I’ve been quasi-vegetarian since I was four years old. When people ask me why I stopped eating hamburger, pork, red meat, and basically everything but chicken before my first day of kindergarten, they ask me with eyes wide and breath bated as if I’ll deliver some fantastic story about how I visited a factory farm when I was three, or converted to Hinduism, or really felt convicted about my cholesterol levels as a toddler.
“I thought it was nasty.”
It doesn’t make for the best story. Though it is true that part of my disgust grew from my brother informing me—I think I was eating chili with meat crumbles—that I was ingesting a cow. There might have been some natural element of humanitarianism in my Aquarian personality, even when I was little. In an act of civil disobedience, I would hide pieces of steak in my socks while at the dinner table and later throw them down the basement stairs. Basement is an overstatement; it was a cellar. I threw pounds of meat into that cellar. I probably recruited a pack of rats.
I gave up poultry and all meat products by the age of 20. Since then, my own practice of yoga, along with a half-dozen well-done food documentaries, probably would make me rethink my diet regardless of my early distaste for meat. I care about animal rights. I realize meat-eating harms the planet. I wholeheartedly believe that vegetarian and vegan diets would transform our health care system and think it’s ridiculous when people with serious health problems refuse to give up meat even for a month.
But my primary reason for not eating meat still remains the same: the look, smell, taste, and idea of it revolts me to the core of my being, which brings me to my main point. Asking me to pick the meat out of a salad, or ignore the chicken slime covering the pasta, or remove that creepy slice of a salami from a sandwich with tattered lettuce and greased up mayonnaise is the equivalent of me vomiting a puddle in the middle of your dinner table and asking you to “eat around it” or extract your chicken patty sandwich from the muck, wipe it off, and stop being a baby.
I’m tired of having to explain this, or worse, being perceived as high maintenance, judgmental, uptight or rude for having these preferences. I am none of these. Believe me – there are 686 judgmental things I could say about that fried chicken you shoved into your face, or about the non-organic beef you fed your one-year-old, or about how that roast beef sandwich you made reminds me of fat rolls cascading over the side of the bread. But I keep my mouth shut. I keep these thoughts to myself and keep good company.
I fundamentally believe it’s your prerogative (not mine or not even the government’s in many cases) if you make the conscious choice to avoid good health and good ethics with your diet.
So please return the favor. When I ask for a vegetarian option, don’t roll your eyes or think I’m a bitch, or force me to eat pickles for lunch or scramble in your pantry to steal a handful of stale almonds like a malnourished squirrel.
Recently at a work-related lunch, the only option was chef salad. Square chunks of chicken and ham poisoned an otherwise decent salad. A vegetarian friend and I quietly relocated the chunks of slimy meat onto a third (shared) plate, feeling self-conscious about the growing stack of flesh. Feeling self-conscious is my own problem; coming up with an alternative is not. We had another lunch at the same place, and this time I requested a veg option. By the time I made it through the line, however, all of the veggie sandwiches were gone. My friend and I both resorted to eating a cup full of pickles and some other side dishes.
This is simply unacceptable.
I’m not asking for a banquet, but it’d be nice to be able to eat more than 120 calories for my midday meal. Being vegetarian does not mean I count calories, hate protein, or am okay with small morsels of leafy things that are the equivalent of what a medium-sized rabbit eats for breakfast.
Even worse is when this happens with in-laws, who after knowing me for 10 years still ask questions like “Is Jamie eating chicken yet?” Yet? This isn’t a fad. And it’s not a slam against you or your culinary abilities. It’s just part of my tastes; you know—like the fact that don’t eat vegetables, don’t care that Diet Coke is eroding your large intestine, and think that iceberg lettuce drowned in ranch dressing comprises a good salad.
A few years back, my husband’s last-remaining grandparent died. We drove four hours to get to an early viewing, and were slated to eat dinner with his family. Friends and church members from the community had graciously bought meals for the family and so the menu was set. This was very kind of them. I’m not a brat and I’d never in a million years make a fuss on the day of a family member’s funeral. But after a seven-hour day I was starving. The options for dinner included fettuccine with chunks of chicken (“can you just pick out the chicken?”) and sandwiches made of lunch meats, mostly salami (“can you just remove the salami?”). Lunch meat is about the most evil type of meat I can think of. It’s cold. And it smells like a rotten cooler. There was also a salad option but I think it had bacon in it.
And what’s with always using the word “just” — as if it’s a trivial request? Can you just pick out the minuscule ground beef from the lasagna? How about just one bite of Thanksgiving turkey? (My dad seems to think that descriptive facts about the meat will convert me: “This chicken has lots of herbs on it,” “The lamb has been cooking for eight hours.”)
Can you just eat plain noodles since we have no meatless sauce? No. No, no, and no.
I will not eat bread and lettuce soaked in lunch meat juice. I will not let you label me as picky or high maintenance. Chances are you are pickier than me; there’s not a single other food item on the planet—other than meat—that I dislike. I will not tolerate bacon in my salad. Stop pretending like it’s pre-made that way or next time I’ll put cat hair in the salad I serve you.
Jamie Davies O’Leary is a yoga-instructor in training and also the co-creator of yogaServe, a yoga service group in Columbus, Ohio. She teaches workers affected by “vicarious trauma” domestic violence victims. She believes she is an old soul with many past lives as her passions are innumerable (and often unrelated): public education, anti-poverty initiatives, eastern religion, Tara Brach’s teachings, beer, art, music, vegetarianism, and interior design. She feels lucky to have found the path of yoga after a lifetime of being entirely too stuck in her head.