I met other vegetarians in my peer group. Throughout my entire 9 years in a rural public school, I don't remember meeting a single other vegetarian.

During my first quarter at UGA, I took a Greek mythology and a drama class, and I worked at a copy shop. I met a whole new group of people and for the first time since we lived in New Orleans, I wasn't the odd duck. Imagine my supreme delight when my friends threw a potluck Thanksgiving dinner a few years later and the main course was a Tofurkey. Every side dish was meat-free, and none of the vegetables were simmered in chicken broth or cooked with a ham hock thrown in for flavor.

Strangely, I realized recently that with the exception of one guy, I always dated meat-eaters. I actually had to do some serious thinking back to even remember if there was one vegetarian that I had dated.

Vegetarian Boyfriend didn't last long though. I remember him as good-looking, lots of fun to be around, extremely interesting to talk to, but flaky. The last time I saw him was at an airport in Venezuela. We had spent two weeks there on a fairly spur-of-the-moment-vacation with another friend of ours, and Vegetarian Boyfriend decided while we were waiting to board the airplane for our return flight that he didn't want to go back to the states yet. He tried to talk me into staying in South America for a few more months with him. It was at that moment that I realized how flaky he was, as I tried to explain to him, slowly and without using big words, that I had to go home. I had responsibilities. Like a job.

It kind of figures. After spending my entire childhood trying to overcome people's preconceived notions that vegetarians are weird hippie flakes, I ended up dating a vegetarian who turned out to be a weird hippie flake.

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