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Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Living in Harmony with Vegetarians

Living in Harmony with Vegetarians
By Alison Green
The Washington Post, 8/25/95

I concluded, after careful consideration, that eating meat was incompatible with my values, even though I loved meat and didn't care much for vegetables. I was sure my tastebuds would rebel, perhaps hold a beansprout or two hostage in my mouth until I paid a ransom of a burger or strip of bacon.

Happily, it didn't work out quite the way I expected; my biggest problem as a vegetarian has not been the food--which I've found to be delicious and every bit as satisfying as meat--but the bewildering attitudes of my family and friends. Other vegetarians have the same complaints: the weird looks, the silly questions, the hostile interrogations. It seems vegetarians--12 million of us in the U.S. and growing daily--are a sadly misunderstood minority indeed. Thus, I've devised ten simple edicts for meat-eaters in their dealings with vegetarians:

Rid yourself of the idea that vegetarians are spartans who subsist on raw carrots and bean sprouts. The question I hear more than anything else is "What do you eat?" This one baffles me; how would anyone with a reasonably varied diet answer that? I eat spaghetti, stir-fry, hummus, stew, raspberry sorbet, minestrone soup, salads, bean burritos, gingerbread, lentil chili, lasagna, tofu kabobs, waffles, veggie burgers, artichokes, tacos, bagels, saffron rice, lime mouselline, wild mushroom risotto--what do you eat?

Learn some biology. I'm still not sure what to do with otherwise intelligent people who think a chicken is not an animal. For the record, vegetarianism means no red meat, poultry, or fish--nobody with a face. I can't count the number of times waiters have suggested the seafood platter as a "vegetarian" entree.

Especially if someone is a vegetarian for ethical reasons, don't assume they won't object to "just a little" meat in their meal. Would you accept "just a bit" of your cat, or "just a little" of Uncle Jim in your soup?

Quit lobbying for the meat industry. Carnivores seem to think that vegetarians are like dieters and that we want to cheat a little now and then. My father is convinced that if he can convince me of how good his corned beef and cabbage tastes, I'll give in and eat it. Friends try to get me to try "just a bite" of whatever meat product they're eating, on the premise that it's so good, I couldn't possibly pass it up. I sometimes think meat-eaters took their lessons in peer pressure from the bad kids in the anti-drug movies we used to watch in high school. Listen up: no matter how "good" you insist it is, we're not going to eat it.

When a vegetarian gets sick, don't tell him or her it's because of malnourishment. From the comments I hear when I have the flu, you'd think meat-eaters never get sick. When I get sick, there's always someone waiting to tell me it's because of my diet. In actuality, just as there are healthy and unhealthy meat-eaters, there are healthy and unhealthy vegetarians. (And by the way, studies have shown that vegetarians have stronger immune systems than meat-eaters.)

When you're in a restaurant with a vegetarian, have patience--eating out can be a challenge for even seasoned vegetarians. Despite the acceptance into the mainstream of a veggie diet, most restaurant menus are still cluttered with animal products. Some restaurants seem to have nothing but meat on their menus; even the salads have eggs or chicken in them! Don't complain if our attempts at ascertaining the exact ingredients in the minestrone seem like paranoia; experience has taught us these tableside inquisitions are warranted. After years of quizzing waiters and waitresses, I've found that items described as vegetarian often contain chicken broth, lard, eggs, or other animal ingredients.

Don't make faces at our food. Before you scrunch up your face at my soy hot dog or tofu, think about what you're eating. Just because eating animals is widely accepted doesn't mean it's not gross.

Realize we've probably heard it before. One of the funniest things about being veg is the person who is positive that he has the argument that is going to change my mind. It's almost invariably one of these gems:
(a) "Animals eat other animals, so why shouldn't humans?" (Answer: Most animals who kill for food couldn't survive if they didn't do so. That's obviously not the case with humans. And since when have we looked to animals for our standards of behavior?)
(b) "Our ancestors ate meat." (Answer: Perhaps--but they also lived in caves, conversed in grunts, and had very limited choices of lifestyle. Supposedly, we've evolved since then.)

Despite popular opinion, you do not have the right to expect vegetarians to compromise personal beliefs for the sake of "politeness." People who would never dream of asking a recovered alcoholic to try their favorite vodka, or demand that someone who kept kosher have some bacon still think it perfectly reasonable to expect me to eat Aunt Sue's meatloaf because I adored it as a child and she would be ever so insulted if I didn't have some now.

Stop telling us humans "have to" eat meat; we're living proof they don't. People who otherwise respect my ability to take care of myself refuse to trust that I did not make the decision to become a vegetarian rashly. I've done plenty of research on vegetarianism--probably more than you've done on diet and nutrition--and I'm confident in the choice I've made. Are you aware of the studies showing meat-eaters are almost twice as likely to die from heart disease, 60% more likely to die from cancer, and 30% more likely to die from other diseases? I wouldn't be eating this way if extensive research hadn't convinced me that vegetarianism is healthier and more ethical than eating meat; a more appropriate question might be whether you can back up your diet.

Now go forth and exult in your smooth dealings with vegetarians. You might find things so harmonious that you'll want to try vegetarianism yourself.

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