The Vegetarian Experiment

So, I decided to go vegetarian for a month. No meat or fish, no meat products. No prawns and no parmesan. For someone whose cultural heritage includes terms for cows as a unit of currency, this is a bit of a departure. So why did I do it?

My boyfriend has his own kitchen garden (currently replete with spinach, lettuce, leeks, rocket, and strawberries), and through him I became more interested in sustainability and permaculture. (He started the veggie adventure a week before me but gradually broadened his horizons to include fish and meat people had already cooked for him, so…). I’ve been reading the veggie food posts here with interest, and I also have a lot of vegetarian friends, who are some of the best cooks I know. I will happily go around to their houses and wolf down their delicious baked tofu and salads and home-made pizzas and curries… and both my previous diet and my cooking skills left a lot to be desired in the fruits and vegetables department (cheese, however, I am all over). I suppose I hoped some of their awesome cooking skills would rub off on me through some kind of vegetable osmosis.To my surprise, I didn’t find the month that difficult (apart from trying to buy food for lunch near work, none of which was ever both meat-free and appetising – though it turns out chicken flavour dry noodles are suitable for vegetarians). One week in, I found myself reaching unconsciously for the bacon on my sister’s Caeser salad (bad right hand!). In week two, I had a sudden craving for pastrami that lasted five minutes. But one month in, the only thing I really miss is the local Indian takeaway’s tandoori prawns. I dream about them. I can taste them in my mouth and smell them in my nose. I want them all in my face.

Before this, my thoughts about what I put in my mouth went something like this:

Is it there? Is it edible?

Now, I put a bit more thought into my food. I’m still a devotee of pita bread stuffed with fake cheese, but vegetables take up the room on my plate that was previously devoted to a mindlessly-grabbed and actually not-very-tasty slice of supermarket ham or chicken. I’ve always loved bok choi, but fresh steamed spinach is suddenly unspeakably delicious; chickpea salad is one of my favourite lunches; and tomato and lentil soup is… mmm, where was I?

What I did find unexpectedly difficult was identifying as a vegetarian. At family meals, I’d mutter something about “just… trying this… thing for a while,” shovelling salad and bread on to my plate while my grandmother eyed me suspiciously. At restaurants, I dithered over asking for veggie options (pointlessly, because most restaurants were happy to help me out). But I never said out loud, “I’m a vegetarian,” because, after all, I wasn’t. It was just an experiment.

And now that the experiment is nearly over, what am I? I really don’t object to eating animals and their products for food, so I’m never going to be a strict vegetarian or vegan. I do think that when we consume animals, we have a responsibility to the animals and the environment in general. I’m definitely interested in learning more about how food is produced and consumed. But I’ll be happy to eat meat when I really want it and when it comes from a sustainable, humane, and hopefully local source. I’m not saying I’ll never have a roast chicken again, but I am sure that when I do, it’ll be because I really, really want that chicken. And I’ll check where it’s from and how it was looked after when it was alive, before I eat. And this Sunday, when my self-imposed month of veggie-ism ends, I will be straight on the phone to the takeaway to order my tandoori prawns.

So, what do I call myself now: a quasi-vegetarian? Flexitarian? 85% veggie? Are there more of you out there? What do you call yourselves? And if you’re a guest, how do you describe your food preferences? I’m thinking, “I won’t eat meat unless it looks really really delicious, so none of your gross pork chops, thanks,” won’t go down well at parties.

21 replies on “The Vegetarian Experiment”

I became a vegetarian when I was 22, but I stopped eating pork and beef when I was about 13 and occasionally wondered if I should call myself anything different. I sometimes went with semi-vegetarian but usually just straight-out told people I didn’t eat pork or beef if they asked. Similarly, my parents eat an almost-vegan diet, but they eat fish once a week and yogurt occasionally – other than that, their diets are meat- and dairy-free, so I generally call them “almost-vegan” or “sort-of-practically-vegan.”

I’m glad you enjoyed your experiment! The last thing I read by someone who briefly tried vegetarianism was massively frustrating for me because the person used their experience to argue that vegetarianism is not healthy because they were hungry and tired the whole time. Well yeah, if you ate a lot of meat and all of a sudden cut out something that was a big chunk of your diet without being willing to try other sources of protein, you’re going to feel it! Most of the veg*ns I know transitioned gradually – future Mr. spent about a year cutting meat out of his diet. Needless to say, your post was much more thoughtful and nuanced than this post was, and I enjoyed reading it. :)

(Also, if you’re a bok choy fan, I have a really yummy stir-fry recipe I’d be happy to share!)

Oh dear. One thing I did have going for me was that I already liked, enjoyed, and could cook vegetarian food. I imagine going completely vegan all of a sudden would be very difficult for me by comparison.

Definitely, please do hit me up with the recipe! Here or DM:)

I’ll go ahead and post it here so anybody else who’s interested can have it too!

Bok Choy Stir-Fry

3 tablespoons olive oil
2 garlic cloves, pressed / ¼ teaspoon garlic powder
2 teaspoons peeled and grated ginger root
½ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
2 pounds baby bok choy, cleaned and cut into bite-size pieces
1/3 cup low-sodium vegetable broth
3 tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce
1½ teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon cornstarch
2 teaspoons sesame seeds
6 cups cooked brown rice

In a large skillet, heat oil over medium-high heat and swirl to coat pan. Add garlic, ginger, and red pepper flakes, cooking about 30 seconds.

Add bok choy and cook for 3 minutes, stirring often. Stir in broth, soy sauce, sugar, and cornstarch and bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Cook until thickened, about 1 minute. Remove from heat and sprinkle with sesame seeds.

Serve over brown rice. (I like to cook the rice in vegetable broth, as it gives it a really nice flavor. I’ve found that using about a 1/4 cup less broth than you would water works well.)

I have a very similar dilemma, I have a chronic digestive problem that axes red meat, dairy, and eggs from my diet, so loosely speaking I am a vegan who can eat chicken and fish but rarely does (I can’t afford it, I feel like my current diet is healthier and I now live in a city with wicked awesome alternative protein options). I hate the labeling associated with all of it, I was a strict vegetarian for a few years and occasionally got some flak for it (I am from Alberta, aka the Texas of Canada). Now I am unsure what to call myself if people ask. Mostly I just mumble something about “tummy problems,” and try to steer the conversation elsewhere. It bothers me though, that people think it’s ok to question people or label them according to their dietary choices, you never know the reason why a person isn’t eating a certain thing. And quite frankly, as adults, it’s rarely simply being a picky eater.

Personally, I just say that I don’t feel like eating meat today, if anyone asks; I’m definitely not vegetarian, or vegan, but I don’t eat that much meat on a regular basis, although I do like it. Plus I live in Taiwan, and the tofu here is the bestest. My favourite lunchbox place thinks I’m vegetarian because I never get meat there, but it’s just because their tofu is so ridiculously awesome. Ahem.
I don’t bother labelling myself, especially as my food intake tends to go in phases; I don’t tolerate processed sugars or fats very well, and anything milk or cream is variable – my body is both inconsistent and traitorous on these things – so I just go with what feels right, really. And I don’t have a label for that.

That is almost exactly what I’ve been doing for the past few years. I generally tell people that I don’t eat meat or that I’m a vegetarian, but not super strict about it. I’ll occasionally eat meat in social situations, if someone prepared it for me not knowing, or fish if I’m out and don’t want just a salad. Or if I just really want it. Reading Eating Animals made me feel a lot better about not viewing occasionally eating meat as “slipping.” Most of my friends/family don’t care, but sometimes people will make a big deal if they see me eat meat and I just explain that I felt like it so I ate it.

I don’t see any need to find yourself a label. Labels can be so restrictive, all encompassing, or all too quickly your identity.

Me? I’m not “Lactose Intolerant” as some are quick to label. Nope. I’m not. I just can’t eat cheese. There is no label for it (other than Pity) so they tilt their heads. I still eat yogurt (omg, greek yogurt, so good) and I still eat ice-cream. But no cheese. No label.

If someone tried to offer up a label, you can just politely reply, “Nope, I’m just not eating meat right now.” or “Today I feel like having some chicken.”

Because, really, Emerson got it right: Speak what you think to-day in words as hard as cannon-balls and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day.

Aha! Another can’t-eat’cheeser. My mom is allergic to a variety of strange things, mostly because she is allergic to the fermentation process itself. She is highly allergic to mold, cheese, wine, beer, cured meat, mushrooms and a few other things. Everyone assumes she’s lactose-intolerant, but that ain’t it either. Between me being a vegetarian and her food allergies, it’s always more fun for us to have our own parties than to take our chances at someone else’s.

I have been a vegetarian for about 10 years now. My friends and family are used to it by now but at first it was an adjustment. For me, after being a veg this long the question “why?” has become tiresome and sometimes I just don’t feel like getting into it. If someone is genuinely interested because they are thinking about trying it I am more than happy to help. My sister calls herself a pescatarian.

Ooh, I can relate to this. I’m a long time vegetarian but have been considering going vegan. Part of my hesitation to go vegan is because of the labeling. Some people like labels to construct their identities with, I’m not one of those people. There’s also a sense that if you ‘cheat’ you are a failed vegetarian/vegan and can no longer feel self-righteous (if that’s your thing or your fellow vegetarians’ thing). I think this is a problem with language itself and the limitations of the discourse surrounding the subject. Probably also the distinct lack of awareness about what really goes into 99% of all meat, fish and dairy production (when I say 99% I’m using a real statistic, not one made up for effect).

In your case, it might be a bit wordy, but maybe saying “I don’t eat factory farmed meat/industrially produced meat” might be the most direct and accurate way of identifying your choices. Barring that you can always offer to bring a dish to dinners, which is often what I do (just make sure it doesn’t suck).

It’s also extremely helpful, if you’re interested, to be educated on the subject, that way when people ask, you can tell them and direct them to information. One movie I try to get everyone to watch is Earthlings. You can watch it for free online, it’s damn disturbing (cried so hard), and highly motivating when it comes to rethinking food/lifestyle choices. Of course there’s the classics, Diet for a Small Planet, Food Inc., Fast Food Nation etc. Eating Animals is a great easy read too.

Fast Food Nation I have definitely read: I’ll check out the others.

I do sometimes feel that veganism, especially, can have an air of self-righteousness and ‘purity’ about it that turns me off totally (that and my lifelong love affair with cheese, of course…).

I like that you mentioned the idea of ‘cheating’ or ‘failing’. That is definitely one of the reasons I would feel uncomfortable identifying as vegetarian (apart from the fact that I don’t object to eating meat per se): I’d rather eat meat-free 80% of the time and feel that is healthy and productive than feel like I’m ‘doing it wrong’.

Seconding the recommendation for Earthlings. It’s interesting that you bring up self-righteousness, because I think it’s not discussed enough. Mind if I discuss it here? (It’s a bit lengthy, so tl;dr below.)

I think that with self-righteousness on the part of vegans (and I am one), it’s because most of us are vegan for ethical reasons, whereas I’ve met vegetarians who were just trying to lose weight, or doing it as an experiment as you did. With ethics, given that brutal treatment of animals raised for meat or other products is commonplace, it’s difficult to separate the ethics of production of meat/etc. from the ethics of people who eat meat/etc. It’s a balance between really wanting to stop animals suffering and realising that most people don’t see, for instance, a steak as part of a cow but as just another type of food.

And on top of that, as you probably guessed while trying to be veggie, you do get a lot of judgment and misinformed opinions from many people for going vegan (e.g. “OMG that’s crazy”, “you’re going to make yourself REALLY sick”, “You shouldn’t be vegan! *waves a piece of steak towards my mouth*”, “people are carnivores, they need meat to be healthy”, and so on are all quotes from my friends and family), so people become defensive and maybe snap against people who never realised that they were offending. (And if you’re the only vegan that somebody knows, they won’t know how to talk about it.)

…it’s not that I’m trying to justify any sort of holier-than-thou attitude. Actually, I think that most vegans outside of PETA and so on aren’t really guilty of it, but a minority of judgy vegans can get more notice than polite ones and turn people off of the idea (like you said). And even the polite ones may have their moments. I wish that people, omnivores included, would examine their behaviour towards those that they disagree with and make their points politely.

tl;dr: Earthlings is an informative movie, I liked your article, and I hope that you don’t view veganism as a bad thing because of PETA or whatever. Also, was the “no parmesan” because of rennet?

Yes. It was one of the things I was warned about (along with cheap wine containing fish products…) – I tried to check other cheeses for rennet as well.
I roll my eyes at PETA! No, I don’t view veganism as a bad thing, just something requiring a lot of time and attention paid to diet and food, which I see as unnecessary, I suppose. (I also have a very mild history of disordered eating, so I tend to run far far away from strict diets of any type).
To be clearer about why I was doing the experiment: it was because I believe that eating less meat is better for me and for the environment in general, so it’s something I will be continuing on that basis. I am also concerned about humane treatment of animals, but feel that it’s better to choose ethically produced meat than to opt out of being an informed consumer altogether, and leaving an even greater market share to the industrial producers.

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