Becoming a Non-Vegetarian

A friend I’ve known for a number of years has recently decided to foreswear their vegetarianism, which I would have thought was rather deep-seated, and begin eating animals again. This is common enough that it is not really worthy of note on its own, although I did begin to wonder what it would take for me to make that same decision or—given the society around us and the pressures brought to bear by family and friends—such a non-decision.

I became a vegetarian in the late fall of 1988. I had just moved to the west coast and was living in Victoria British Columbia with my then girlfriend. Both of us had contemplated becoming vegetarians, and we had a few friends who had already made that decision, but we hadn’t made the plunge just yet. The cow-slaughter-bolt-guninstigating factor, as it turned out, was a film called A Cow at my Table (This film came out in 1998, so that makes me unsure which one we watched in the theatre around the corner of our apartment) which was a documentary focusing on current animal husbandry, and in particular showed slaughterhouse practices in gory detail.factory_chickens_unhappy-apha-140812

For my then girlfriend, who was susceptible to emotional decision making, she decided then and there to become vegetarian. I’m not sure how quickly my decision followed hers, but within weeks I had agreed. It was something we had been thinking about for some time, and since our focus was on minimizing cruelty, we were fairly certain of our convictions. I’ve known others who made similar decisions, and yet when offered meat at a family dinner, with the pressure of all those eyes on their meal—ridiculing them if they ate it and also if they didn’t—they often caved. They called themselves freegans sometimes, and others simply didn’t mention the incident.

For my own part, I began slowly. Since my girlfriend and I lived together it made sense for both of us to become vegetarian. I’ve since lived with an avowed meat eater, but even then she ate far less meat, since I did most of the cooking and I was vegetarian. In those early days, within a few months of becoming a vegetarian, I was not exactly strict. I was concerned about cruelty, but I was also aware that food that is thrown away meant the animal died for nothing. I remember eating a tin of sardines that a child was going to pitch. Those moments lessened over the months, however, as I lost any taste for meat that would have made that parsimony palatable.

My then girlfriend lasted for a few years, and then she found an excuse to begin eating meat again. Another friend who was the most avid of the vegan police in our lives, an earth-firster and toxic on the topic, was soon eating free range eggs and then free range chicken and finally browsing the store shelves like any other middle aged person. Most people last a few years when they become vegetarian in their twenties, and soon they give in to the society around them, although—and I think we must be honest about this—their society doesn’t not make the demands they may think it does.

Many people become vegetarian because of health, and for them cheating is no different than avoiding sweets and then chowing down on the Christmas cake. If your convictions have more to do with ethical concerns, cheating carries different implications, however. If your decision to be moral only endures until you see a child drop a five dollar bill, then the ethics themselves come into question.

I’ve been vegetarian for nearly thirty years. I was vegan for a five year period, and I stopped that when I became anemic because I refused to take supplements. In the following year, I took vitamins to make up for my missing or low folate and B12, and ate yogurt and cheese, although I still didn’t drink milk or eat eggs. After a year, once my levels of nutrient were back to normal according to my blood work, I lapsed back into a kind of veganism, although not as extreme. I think one of the reasons I became anemic was that I never cheated. I had all the extremity of youth, so I often went without food if there was a chance it contained milk or egg. Most vegans I knew at the time were not nearly as stringent. Once I decided to be less extreme, I stopped refusing cake and cookies, although otherwise my life was unchanged.

I am still that type of vegetarian. When asked I tell people I am a vegetarian and when pressed on details, I reveal I don’t drink milk, eat eggs, cheese or yogurt. Cake, however, that’s a different question. Drastically cutting down the animal products in my diet has not proved to be a hardship—although I miss pizza—but I am not really a slave to my appetite or that susceptible to the opinions of others. I presumed that they would manage their diet and I would manage mine, and we would both be happy.

The health of my decision can be seen by my most recent bloodwork, which revealed that I have no health concerns at all, even after thirty years of following this diet. As well, as I have alluded to above, my diet does not involve privation. I don’t miss the foods I avoid any more than a steak and potatoes person misses horse meat. Most of the grocery 192259store contains food I can eat, and in fact there is only one narrow aisle devoted entirely to meat. Restaurants in most places in the world either have made provisions in order to encourage more clientele, or are ready to modify existing dishes if asked. My diet is so easy I have scarcely thought about it in the last thirty years.

Only now, that my friend has made a different decision, has the notion floated to the surface of my life again. She has decided to eat meat again, and no doubt felt she was subject to different pressures. Her mother despised what she thought her vegetarian-proteinvegetarianism represented so she would make family dinners that one had to pick through the slim vegetable offerings—once I made a meal on Brussel sprouts—while she childishly huffed and puffed across the table. Her friends as well were not supportive, and by times she had to explain yet again the reasons for her decision. In my case I have rarely had to withstand people concerning themselves with my diet, and I care little what they might say if they feel insecure about their very probably less moral choices, but for my friend, such peer pressure has a stronger effect.

You might think that ethical decisions that someone felt strongly about wouldn’t change quite as readily, that someone who thought hitting homeless people with a car was immoral would not suddenly take to cruising the streets with that express intent, but that also depends on what the person’s true motivations are. If you have learned from your peers that the welfare of animals is not your concern, or that you are more important than the other beings around you, or you yourself have become self-centred and reckless about cruelty, then you might well endure the thought of animal torture so that you can fit in with your friends and family.

That it was the same person who chuckled at the expense of their friend’s husband after the relationship was over, who was soon eating meat although he had been an avid—and if the truth be known a rather annoyingly judgemental—vegan, is merely sadly ironic. Her keenness to know how soon his veganism lapsed as the relationship crumbled and the great satisfaction she expressed when it did, are now mere footnotes that document of how little we actually know ourselves.

I doubt now that I will find myself in the same situation. I made the decision to become a vegetarian when I was twenty-five, like many others I have met over the years, but untroubled by the opinions of others, and possessing friends of a higher calibre, I’ve never had to worry about their scorn. My diet is balanced—in fact it is universally acknowledged that the vegetarian diet is healthier than eating meat—so I don’t have the pressure of doubts about my health. Living in urban Canada I have more than enough access to food stores and restaurants, so I never have to go without and thus subject my morality to gnawing hunger.

I can’t quite manage the derision my friend used to have for the lapsed husband, for I have seen vegetarianism come and go in dozens of my friends and acquaintances. Although it is hard to imagine, there might even come a moment that I will reverse a decision I made over half a lifetime ago, although that seems doubtful now. Mostly, I still have at the core of my personality a lack of worry about how others live their life. Her diet is her own concern, and I think little enough about the way I eat that I have nearly forgotten that others make a different choice.

About Barry Pomeroy

I had an English teacher in high school many years ago who talked about writing as something that people do, rather than something that died with Shakespeare. I began writing soon after, maudlin poetry followed by short prose pieces, but finally, after years of academic training, I learned something about the magic of the manipulated word.
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