True Confessions of a Bad Vegetarian

I was sitting on the outdoor patio of a restaurant last week when a phrase caught my ear. A young woman, dressed very business professional was hobnobbing with a colleague. Before she took a bite of her thick hamburger, she paused to make a notation in their conversation. Something about an issue they were trying to define, and she said, “Let’s put a face on this,” before she bit down hard. And I envisioned a cow’s face, a cow’s head really, a dead cow to be more specific. I’ll leave it at that, but the image only grew more disturbing in my mind. I almost threw my napkin at her. Really, who says the word “face” before biting down on meat?  

All week long I had been paying attention to the things that caught my ear as part of an assignment for one of my graduate courses. But as soon as I started paying attention, it became clear that I’ve been avoiding something. Conviction came a’knockin’. Little reminders everywhere, in the form of sad ASPCA commercials on television and animal rescue emails. I was half surprised that runaway farm animals didn’t start showing up on my doorstep dressed like British street urchins the way the week was going.

After the cow incident, a few days later, I got a letter from PETA in the mail. Of course. I usually throw them right into the trash. I donate money to them now and again, forward an email or sign a petition. But I can’t take looking at what they send me, it only upsets me. But bound and determined to listen, to pay attention this week, I opened the envelope, read every word, looked at every image, and then I sat down to write a confession. It came flowing out and this is it…

Eat it and weep... 
Okay, I give. I can’t take it anymore. PETA sends me things , and I weep over their pamphlets and their flyers and even sometimes over the free little return address stickers that they send me as a gift for contributing.

Sometimes on Facebook, I do things like ask my vegan cousin for advice on how to find sunscreen that wasn’t tested on animals. Not poured into their little eyes while they sit, blinking and stinging, without the faculty to even ask, “Pardon me, but is there a reason why you’re putting human beauty products into my open eyes? It hurts you know.”

But I’m a fair-weather vegetarian, a lukewarm animal activist. I shake my head at the ASPCA commercials, full of righteous indignation. Then I order Reuben Sandwich at lunch. I look for cruelty free sunscreen for days, and when my skin is red and burning and I can’t find it, I give in and buy Neutrogena, silently apologizing to whatever animal was tested on because of a heartless American consumer like me, as though it will make a bit of difference. I trade my burning for theirs.

I did it once you know, stopped eating meat for a year. It was my first order of business on the way to becoming a vegan someday, which they say is a long, slow process. Not long after that, I was scheduled to leave the country on a four month volunteer assignment where I would be living with a Romanian family, who would feed me meat every day. And I should be grateful for it and eat it and not offend them. So before I left, I went to a restaurant and I ordered a burger to try to get my stomach accustomed to meat again. When it arrived, sizzling and hot, well-done, with everything on it, I sat at the table and cried. Like an idiot. And my then fiancée reached across the table and held my hand, while I took a bite out of my well done hamburger, weeping like I was at a funeral.

And I was.

The waitress kept asking if there was anything we wanted, what did we need, but her eyes said, “Dear God please stop crying into your hamburger, you’re freaking all the customers out.”

In Romania, they fed me sausage. Every. Single. Day. Fried and boiled and baked, with bread and pickled fish and omelets and doughnuts, which they considered a main course. Don’t get me wrong, it was tasty and earthy and wonderful. But I thought I would go away on some safari-like adventure, like I was in The English Patient, and come back rail-thin and people would say, “Oh, you poor thing, how you’ve suffered for your cause!” I had a friend who did something similar for four months in India and she came back thirty pounds lighter, looking holy and glowing and touched by the world, the saints’ diet plan. But I came back twenty pounds heavier. From eating sausage, of all things. My family almost didn’t recognize me in the airport.
Our Lord ate fish guilt free...
But he was God, so...
It’s been five years and I’ve never been able to recapture my vegetarianism. If only there were some sort of surgery to restore it. My Mom, also a fair-weather vegetarian used to say, “Jesus ate fish, so it’s okay.” But still, every time I order some at the butcher counter, I imagine them flopping on the deck of a ship. I know they don’t feel. Don’t really think. Don’t form interpersonal relationships. But still...when I imagine them being shoved into the hulls of fishing boats, crowded and clamoring, or when I happen to catch a glimpse at, “Finding Nemo” sitting on my bookshelf, I cringe. I feel bad. Really bad. Not just in a passing way.  

People tell me, don’t go back to being a vegetarian. You’ll embarrass yourself at parties when you can’t eat the main course. You’ll look like a snob. A tree-hugger. Everyone will secretly hate you. My sweet mother-in-law will worry when I go to eat at her place every now and then. Once before I started eating meat again, she served me crab cakes. You know…because I was vegetarian. And the truth is, even back then, I never minded eating what was put in front of me. It wasn’t about forcing other people into my choices; it was about making them when I was on my own. Using my buying power for good at the grocery store, if possible. But the thought of going back to all those awkward social occasions where I can tell that I’m making people uncomfortable makes me nervous. The question is, am I more nervous about social interactions with food or am I more nervous about following my convictions?

Also, if I go back to being a vegetarian, people who hunt will want to pick a fight with me.  I will have to constantly defend myself, saying things like, “I’m not anti-hunting if it’s for meat. I just don’t want to participate in the culture of factory farms or animal testing.”

But it won’t matter if I wear all of my allegedly fair-minded personal philosophies on a t-shirt every day. I’ll irk people.  But I don’t think I care, I can’t take it anymore. Not knowing where my meat comes from, envisioning flopping fish and rabbits with sore eyes and dead cow heads. It has to happen. I have to stop eating meat. Even if it means arguing with the hunters again. Or offending the Romanians someday. Or applying diet restrictions that even Jesus didn’t care to live by…then again, I’m pretty sure there weren’t any factory farms in ancient Jerusalem…