Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The Image of Sacrifice

How many times have you heard comments like these?

"I don't think I could be a vegetarian. I just really enjoy a good hamburger once in a while."

"I think I could probably give up red-meat, but I don't think I could totally cut out chicken and fish."

"You're a vegetarian? What do you eat?"

I hear these comments all the time. And when I really think about them, they point out what may be the single factor holding back the vegetarian movement: the image of sacrifice. Simply put, the public at large sees vegetarianism as entailing major sacrifices. And until the perceived personal benefits of being a vegetarian outweigh those perceived sacrifices, the public will go right on eating meat.

Take, for example, the question of "what do you eat?" I bet most vegetarians don't have a ready answer that sounds at all appetizing to a meat eater. When I'm asked the question, I usually give some vague response that conveys no information at all if I'm lucky, and gives the totally wrong impression if I'm not. The fact is most meat eaters have no idea what vegetarians eat to stay alive. They usually associate vegetarians with "weird" foods like sprouts and (God help us!) tofu.

"Let me get this straight," the meat-eater thinks to himself after you've tried to explain your vegetarian diet. "In order to be a vegetarian I have to give up that juicy T-bone steak hot off the grill. But instead I can eat 'tofu'—that sickly white stuff floating in murky liquid I once saw in the back of a grocery store and gagged at the sight of." To many meat-eaters, starvation sounds better. In fact, to many meat-eaters, starvation on a vegetarian diet sounds like a real possibility.

"If I make this supreme sacrifice, what do I get out of it?" the meat-eater asks. Again, the average vegetarian (myself included) will respond with some esoteric answer about cholesterol and toxins in meat. He'll probably continue for ten minutes more with a rationalization of how, if the meat-eater is careful, he can replace all the protein he's given up by doing without meat in the first place.

"Let me get this straight," the meat-eater thinks. "To be a vegetarian I have to give up the steak I love and replace it with a piece of awful-tasting rubbery tofu. But you're telling me it's all worth it because, if I don't starve to death in the meantime, I'm going to feel better when I'm 85."

This example may seem to be an exaggeration, but it's not much of one. Most people realize there are some advantages to being a vegetarian, but the perceived sacrifice of that kind of diet change is so overwhelming that vegetarianism is never seriously considered.

How do we change all this? Quite simply, we have to dispel the image of sacrifice. When I gave up meat, there was no sacrifice involved. I thought there would be because I really liked the taste of meat. But to my surprise it turned out to be no problem at all. I found that most of the flavors I enjoyed and associated with meat really weren't in the meat at all, but merely on top of it. I could still enjoy them. And by being liberated from a meat-at-every-meal regimen, I had both the opportunity and the motivation to try a whole variety of new foods and flavors I would never have been exposed to had I not become a vegetarian. I liked my new diet from the start. I even liked tofu. And it didn't take long before I'd come full circle, and the thought of eating meat started to seem pretty darned revolting.

Maybe my experience is unusual, but I don't think so. I'd be willing to bet that there are literally millions of other converted vegetarians out there who feel the same way I do. We haven't made any sacrifices for vegetarianism—we love it!

Maybe the appropriate response when someone asks you what you eat is: "Anything I want to!" Vegetarianism isn't a sacrifice—it's fun. As soon as people find that out, they'll want to join us. Let's tell the world!

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

“Almost a Vegetarian”

[Note: This was one of the very first On or Off the Mark columns—obviously and embarrassingly from my pre-vegan days!]

The “almost” vegetarians—I seem to meet them everywhere. For example the scene might go something like this:
I’m out to lunch with a new business acquaintance, and in the process of ordering it becomes obvious that I’m a vegetarian. (“I’ll have a ham and cheese on rye, hold the ham.”) When the waitress is gone my lunch companion says: “So you’re a vegetarian?”
“Yes,” I reply.
“ Do you feel better?” he asks, as if I’d only given up meat two days ago.
“Yeah, I think so,” I answer. I’m trying to remember how I felt 10 years ago.
It’s then that he hits me with the all-too-familiar line: “I’m almost a vegetarian myself,” he says.
“No kidding!” I try to feign surprise. “Boy, that’s great!”
“Yeah,” he says. “My wife and I hardly even eat meat. Mostly just chicken and fish.” Then he suddenly remembers the roast beef sandwich he ordered for lunch. “When I’m out is about the only time I ever eat meat. Yeah, I’m pretty much a vegetarian.”
“Do you feel better?” I ask.
This scene, or some variant thereof, repeats itself at least once a week. A good 75% of the people who discover I’m a vegetarian volunteer that they are “almost vegetarians” themselves. If half of the people who claimed to be vegetarians really were, the meat industry would be begging for our mercy.
I always have to suppress a smile when I find a new “almost” vegetarian and talk to him about his “vegetarian” diet of chicken and fish. There is a lot the general public has to learn about vegetarianism.
But the point of this article is not to make fun of “almost” vegetarians, but to thank them. They represent the mainstream of America, and they are showing themselves to be ever more tolerant of vegetarianism. Perhaps they sometimes still think of it as a health fad, but they accept it nonetheless. And instead of regarding vegetarians as a lunatic fringe, we are a group they want to be identified with.
The end result of all of this has to be good. Good for vegetarianism, and good for the country. Vegetarianism has no absolutes, and any change for the better should be appreciated. People really are becoming more conscientious about their diets. Chicken and fish today—maybe tofu tomorrow.
That’s something I feel better about, don’t you?