I grew up in the South, in a suburb of Nashville, TN. We ate meat. Lots of it. I am not sure that my mother ever prepared a meal that did not in some way include some form of meat, no matter how small. In the South, a meal without meat is a snack, not a meal. To my recollection, I never even knowingly met a vegetarian until I moved to Memphis to go to college, and even then, I only knew a couple. After moving to Chicago, I met several more vegetarians and was introduced to new dishes and ways of eating. And, while living in Spain, I decided to convert.
I always get the weirdest reactions, “What!?!? You don’t eat meat? Why? Wait a second, aren’t you from the South?!”
I made the transition to vegetarianism after having spent 24+ years gnawing on every type of meat you can think of. I grew up in one of the “foodiest” regions of America, the South. In the South, everything that you do involves food, and refusing to eat is more frowned upon than clubbing a baby seal with a kitten. Southerners fry everything, and it’s even better if you have to kill it before you have to fry it. I spent eighteen years eating momma’s home cookin’, which always included meat of some kind, four years eating barbecue and fried chicken in Memphis, two years eating hotdogs and meat lovers deep dish pizzas in Chicago, and then I moved to Spain, a meat-loving country if there ever was one. If you can kill it and eat it, they do, and they do it well. For the majority of my time there, I ate all that they had to offer, and I loved every second of it. But, over time, I started to get curious about the other side, the people, who for reasons that were once foreign and nonsensical to me, choose not to eat meat. Admittedly, my best friend in Spain was–and still is–a strict vegetarian, but her vegetarianism only made me curious about the idea. That curiosity sparked a desire to educate myself, and the results of that self education led me to make the final move.
It is important to note that I have no moral issues with eating meat. In fact, I think that eating meat is a perfectly fine thing to do. I just choose not to. Like most people who investigate the world more than simply turning on the local news or browsing the front page of the local paper, I do have my qualms with the meat industry. But, those qualms aside, I am not actually against the actual act of eating meat.
Health is my motivator. The process that your body must undertake in order to liquify, digest, and absorb meat is violent and intense. Meat is tough, and your body must work extra hard to break it down. Meat is also heavy, often loaded with fat, and full of excess calories. Yes, there are health benefits that come from meat, namely protein, iron, and certain vitamins and minerals, but those key nutritional elements are also found in plant-based foods. (The food regulating bodies of the US government suggest otherwise, but a quick glance at the ridiculous conflicts of interests that swirl around these entities will cause any logically thinking person to reevaluate what motivates their decisions how much they trust those suggestions.)
Cows, chickens, and pigs, our three main sources of meat in America, are all fed awkward diets that are laden with a food that is not natural to them, corn. Cows’, chickens’, and pigs’ consumption of corn leads to unnaturally rapid body growth and to a meat product that is not particularly healthy for humans to eat. Feed lots are cesspools that are controlled only by massive distribution of antibiotics that has the adverse effect of promoting the evolution of new and more dangerous diseases. Individual animal carcasses are processed in plants that process thousands of other animals at the same time. In other words, each hamburger that you eat contains the meat of countless cows, maybe as many as a couple of hundred or more and all of whom spent the last three months of their lives wading through their own excrement and the excrement of their bovine friends. If any of those cows happened to have been sick, good luck.
The meat industry these days is atrocious, a small fraternity of enormous companies that controls virtually every aspect of animal farming and meat processing. Blinded by grandiose dreams of economic domination, these companies have made numerous decisions over the years to raise their profits while providing a dangerously unhealthy product to their customers and progressively lessening their standards regarding the treatment of their animals.
I do realize that the rest of the food industry is not much better. We eat so many processed foods that our bodies are constantly trying to figure out what in the world we are eating and what we expect our insides to actually do with it. Over 70% of the 40,000+ items in your typical grocery store contains some type of genetically modified organism (GMO), and that GMO is almost always corn or soybean. And, while genetic modification is an age-old practice that began with crossbreeding, it has become a chemical-based endeavor, the eventual consequences of which are still largely unknown. Cancer rates are on the rise, and virtually every credible scientific study on the issue points to an undeniably direct correlation between one’s diet and his or her probability of a cancer diagnosis at some point in life. These days, avoiding these GMOs is almost impossible. They are in so many different foods listed under so many unpronounceable aliases that we all eat them everyday without even knowing it.
The main goal of my relatively newfound vegetarianism is not just about avoiding meat; it’s about eating more healthfully. Not eating meat is actually the easiest part, while avoiding processed foods is like avoiding tourists in Times Square. I try to eat a lot of raw vegetables or lightly cooked vegetables with very few other ingredients added. I do eat tofu, which is processed, I know, but it’s full of nutrients and I have determined that its benefits outweigh its costs. I try not to eat much candy, but I do occasionally splurge. I avoid sodas most of the time and drink lots of water, juice, and the occasional beer or glass of wine. I check the ingredients of anything processed and make a conscious decision to either purchase it or not by analyzing what is inside, almost always avoiding items that contain high fructose corn syrup, the worst of all GMOs in my humble opinion.
The reaction to my vegetarianism is always interesting, as I briefly indicated earlier. Most people are shocked, many are confused, and almost all have never met a man from the South who doesn’t eat meat. In Spain, most Spaniards didn’t understand it at all. Back home, my family thinks it’s a bit odd, but they don’t say too much about it. In New York, most people are still shocked that I, the Southern man, am a vegetarian, but they are mostly unfazed.
Finding accommodating restaurants and meatless dishes is a great adventure, widely enhanced by the plethora of food establishments that dot this massive city. While I have only lived in Madrid and New York during my young vegetarian life, I can reflect on my experiences in other places and say with relative confidence that New York is the best place in the world to live as a person who doesn’t eat meat. Virtually all restaurants in this city are more than accommodating to those who don’t eat meat, and with the progressive culture here, finding other people with vegetarian tendencies or at least other people who are open to the idea is quite easy.
In the end, everyone must make his or her own decision about what to eat or to not eat. I do not think that my choices are in any way better than anyone else’s; they are simply the best choices for me at this point in my life. While I do not eat any red meat, pork, or chicken, I do still occasionally consume highly processed foods for the sake of convenience or because they are just that damned tasty. I’m not perfect, and I don’t expect anyone else to be.
More to come.