Life in a Non-Vegetarian World:
A Conversational Survival Guide
After my first
year of teaching, I took advantage of the summer off and drove
across the USA. It may surprise you, but there are people
in our modern world that really don't know what a vegetarian
is. I stopped at a diner deep in the heart of cattle country,
where healthy eating is trimming the fat off the steak and
sopping the gravy with wheat bread instead of white. When
I asked if they had any vegetarian dishes the waitress responded,
"Oh sure! Turkey or chicken?"
I smiled politely,
shook my head, and ordered what some of my friends call 'rabbit
food' (a tossed salad). After a loud clanging of pots and
pans, the waitress arrived at my table with a sheepish grin,
"The cook tossed the salad alright - all over the floor."
Then she leaned in to whisper, "It's probably better anyway.
Most people around here don't eat lettuce unless it's on their
burgers and I'm sure the stuff was a few days old."
What's a vegetarian
to do? I was starving and the nearest town was 70-80 miles
away. I searched the menu and found the "heart attack on a
plate"-deep-fried mushrooms, onions, zucchini, okra... beer-battered
whatever. Instead of these or a casket of fried mozzarella
sticks (did I just say 'casket'? Freudian slip), I was happy
to choose mashed potatoes, homemade macaroni and cheese, and
green bean casserole. Not a bad meal, I thought, as a few
folks glanced my way from beneath John Deere caps and cowboy
After eyeing this
odd stranger for a bit, the waitress yelled across the counter,
"You're a veg'tarian? How come you don't eat meat?" The room
became silent. Eyes slowly lifted. Trigger fingers itched.
My cautious response was heard by all: "Spiritual reasons:
each time we ingest the flesh of a once living being, our
souls slightly weaken, making it more difficult to achieve
The waitress stared
at me blankly, but I felt the booth behind me shake. "You
saying I'm going to HELL because I eat MEAT?"
I escaped thanks
to the conveniently greasy floor between myself and a very
large belt buckle. I realized on my way out that telling the
full truth every time in every setting is NOT the best thing.
I made a personal pact as I saw a small crowd of flannel shirts
and cowboy boots through the dust in my rear-view mirror:
to make my explanations for not eating meat fit the circumstances.
My next opportunity came a week later.
home of the redwoods, Bigfoot, environmentalists and crusaders
for legalizing marijuana. I chose a hip-looking café
for lunch. After they saw my east coast license plates, an
appropriately hip-looking group invited me to join them. This
time I was prepared. "I'm a vegetarian because there are people
starving to death while we waste 16 pounds of grain to make
one pound of beef. Why not use those 16 pounds of grain to
make 16 pounds of food?" I felt the warmth of admiration and
continued with even more passion, "If Americans ate just 10%
less meat, the amount of grain saved could feed the starving
of the world." The eyebrow rings and tattoos nodded with approval
as they ordered veggie burgers and plates of steamed vegetables.
I left this town high on hipness, surfing the sea of cool.
no matter what I say, no matter how many points I make, I
am wrong. Wrong wrong wrong. Such a time came one evening,
as I was having dinner with a friend and her buff, thick-haired,
boyfriend. When my friend asked if I was still a vegetarian,
I was laughed at and subjected to a lengthy tirade about what
a complete imbecile I was. After my usual brief explanations
were shot down, I had heard enough. I began MY tirade...
"You need to eat
meat because you're a serious athlete? The strongest animals
in the world - elephants and gorillas to name but two - are
herbivores. Studies have shown that most people eat too much
protein and this blocks the body's absorption of vitamins
and minerals. All amino acids can be supplied by plant sources
alone. The ever-important fiber comes only from plants. A
vegetarian diet isn't healthy?" I picked up speed. "Vegetarians
are less likely to form kidney or gall stones, have lower
risk of getting osteoporosis, have drastically lower blood
pressure, lower cholesterol and almost no heart disease. Cancer
death rates for vegetarians are one-half to three-quarters
of those of non-vegetarians. The most respected oncologist
in my town is a vegetarian and raised his children that way.
Hmmm... I wonder why? Maybe he knows less about cancer and
nutrition than you..."
A young woman
sitting behind us interrupted: "I'm sorry, but I couldn't
help overhearing. I just published an article on chicken farms
and the beef industry. If you saw how disgusting and unsanitary
things are, if you had any compassion whatsoever for animals,
you'd never eat flesh foods again."
I think Mr. Studmuffin
was overwhelmed by all the reasons not to eat meat, but he
wasn't giving up. He tried another angle. "But what do you
eat? There's really nothing but salad and vegetables." He
continued his condescending, belittling manner, "What would
you do at business or social functions if you don't eat meat?
Or you're on the road and in a hurry?" He looked at me as
though I'm socially inept.
"Nothing to eat?"
It was my turn for condescension. I smiled sympathetically.
"The variety of foods is limited only by one's lack of creativity."
I spoke with little pause between sentences. I was inspired.
"Let's start with
Italian. Any kind of pasta will work. On pizza you have onions,
peppers, tomatoes, mushrooms, olives, pineapple... you name
it. Mexican-there's nothing better than a free bowl of warm
tortilla chips and salsa while I wait for my bean burrito,
cheese and onion enchilada, refried beans, and Spanish rice.
Chinese? Vegetable Lo Mien, vegetable stir-fries--broccoli,
snap peas, leeks, carrots, those tiny corn cobbies served
over rice... even egg rolls. Oh, and don't forget Indian restaurants.
"But if I have
a meeting in a good old hot dogs, apple pie establishment?
Hmmm... I love grilled cheese and tomato sandwiches. And soup...
do I love soup! Tomato, broccoli and cheese, corn chowder,
cream of potato, vegetable rice, minestrone, lentil...
"You can order
a submarine sandwich - or 'grinder' if you live in the northeast
- and fill it with lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, mushrooms,
cucumbers, carrots and olives. You can completely forget that
you used to put a slice of meat on the thing.
"You've got breads
and grains in general. You've got hummus, peanut butter, nuts,
legumes... sorbet, frozen yogurt, watermelon, bananas, strawberries...
I shouldn't mention some foods but I will: chocolate, cinnamon
rolls, donuts, ice cream, potato chips, biscuits, baklava,
"While we're on
the subject of deadly foods, what options does a vegetarian
have in fast food restaurants other than french fries and
salad? Veggie Whoppers and grilled cheese are on some Burger
King menus. McDonald's cheeseburgers are actually quite good
without the meat. Wendy's offers vegetable pitas and baked
potatoes. Kentucky Fried Chicken has corn-on-the-cob, mashed
potatoes, green beans, and excellent potato wedges. You can
order Taco Bell bean burritos, rice, and Nachos Supreme or
Mexican Pizza without the meat.
"And if you can't
live your life without the taste of meat, vegetarian 'meats'
now taste so much like the real thing you'd be hard-pressed
to tell the difference. Chicken patties, chicken nuggets,
hamburger patties, ham and cheese rolls, sausage, bacon, hot
dogs - you actually know what's in the veggie ones - and more."
By the time I'd
finished, I had an audience begging for more and a BMW guy
openmouthed and speechless. I left the premises amongst applause
and with the satisfaction of knowing that another opinionated
butt-wipe finally has a clue.
(notice the transitional element) is annually offended that
we don't eat her slaved-over-for-hours Thanksgiving turkey.
She has often chided me for raising my children as vegetarians.
"You should let them eat right until they are old enough to
decide on their own." My response is that I wholeheartedly
agree! When my children are old enough to increase their chances
for disease by choosing less healthy foods, they can do so.
Until then, I have the responsibility of providing them with
their best chance for good health.
I'll admit that
before switching some ten years ago, I thought that being
a vegetarian meant I would eat only salads, tofu, fruits,
and bread. I thought that I would die of meat-withdrawal symptoms,
quickly tire of leafy green vegetables and go crazy as I fruitlessly
(no pun intended) search for places to eat. On the contrary,
I've found that it's actually quite easy to simply not add
meat to my meals.
And if you're
ever deep in the heart of cattle country and you find yourself
waist-deep in cowboy boots and belt buckles, remember the
lessons learned; cater your answer to those around you. "My
mother died just last year from eating bad meat, OK?" And
then cry. Crying while mentioning your mother ALWAYS does
© 2001 Rob Daugherty