Surprised By Vegetarianism

Surprised By Vegetarianism February 25, 2008

First, I’m not a vegetarian.  Vegetables have found me later in life.  Potatoes, typically mashed, and corn were the predominant veggies for me growing up.  The former is primarily simply starches.  The latter is closer to a grain and is seriously deficient unless paired with beans.  There’s a reason the two are often paired in Native American and Mexican cuisine.  This is not a post about nutrition though.  This is just to give you the reader an idea of how limited my herbivore habits were.

I’m not sure whether marriage is the point where my pallet started expanding, but it seems a decent enough demarcation point.  It didn’t take long in our marriage before we were blessed with our first child.  Just under 12 months later we were blessed with our second child.  Between finishing up schooling, formula (for our first born due to a physiological factor after about 6 months), and the rest, a couple of T-Bone steaks or a couple of Rib Eyes became a bit of a luxury.  Flank steak and Round steak take more care, but they can taste pretty good with a little work.  I’m not a snob, but hamburger doesn’t much do it for me.  Presently we go through about 5 lbs of it a month, so it isn’t like we never have it.  And I do enjoy hamburgers.  Hamburger Helper or a lasagna with nearly half hamburger and barely any cheese just doesn’t have a great appeal.  Our household lasagna for example has very little hamburger at all.

For those vegetarians repulsed by the little carnivorous orgy I had there and who are simultaneously wondering how I could be moving to vegetarianism, sit back.  As I stated above, I’m not a convert yet, and I probably never will be.  I’m passed the point now of wondering how vegetarians get by day-to-day.  I always knew a carnivorous diet was more expensive.  What I am appreciating more and more however is how hit and miss it can be too.  I have never brought home a yam from the store and after cooking it thought, “I wonder what part of the field that yam was raised.”  I’ve never faced a point of indecision in the store about whether I should take this yam or that yam and contemplated the matter for a few minutes.  We had chicken leg quarters in the home about 3 weeks ago that everyone still remembers here.  They were just plain awful.  It doesn’t happen often, but every now and then one roasts a bird that it turns out was borderline for making stock even.  I’m to the point where I’m thinking about poaching nearly every meal.  (Poaching is often confused with boiling.  Many recipes that claim to boil foods actually poach them.  For the differences between boiling, simmering, and poaching, see here.)

Poaching brings me to a rather large exception to vegetarianism, at least as pointed out during Lent.  Poaching fish in a liquid of about half diluted butter is admittedly a sometime treat in our household and rather delicious.  I think we and quite a few folks see having to eat fish rather than meat during Lent as a real sacrifice.  Even with the fish exception, many of us will catch ourselves breaking the meat abstinence on some Friday during Lent.  Meat is ubiquitous in our culture.  Seafood is expensive.  McDonald’s will give me a double cheeseburger for $1, but the fish fillet is $1.50 on special.  Cheap fish start near $5.00/lb in the supermarket and hamburger starts at $1.39/lb with cuts of beef starting around $4/lb.  Pork and chicken prices are much cheaper, and the better cuts rarely top $4/lb.  I think most Lents growing up we said a small prayer for those who didn’t like fish, because they were basically getting nothing.

Even for us poor folks though, there is Tuna Helper.  I’m sure there are a few families who are eating nothing but Tuna Helper for the Fridays of Lent.  At some point here, some of you have probably thought about screaming that we are fortunate today (or are wimps) because back in the bad old (good old) days, abstinence from meat was maintained throughout Lent.  Of course this is very true.  It is also true we are eating about a 1/3 more meat today than we did in just the 60s.  Given our culinary habits today, we are no longer engaging in an act of solidarity with with the poor among us by giving up meat for 40 days.  In fact it is a sign of opulence to engage in the abstinence for the length of Lent if one substitutes seafood for their meat consumption.  This is one of those cases where a relaxation of the norm actually lends itself better to the humility the norm originally sought to bestow.  There is nevertheless a certain irony that the poor man has greater difficulty being faithful to the meat abstinence than the man of able means.

And this my friends brings us back to the title of this post.  Despite it being an ideology among many today, vegetarianism can be and probably should be the ordinary existence.  Yes, I am including seafood in vegetarianism, but not in a central role.  There are hardly any great vegetarian dishes, but there are plenty of good enough vegetarian dishes.  Sweet potato pie would be in the former.  Green bean casserole would be in the latter.  And while I’ll always have a weakness for grilled lamb chops, I’m coming to appreciate that planning my life either nutritionally or financially around good meat is an uphill battle that is probably not worth fighting.  Around the world, most people don’t choose vegetarianism to make a political statement.  More often they choose it because the affordable meat that is available to them tastes awful.  And yet they somehow survive.  I’m not a vegetarian yet, but I’m at the point where meat is a choice, a place I never thought I would be. 

Update:  Links to vegetarian cookbooks recommended in the comboxes below.

Passionate Vegeterarian by Crescent Dragonwagon.

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  • Having gone through periods of temporary disability I have learned that you can live well and eat well on baked potatoes, oatmeal, cereal, fruits and veggies.

    At times, I simply could not afford to buy much meat or fast food… And I lived.

  • I was a vegetarian out of necessity for a couple of years and did great with soups like lentil and navy bean. Some eggs and dairy, brown rice, beans and peanut butter filled out the diet. We can live fine without meat.

    Since coming to religious life, though, I am a meat eater again. I would be healthier without it , though.

    I am more concerned about our overburdened fisheries than I am about cattle. We can always produce more bovines, but when a fish population collapses, it may not come back for decades or maybe ever.

    Uhm…what does this have to do with the Iraq war? (j/k)

  • Daniel H. Conway

    I find light vegetarian cooking to be easier to clean up than with meat (less greasy). In periods of tight budgets, pinto beans and salad were a staple, several days a week. Very inexpensive.

    Cows eat lots of grain, more so than the caloric content provided by a cow. More land is therefore “consumed” to produce bovine-calories. Bt I agree with the fishery concerns, also.

    I was never and am not a vegetarian. Unfortunately bacon several times a year (fantasizing about bacon is a mortal sin for vegetarians) and Thanksgiving/Christmas turkey stand in my way of becoming a vegetarian.

  • M.Z. Forrest

    That’s very interesting Fr. J. I eat more soups and stews today than during other times of my life. Although I have not used any recipes from the book yet, I did end up purchasing a monastic cookbook. I do not recall the author offhand. They were out of New York. One of the ways they embraced the Benedictine rules was to not have meat. Of course everyone does things differently, embracing different disciplines in attampting to achieve the same goal, heaven. I imagine you didn’t think at the beginning of your journey that monitoring meat consumption would be a dietary challenge in the religious life.

    You and Mr. Conway bring up good points about fish. I live on Lake Michigan, and it is almost completely artificially managed. One of things necessitating this has been pesticide and manure runoff. In my area and other parts of the country, this has had a drastic effect on lakes and streams. (Our bigger issues is still mercury in the water though.) I fear you two may indeed be correct that the longterm stability of this arrangement is questionable.

    Uhm…what does this have to do with the Iraq war? (j/k) 🙂

  • Jason

    We have an ongoing debate about vegetarianism is my religious community. Those who are vegetarians insist that it is the most just way to consume food, I contend that a vegetarian diet isn’t necessarily just if you’re buying vegetables from industrial farms that use underpaid workers in unhealthy situations and use chemicals to grow the food in the first place. A just approach to food consumption may include a plant-centered diet (if you will), but it starts with buying local and organic no matter what you’re eating.

    I don’t know if I entirely agree that a vegetarian diet is cheaper, at least in the U.S.. There are so many processed vegetable-protein options now, like Morningstar Farms, Tofurkey products, Gardenburger, which can in some cases cost as much as meat and which many vegetarians are making more central to their diet.

    Finally, there certainly are plenty of great vegetarian recipes. Check out the cookbook “Passionate Vegetarian” by Crescent Dragonwagon (yes, that’s her name). She has this meat eater sold on the idea of great vegetarian cooking.

  • Blackadder

    I flirted with vegetarianism twice in my life, both times unsuccessfully.

    The first time was in the 4th grade. I had a friend who was a vegetarian, and one day he convinced me that eating meat was bad. That night at dinner my Mom made meatloaf. I told her that I was a vegetarian, and so couldn’t eat it. She said, “eat your dinner.” So that was the end of that.

    The second time was while I was in law school. This, actually, was not so much a strict vegetarianism as it was only eating meat I was sure was humanely raised (which is almost none of it). The problem was that without meat, much of the pleasure of eating just disappeared (I know it sounds strange, but in my case it was true). I started losing weight, which given how little I weighed to begin with at the time was not very healthy. So eventually I gave it up.

  • radicalcatholicmom

    Interesting. I agree with Fr J about being concerned about our fisheries. Huge issue here in AK, though AK’s fisheries are considered the best managed in the world (and that is not good).

    Fruits an veggies are SO expensive, but that is what we have been eating. I buy many frozen veggies to make it cheaper!

  • Really surprised and pleased to see this post. I have been thinking about doing a post on vegetarianism for a while now, but wasn’t sure where to start. (Maybe by linking it to the Iraq War?)

    (That was a joke, Father.)

    My wife and I received the “More With Less” cookbook for our wedding. It’s a book that comes from the Mennonite community. It’s mostly (but not all) vegetarian, but its main focus is how not to waste food, cutting down on ingredients, etc. It’s $14 or $11 at Amazon, but try not to buy from Amazon.

    Morningstar and Gardenburger products aren’t available in Toronto. We miss that stuff a lot, but the lack of availability has helped us to make the fake meat products less central to our diet.

    Catholic theologian John Berkman had an article years ago in the journal Logos arguing that vegetarianism is not just some new age fad but that it has had a strong place in the Catholic tradition. He did an article with Stanley Hauerwas as well (who is not a vegetarian to my knowledge) about making the connection between vegetarianism and nonviolence. (There’s your war connection, Father.)

    Three other great books from a Christian perspective are Andrew Linzey’s <I<Animal Gospel, Stephen Webb’s Good Eating, and (probably the best of the three) Matthew Scully’s Dominion.

    I am veg for personal, political, economic, and spiritual reasons. There is simply no good reason not to go veg if you are able to do so.

  • Rob

    For economic reasons, we don’t eat a lot of meat in general, and I do regular fasting, so that helps.

    The recent “downer cow” video on the news profoundly disturbed me, though. And I am not a guy who usually gets upset thinking about the poor, fuzzy animals, and I never listened to the Smiths “Meat is Murder” in college. 🙂 (or was that Morrisey?). But watching it, and imagining it, made me feel like I was watching some end-of the world, apocalyptic film for some reason. I was, and still am, very upset about it. I have no problems with eating meat but, like Blackadder suggested above, something about the “treatment” really bothers me.

    Still, I don’t see myself going vegetarian, only eating less meat for health (weight loss, cholesterol) and religious (fasting and abstinence) reasons.

  • Fruits an veggies are SO expensive, but that is what we have been eating. I buy many frozen veggies to make it cheaper!

    Once we’re no longer living on the 17th floor in a city, we’re planning to start growing some of our own.

  • M.Z. Forrest

    I imagine Alaska is part of the problem with fruits and veggies.

    Veggies can be expensive, don’t get me wrong. Squash, turnips, and most of the root veggies are very cheap overall. Fresh tomatoes are a little pricey in my book, but a can of spaghetti or pizza sauce is very reasonable. Fruits aren’t all their cracked up to be. Apples are relatively durable, but many other fruits are prone to spoilage rather quickly. My wife can’t stand me picking out strawberries at the supermarket because I reject over 90% of the packages. Thank goodness there are some farms we can pick them from here.

  • The most difficult aspects of being vegetarian get worked out within a few months of becoming a vegetarian. It is the same as with most such lifestyle changes. Of course one must be careful with ingredients when buying from the store (things like low-fat yoghurt use gelatin) but it is do-able.

    I didn’ t know Berkman was into vegetarian issues (I wish he brought them up in the class I took under him; indeed, it would have suited the title of the class more than what the class was about — Theology of the Environment, which turned out to be a theology of architecture. It was an interesting class, even though we didn’t always share the same vision. As a positive effect, it helped increase my interest in Ruskin and Morris).

  • Donald R. McClarey

    Never have cared for red meat, although I do like hamburgers. Poultry and fish with crispy bacon is usually what I eat along with vegetables and fruit.

  • I have toyed with the idea of going vegetarian. I go for long periods without animal flesh anyway, since I enjoy seafood, vegetables, and grains, and dairy products. I am convinced that a sensible vegetarianism (which includes fish) is probably the healthiest way to go, resulting in a longer and healthier life. I have primarily looked into vegetarianism for health reasons, but after my cat passed away last year I decided I was going to seriously consider eating less meat (mainly because I do have a love of animals). These days I am, I guess, what some call a “Flexitarian,” limiting meat but not completely.

  • I’m about to go make myself a non-corpse lunch right now. Have a good (cruelty free?) day everyone.

  • Brian Lester

    Let me second Michael’s mention of “More with Less”. We also received it as a wedding gift, and we use it for something new almost every week. I’d also recommend “Simply in Season”, another Mennonite community cookbook. You can get both at a Ten Thousand Villages store if there’s one near you. (Or at their website I imagine)

    This old article in Touchstone Magazine is what first got me to consider vegetarianism, or at least limiting myself to humanely raised meat (not there yet,):

  • radicalcatholicmom

    MZ:LOL. Yes, AK is part of the problem, though, we are known for the largest carrots and cabbage in the country–during the short summer only. With 24 hours of light the veggies go nuts!

    We are joining a CSA-Community Supported Agriculture-this summer. At first it looked too expensive, but when I did the math and compared prices, I realized we would be saving AND supporting our local farmers.

    Michael-many people here have greenhouses and my hubby and I grow our herbs inside the house, but we could do better.

  • HA

    corn…. is closer to a grain and is seriously deficient unless paired with beans.

    The notion that corn should be “paired” with beans or other lysine-rich foods has undergone significant revision since it was popularized by Frances Moore Lappé in early editions of Diet for a Small Planet. The later editions give the revised view, which is, basically, that as long as one’s diet is sufficiently diverse, one shouldn’t worry about incomplete proteins.

  • The later editions give the revised view, which is, basically, that as long as one’s diet is sufficiently diverse, one shouldn’t worry about incomplete proteins.

    I don’t really do any crazy calculations regarding my diet. Unless I am noticing myself eating nothing but Cheet-os for a week straight, I figure I’m doing ok.

  • I have been a vegetarian for about a year now (twice eating meat when it would be rude not too) and about 4 months ago started eating some fish now and then (something about being lower on the food chain or something) but for Lent I have gone back to a full Lacto-Ovo Vegetarian diet. I love meat, and would eat the chickens that give me my eggs, if my egg lady would sell me one. I just boils down to cruelty to animals and more importantly the absurd cruelty of the men and women who are part of the industrial meat food chain (Fast Food Nation started that thought in my mind). I realize that many farm workers are also so I do what I can to support groups like the Coalition of Immolakee Workers (who just got an award from the Catholic Social Ministry Gathering) and their work to get better conditions for farm workers (say no to Burger King). I agree with the idea to eat locally, one of the best ideas for conscientious eating. It is late and I am rambling. Good night to all.

    Enjoy Lent
    peace to all