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  • Max Stearns

"Eating Vegetarian"

About five months ago, on July 1, I was driving through Delaware farmland. On several occasions, I found myself behind, or next to, a long flatbed truck layered with rows and rows of jam-packed chicken coops. The birds had nowhere to move. I found it upsetting, even maddening. After the third sighting, I decided I was done eating meat. My family had a planned trip to visit my sister and her family at a beach, so I decided that first week to allow myself fish and to begin the vegetarian diet once that ended, on July 8. I also decided to commit initially to six months, after which I would reevaluate. The six months end on January 8. I can honestly say I’m not sure what I’ll do.

Early on, I enjoyed the challenge and even the novelty. I experimented with some new dishes, including tofu stir-frys, and I acquired a taste for some new vegetables. I was the only member of my family doing this. One of my children had recently come off a very restrictive diet, and I had no interest in imposing another. But this meant that the two of us had little dietary overlap, making it particularly challenging when preparing family meals.

One evening at an event, I was eating across from another professor and her son, both long term vegetarians, and when asked, I explained why I had recently started being one as well, at least for now. I also explained my discomfort in calling myself vegetarian given the time-limited commitment I had made. She wisely suggested saying I was “eating vegetarian,” which I have since done. A colleague told me about a newer meat substitute that tastes remarkably like a well grilled burger. Several weeks later, I saw the item featured on a menu, and ordered it. I was so impressed that I tracked it down to a gourmet market and purchased some to make at home. My mistake was reading a review comparing that brand to another, and explaining that the consistency and smell in preparation reminded the writer of cat food. The evening when I grilled the faux burgers, I was overwhelmed by the sensation that this had to be correct. Although I do not have, and never have had, a cat, I became entirely certain that were I ever to prepare a feline meal, this is precisely what the experience would be like. Suffice to say that I cannot ever bring myself to eat, or prepare, that meal again.

The larger challenges are these: As the only vegetarian in my family, this means preparing special meals much of the time. My family is happy to enjoy some dairy meals, but not for every meal. Pizza and pasta get old. If I make a stir fry, I’ll make some tofu for me, and chicken for them. This is not a huge deal when there is time, but my wife and I both work and have other significant demands. Time is our scarcist commodity. Eating out is also a challenge. Ethnic restaurants, for example, Indian or Thai, work well. But heading out for a more upscale date-night dinner with my wife has been more challenging. I find it surprising that the finer restaurants often have a single vegetarian or vegan menu item, which too often seems an afterthought. Removing the meat from an otherwise well thought out menu item is not itself well thought out. There are many outstanding vegetarian or vegan cookbooks, even high end restaurants in some cities, and I would think that upscale chefs more generally could make more interesting options available for their vegetarian or vegan patrons.

I have not tried going vegan, and I am fairly sure that this would be a considerable challenge, at least for me. I deeply respect those who are. I enjoy eggs and cheese, perhaps too much. I am also not sure that eating vegetarian has been particularly healthy. I too often find myself hungry in the late evening, and snacking on crackers and cheese to fill the void. The carb/cheese substitute for meat cannot be any healthier than more satisfying meals that include at least leaner cuts of meat.

But, of course, I didn’t go down this road for health reasons. I did so for ethical reasons. One interesting aspect of eating vegetarian is speaking with people who enjoy discussing their personal experiences. It turns out that many people I know or have met, including former students and restaurant wait staff, have gone in and out of vegetarianism as well as veganism. And by and large, I have found that those who have, along with even longstanding vegetarians and vegans, are generally non-judgmental. I sometimes mention my own uncertainty—I’m honestly unsure if I can stay permanently on this diet. I have toyed with eating fish, meaning Pescatarian. (That first week, this Jewish blogger joked that I was temporarily Episcopalian). I asked one longstanding vegetarian friend if he thought Pescatarianism was morally inconsistent. He said, partly joking, “no, fish aren’t cute.” Of course, some fish are cuter than others, such as Nemo and Dory, and not all animals that we eat are particularly cute either. The problem, of course, is the suffering. Our home is kosher, although we always ate out "kosher-style." I am persuaded that kosher slaughter, even when properly followed, which is not always the case, is still inhumane, despite what I was told as a child.

The moral arguments surrounding vegetarianism and veganism are complex. University of Vermont Philosopher, Tyler Doggett, observes that even veganism can result in cruelty to living beings we tend to disregard, such as insects or rodents that are often destroyed in crop cultivation. Cornell Law Professor, and vegan commentator, Sherry Colb, views vegetarianism as most compelling as a gateway to ethical veganism. Living cooped up to serve up milk or eggs is not an obviously better fate than grazing for eventual slaughter, at least if that slaughter is somehow humane. As with the Kashrut, there is an inconsistency to vegetarianism, and perhaps even veganism, if embraced entirely for ethical reasons involving the treatment of other living beings.

Perhaps it seems glib to recite Voltaire's "Perfect is the enemy of the good," but the fact remains that we do best we can. And consider this: if given the option to persuade a larger number of persons to consume less meat, along with fewer non-meat animal products, as compared with persuading smaller numbers to be vegetarian or vegan, might the former be preferable if the aggregate effect were that fewer animals lived in inhumane conditions or suffered cruel deaths? What if we could persuade individuals to forego meat or animal products only for parts of each year, knowing that these periods will come to an end, and later resume, in cycles? Which of these approaches would lead to a more benign results for animals is not unclear. And perhaps some readers will find problematic transforming what is typically presented as a philosophical or moral inquiry into an empirical one. On the other hand, if the goal is to improve the plight of animals, as opposed to making a personal statement, this analytical move might have much to commend it.

One peculiar problem with a partial retreat is not being able to identify as vegetarian. Eating less meat, eating it only on special occasions, or eating fish, disallows membership in the club. But club membership is not an ethical choice, whereas not eating meat, not eating it as often, or even finding ways to reduce the suffering of animals within the complex food chain, is. Many former vegans and vegetarians have told me that they now just eat less meat. From a health, and also environmental, perspective, less meat, especially less red meat, is wise. This is also true, it seems to me, from an ethical perspective. Making choices about the meat we consume might also be an imperfect, yet defensible, moral decision. The issue is not whether fish, or chickens, are cute. Certainly, however, those animals have lower cognitive functioning than cows or lamb, and the reverse holds for insects and small rodents. It is not unreasonable to take this all into account in thinking through our dietary choices.

Although my reasoning for trying vegetarianism might seem, or even be, arbitrary, the selection of a six-month trial was careful and deliberate. I anticipated that this would take me through a number of birthdays and holidays, religious and secular. It would also include at least one overseas trip. In short, it would be a real test, with some genuine forbearance. And for the most part, that has not been a problem. There was one meal during which I experienced sudden cravings for short ribs and lamb, but that was okay. I got past it. That was part of the first truly challenging month, about four months in. This past month also has not been so easy. Some meals have fallen flat, leaving me unsated.

In the end, I might end up eating fish, or simply eating less meat, even an occasional order of short ribs. I suppose the person who is most judgmental is me. And I might have to get over it.

I welcome your comments.

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