Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Culture And Identity Everywhere, Or, Where Are The Reluctant Vegetarians?

For a long time, I used to be a vegetarian. It was for ethical reasons only: I've always loved to eat meat. OK maybe it wasn't for such a long time, but it was .. maybe 15 years or something.

For various reasons it all kind of fell apart around the time I moved from California to Canada in 2004. For one thing, I had persistently low ferritin -- and yes, you can take iron supplements for that, but no, it's not easy or straightforward, since they upset your stomach and make you feel gross. For another, I suck at pre-preparing food; I found that in Canada, going out for a quick lunch as a vegetarian often meant a pile of pasta or a pile of French fries or a grilled cheese sandwich -- all foods that are fine as a one-off but disgusting if you eat them every day. And then I accidentally ate some mistranslated poultry while traveling in France, and I was like "OMG, this tastes amazing."

Even my feminism tended me toward meat eating: as a steak-lover, I was super-pissed about all the men out there enjoying steak, and never giving it a second thought, while here I was worrying and depriving myself. Well -- I thought -- I'm going to eat it too, so there. 

All this time I've had some vague cognitive dissonance, but honestly there's so much else going on in the world to be upset about that I found it hard to prioritize. But then recently I kept seeing references to meat-eating's effect on the environment and contribution to climate change, and I kept remembering the reasons I'd been a vegetarian in the first place. I read Oryx and Crake, which paints a disturbingly plausible dystopian future of our relations to our animal friends. Plus, I remembered the symbolism of it -- the feeling that regardless of whether your actions are "making a difference," at least there's that feeling that you're standing up for something that isn't actively contributing to a status quo that is frankly pretty deeply screwed up.

So a few months ago I decided I could at least do this: eat vegetarian when it's easy to do so. It's easy at a lot of restaurants. It's pretty easy when I'm at home by myself -- especially since I actually like tofu. Where I teach, you can now get some decent felafel, so it's pretty easy to do on campus.

Since I started doing this, I keep finding two things: one, how few restaurants offer decent vegetarian food, and two, how many people associate vegetarianism with somehow not liking meat or not wanting to eat it or regarding it as somehow unhealthy or gross.

These are bizarre to me. I mean, it's 2016. Aren't vegetarians everywhere? And don't they want to eat with non-vegetarians? Sometimes fancier restaurants do OK, though often it's just some crappy pasta thing like pumpkin ravioli that is basically starch on starch filled with starch. Kind of blech. The real puzzle, though, is casual places and pubs. If you're serving burgers already, is it that hard to add a veggie burger? Don't they come pre-packaged and frozen? 

I think in some deep sense this restaurant problem is related to the other thing -- that is, with the way avoiding meat somehow is seen as a distinctive identity or approach to the world, rather than just a relatively simple and possibly occasional way make an environmentally friendly and animal-friendly choice. I was recently in a large group of people where the conversation turned to meat, and someone told a story about how they'd cooked something in meat that isn't usually cooked in meat, and how some nearby vegetarian had said, "oh that smells so good!" and everyone in the room laughed knowingly, as if that poor vegetarian had been outed as some kind of hypocrite -- which is, of course, ridiculous.

I love to eat meat. I think it tastes delicious, and it makes me feel good. If I'm eating a veggie burger, it's not because I have some weird identity commitment to pasta being a virtuous food, or meat being decadent, or beef being disgusting. It's not even that I think veggie burgers are healthier. Given the latest research, I expect they're not. It's just, you know, a bit of less factory farming misery and a bit of saving the planet.

As I say, I think somehow the two things to together: that seeing vegetarianism as a taste and thus identity is related to how hard it is to find vegetarian food in casual eating places. I don't know how it works, but maybe it's something like this. As with so many things these days, the choice to do one thing or other is seen as reflecting not just a means-end calculation you made (avoiding meat better for environment) but rather something about what kind of person you are. And since it would be weird to be the kind of person who thinks meat is somehow wrong or evil or bad or gross, and still go around saying you like it, it's expected that you'll present a coherent identity choice on the issue. Then, naturally, it's expected you'll choose your friends and restaurants accordingly. Vegetarians will hang out with other vegetarians at vegetarian restaurants; pub people will hang out with other pub people at burger places.

I don't know what else to say about this except - "I don't like it." I feel like a burger person who is trying to eat vegetarian food, and I feel like a pub person who is in the wrong restaurant. I feel like saying I am avoiding meat even though I like it makes people feel weird, like I'm doing something bizarrely out of character or something.

Last semester when I was teaching philosophy of sex and love, we discussed Foucault, and we got talking about the idea not all societies had/have a concept of "sexual orientation," because sometimes you can just have a set of things you choose and it's not seen as revealing something deep or unchangeable about who you are. It's just: you chose that thing that time. I feel like with almost everything we're going in the other directions. Every choice is taken to reflect something deep or important about who you are. But why?

Weirdly, I feel like even most of the vegetarians I know seem happy with their vegetarianism. I don't hear a lot of other people talking about how they wanted steak but they ate tofu instead. Why not? Is it true that most people who don't eat meat don't want to? Or is it that it's easier to sacrifice if you convince yourself you didn't like the thing in the first place? Is it some deep manifestation of the harmony myth of human nature?

Or is it something much simpler: that the people who feel this -- the reluctant vegetarians -- just don't talk about it much?


Aaron Boyden said...

Interesting discussion. I also like meat, but if there's a genuinely attractive vegetarian option, the fact that it's vegetarian does count as a point in its favor for me. You're probably right that people are too inclined to turn things into identities these days, but I also think there's some merit to your simpler explanation; those who talk the most about any issue tend to be the extremists, which seems to color our perceptions of a huge number of issues.

Vance Ricks said...

For the first several years after giving up (intentionally, knowingly) eating meat, I regularly had dreams in which I was eating meat. I ate it for the first half of my life, and various meats -- their aromas, textures, tastes -- and the meals they were part of, have some deep and often positive associations for me. Shorter: I didn't stop eating the meats that I used to eat, out of a disgust or dislike of them, which I guess puts me near your "Reluctant" category?

I don't care much for green beans, and it'd be, let's say odd, for me to describe myself in terms of not eating green beans. But I think that there might be a difference between not eating/liking some particular food, and not eating a whole category of foods. So, the questions about vegetarianism as an "identity" aren't so mysterious to me, in a country like this one. At least in the part of the country I'm from, a person has to work fairly hard to avoid meals and dishes that don't, at a matter of course, center on hunks or bits of meat. So, it's pretty hard to simply find oneself not eating meat; it really is a choice that, as you wrote, can be a bit of a hassle! As with many choices or actions (or characteristics) that are less common or less frequent or that impose some kinds of cost, inconvenience, or even risk, people in those situations might tend to be thoughtful and deliberate in ways that others either aren't or choose not to be. It might not be a reflection of anything "deep and unchangeable about who [they] are", but I don't think that the only other alternative is that it's "just a set of things [they] choose".

Patricia Marino said...

Thanks for the interesting comments! Yes -- agreed that there's a lot of space in between "deep and unchangeable" and "just a set of choices" -- and what you say about the context seems right as well. I think it's the way that context works that partly creates the particular experience of feeling you have to nudge yourself into a category.

urgent cash offer said...

Are you in need of a loan? Do you want to pay off your bills? Do you want to be financially stable? All you have to do is to contact us for more information on how to get started and get the loan you desire. This offer is open to all that will be able to repay back in due time. Note-that repayment time frame is negotiable and at interest rate of 3% just email us creditloan11@gmail.com