A Lutheran turned vegetarian

I once tried for the holy grail of veganism. My husband's depression made me reexamine my relationship with meat

Topics: Ethics of eating, Food fights, Life stories, Vegetarianism and veganism, Food,

A Lutheran turned vegetarian

I became a vegetarian when I was 15. It was health-related at first; I had begun to notice an unpleasant, heavy feeling in my stomach after eating meat, and when I didn’t eat it, I felt better. But while researching vegetarian nutrition in order prove to my worried mother that I could get enough protein without meat, I encountered the ethical arguments for not eating animals, and the first seeds of bleeding-heart liberalism took root. In the space of one short year, I went from making meatloaf whimsically sculpted into the shape of a pig, to pestering my high school classmates at lunchtime with such charming questions as “How can you make your stomach a graveyard for innocent animals?”

My parents were surprised and dismayed; I came from a typical American meat-and-potatoes family — we were Lutheran, after all. Some of my favorite foods growing up included Spam, sliced ham slathered in barbecue sauce, and hamburgers without the bun. As for vegetables? I mostly hated them, except for raw carrots, celery (preferably as a vessel for peanut butter), canned corn or canned green beans. My definition of salad was iceberg lettuce sprinkled with sugar. I especially hated onions and mushrooms, largely due to my father’s insistence that I would like them if I tried them.

I ate a lot of pasta, potatoes and cheese during that first year.

Eventually, I went to college at the University of California at Berkeley, where I discovered that garlic is a root vegetable, not a powder, and was persuaded by my growing stack of vegetarian cookbooks that sautéed onions and mushrooms are indeed the keys to the culinary kingdom. Dad was right about that, which was good, because Berkeley taught me that he was wrong about everything else!

I aspired to veganism, which, in hindsight, is very amusing, because as anyone who knows me well can tell you, I love cheese like Jesus loves sinners. I even attempted to follow the McDougall Plan, which not only eliminates all animal products, but also forbids refined sugar and only grudgingly allows tiny amounts of fat — in other words, it dooms you to failure before you’ve even begun. I remember desperately drizzling honey on my vegan cornbread before furtively dashing to the grocery store for a big bag of carob-coated almonds — hey, at least they came from the health food aisle!



I moved to New York City after college, and on one particularly lonely, homesick evening early on, I ended my longest vegan phase ever with a pint of Häagen-Dazs Triple Brownie Overload ice cream. I think the phrase “all things in moderation” might have floated through my brain as I was throwing up at 2 in the morning, but the memory is somewhat hazy.

Eventually, I settled into a comfortable lacto-ovo vegetarianism. I continued eating fish occasionally into my mid-20s, but then decided that if I was going to say I was a vegetarian, I should really be a vegetarian, so I made “no bodies of dead animals” my simple guideline.

Being vegetarian was always very easy for me. I don’t crave meat; I don’t particularly care for it (though I do like fish). I feel for ethical vegetarians who do miss meat; as my failed attempts at veganism demonstrate, “willpower” is not my middle name. Living meatless has never felt like sacrifice or deprivation to me. And when I want the nostalgic social bonding experience of eating something protein-rich that goes on a bun, there’s an abundance of faux meat products to choose from. I’m quite a connoisseur of faux meats, actually, having followed their evolution from the bizarre and largely unappealing canned substances of yesteryear (I grew up not far from the Seventh-day Adventist enclave of Angwin, Calif., where the grocery store stocked a wide variety of these items), to the delectable frozen and shrink-wrapped technological wonders of today.

I’ve successfully remained a non-meat-eater during several trips to Europe, thanks to a combination of cunning, a flair for language acquisition, and a willingness to eat seemingly limitless amounts of fried potatoes, bread, cheese and ice cream. While studying music at a summer program in Prague, I even got the smug satisfaction of watching my fellow American students, confirmed meat-eaters all, cringe and balk at the animal substances presented to them, particularly the traditional Czech dish of ground pork mixed with cheese, shaped into patties, then breaded and fried. It resembled the Underwood Deviled Ham that I remembered from childhood — the canned stuff my mom used to disguise pills for the dog.

I did eat a McDonald’s Filet-o-Fish in Vienna, because it was all I could afford there, and I had finally hit the wall where fried potatoes were concerned. And when I visited London with my parents, I figured I should eat fish and chips wrapped in newspaper from a stall on the street, because that’s what you do in London, right? Well, my reward for that particular when-in-Rome gesture was an epic case of food poisoning that my parents, with their strong carnivore stomachs, escaped, and I stayed in our hotel room dry-heaving every hour on the hour while they froze their butts off at Stonehenge.

I’ve gotten flak from people occasionally, especially during the first few years. My older brother mocked me mercilessly, until he got engaged to a part-time vegetarian. I’ll never forget sitting next to him at the luncheon celebrating their engagement, when he turned to me and said, “Are you finding enough vegetarian things on the menu, sweetheart?” “Who are you, and what have you done with my brother?” I answered.

I’ve had well-meaning but clueless people tell me that some vegetarians eat chicken, so I should, too. I’ve gone back and forth on the fish issue, and argued with people about it from both sides. Some aspiring vegetarians will say, “I don’t eat anything with a face,” meaning things like scallops are OK. I find that to be just about the most self-serving bucket of sentimental hogwash I’ve ever heard; to extend compassion only to creatures who are cute, or who have features you recognize because they resemble yours, is not compassion — it’s narcissism. On the other hand, when someone self-satisfiedly remarks about their comfortable place at the top of the food chain, I fantasize about seeing them learn some humility through being laid out naked on a platter with an apple in their mouth. I’ve been cranky, rigid and preachy at times, but I have gradually adopted a slightly uneasy equanimity — call it a live-and-let-kill-and-eat philosophy.

The low-carb craze made my life difficult. Overnight, it seemed, the refrigerated case at Trader Joe’s that had once brimmed with such delicious conveniences as falafel plates and veggie burritos was taken over by package after hulking package of “Just Chicken!” I went to a dinner party where the menu consisted of: 1) steak and 2) asparagus. Dessert was a giant bowl of mixed berries. Now, I adore asparagus, but it alone does not a meal make. And berries are awesome, too, but come on, a little pound cake, chocolate sauce and whipped cream never killed anybody! Even if I weren’t a vegetarian, I would still think the hardcore low-carb thing was another masochistic recipe for failure — one that I hope has finally taken its rightful place alongside the McDougall Plan in the Museum of Extremist Diet Fads.

My own dietary Puritanism has been shaken up by a series of paradigm-shifting experiences in recent years. I make part of my living as a church organist, and at one point, the Lutheran church where I worked got a new a pastor, fresh from a couple of years as a missionary in Peru. The pastor and his family were vegetarians, which, I know from experience, is a most unusual thing for a Lutheran to be, so I was very interested to get to know him. In one of his sermons, he discussed his work in Peru, and mentioned that his family decided to suspend their vegetarianism during their time there. In the remote mountain village where they lived, the staples of the local diet were guinea pig and purple potatoes, but food of any kind was pretty scarce. The pastor realized that graciously accepting the hospitality of the people he was there to serve, by eating what they ate and generously shared, was more important than hewing stubbornly to an ethical principle that was, after all, a luxury only available to people who never had to worry about getting enough to eat. As much as the thought of roast guinea pig on a tiny spit made my stomach clench, I had to respect this point of view.

One holiday season I became aware of Heifer International, an organization that helps people in very poor areas of the world improve their standard of living with donations of livestock. By raising ducks and goats and selling eggs, milk and, yes, meat, families are able to buy medicine and other necessities, and send their children to school — in other words, they escape a centuries-long cycle of crushing poverty. Images of slaughter that my mind conjured up at first were dismissed by photos of smiling, appropriately chubby children, and proud parents who had progressed from the brink of starvation to small business ownership. Who the hell was I to tell them to eat tofu? My world was officially rocked.

The most recent challenge to my dietary idealism came courtesy of my husband. He had dabbled in vegetarianism before we met, and after we started dating, he took it up again, not because I asked him to, but because he valued the ethical principle behind it. He would occasionally have meat when we dined out, but we agreed to keep a vegetarian kitchen at home. After we had been married about a year, he told me that he felt the absence of meat in his diet was contributing to depression. He had started medical residency right after we got married, and as any doctor can attest, depression is a fairly normal and reasonable response to that situation. But his experience was particularly bad, and it took realizing he was in the wrong specialty and changing programs to bring some relief. Regardless of the circumstances, though, if he believed that eating meat more often made him feel better and abstaining from it entirely made him feel worse, I wasn’t about to argue with him. After all, living with a miserable spouse is, well, miserable.

My husband’s experience spurred me to take a look at my own history. I had been depressed, at times severely, since I was 15 — the same length of time that I had been a vegetarian. I have wondered on and off over the years if the two are linked in any way. Of course, there are other, likely more relevant, factors: family dynamics, genetics and my particular personality type certainly played a role, as well as triggering events in my life. I believe that I was poised to become a professional depressive, and no amount of barbecued ham or bunless burgers would have prevented it.

I decided, however, to accept my husband’s love offering of fish oil capsules, which he promised would bring me multiple benefits, from clearer skin to a healthier brain. Lately I’ve found myself craving protein more often, that craving taking a specific form. I decided to see if tuna melts truly do contain something I’m deficient in and really need. The results are inconclusive so far — honestly, I think I just like them a lot. Enough to compromise my values.

Am I a hypocrite? Of course. Just like everyone else, each one of us in our own special way. You know who you are, people who gleefully eat cow and pig but would blanch at the notion of eating dog or cat. Everyone has to figure out where they draw the line for themselves, and accept that they will occasionally dance around it. As Homer Simpson once said, “Mmm, sacrelicious!”

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 14
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Pilot"

    One of our first exposures to uncomfortable “Girls” sex comes early, in the pilot episode, when Hannah and Adam “get feisty” (a phrase Hannah hates) on the couch. The pair is about to go at it doggy-style when Adam nearly inserts his penis in “the wrong hole,” and after Hannah corrects him, she awkwardly explains her lack of desire to have anal sex in too many words. “Hey, let’s play the quiet game,” Adam says, thrusting. And so the romance begins.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Elijah, "It's About Time"

    In an act of “betrayal” that messes up each of their relationships with Hannah, Marnie and Elijah open Season 2 with some more couch sex, which is almost unbearable to watch. Elijah, who is trying to explore the “hetero side” of his bisexuality, can’t maintain his erection, and the entire affair ends in very uncomfortable silence.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Charlie, "Vagina Panic"

    Poor Charlie. While he and Marnie have their fair share of uncomfortable sex over the course of their relationship, one of the saddest moments (aside from Marnie breaking up with him during intercourse) is when Marnie encourages him to penetrate her from behind so she doesn’t have to look at him. “This feels so good,” Charlie says. “We have to go slow.” Poor sucker.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and camp friend Matt, "Hannah's Diary"

    We’d be remiss not to mention Shoshanna’s effort to lose her virginity to an old camp friend, who tells her how “weird” it is that he “loves to eat pussy” moments before she admits she’s never “done it” before. At least it paves the way for the uncomfortable sex we later get to watch her have with Ray?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Hard Being Easy"

    On the heels of trying (unsuccessfully) to determine the status of her early relationship with Adam, Hannah walks by her future boyfriend’s bedroom to find him masturbating alone, in one of the strangest scenes of the first season. As Adam jerks off and refuses to let Hannah participate beyond telling him how much she likes watching, we see some serious (and odd) character development ... which ends with Hannah taking a hundred-dollar bill from Adam’s wallet, for cab fare and pizza (as well as her services).

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Booth Jonathan, "Bad Friend"

    Oh, Booth Jonathan -- the little man who “knows how to do things.” After he turns Marnie on enough to make her masturbate in the bathroom at the gallery where she works, Booth finally seals the deal in a mortifying and nearly painful to watch sex scene that tells us pretty much everything we need to know about how much Marnie is willing to fake it.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Tad and Loreen, "The Return"

    The only sex scene in the series not to feature one of the main characters, Hannah’s parents’ showertime anniversary celebration is easily one of the most cringe-worthy moments of the show’s first season. Even Hannah’s mother, Loreen, observes how embarrassing the situation is, which ends with her husband, Tad, slipping out of the shower and falling naked and unconscious on the bathroom floor.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and the pharmacist, "The Return"

    Tad and Loreen aren’t the only ones to get some during Hannah’s first season trip home to Michigan. The show’s protagonist finds herself in bed with a former high school classmate, who doesn’t exactly enjoy it when Hannah puts one of her fingers near his anus. “I’m tight like a baby, right?” Hannah asks at one point. Time to press pause.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Role-Play"

    While it’s not quite a full-on, all-out sex scene, Hannah and Adam’s attempt at role play in Season 3 is certainly an intimate encounter to behold (or not). Hannah dons a blond wig and gets a little too into her role, giving a melodramatic performance that ends with a passerby punching Adam in the face. So there’s that.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and Ray, "Together"

    As Shoshanna and Ray near the end of their relationship, we can see their sexual chemistry getting worse and worse. It’s no more evident than when Ray is penetrating a clothed and visibly horrified Shoshanna from behind, who ends the encounter by asking if her partner will just “get out of me.”

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Frank, "Video Games"

    Hannah, Jessa’s 19-year-old stepbrother, a graveyard and too much chatting. Need we say more about how uncomfortable this sex is to watch?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Desi, "Iowa"

    Who gets her butt motorboated? Is this a real thing? Aside from the questionable logistics and reality of Marnie and Desi’s analingus scene, there’s also the awkward moment when Marnie confuses her partner’s declaration of love for licking her butthole with love for her. Oh, Marnie.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Vagina Panic"

    There is too much in this scene to dissect: fantasies of an 11-year-old girl with a Cabbage Patch lunchbox, excessive references to that little girl as a “slut” and Adam ripping off a condom to ejaculate on Hannah’s chest. No wonder it ends with Hannah saying she almost came.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>