After a lifetime of omnivorism, eating whatever I wanted whenever I wanted, I spent the last year on a strict vegetarian diet. I didn’t do this as a science experiment or as a result of deep-seated environmentalism. No, I just wanted to make a gesture of devotion to my vegetarian wife. From our wedding day on 5/3/14 through our first anniversary yesterday, I was meat and fish free. I made my oath of vegetarianism in front of most of my friends and family at our Quaker wedding ceremony, and their witness helped me want to stick to my plan. A few lessons from my year:
1) You might be surprised at what you can do if you push your boundaries. In my case, I made my decision to become a vegetarian rashly, not really sure whether or not I would be able to make it through the year. As it turned out, I had little trouble staying faithful. Beginning with our wedding reception, I flipped an imaginary switch in my mind from “eats meat and fish” to “does not eat meat and fish.” I ignored non-vegetarian sections of restaurant menus and simply convinced myself that certain items were off limits. I didn’t ask anyone else to police my dietary choices; the oath I made was basically to myself and I held myself to it. By comparison, just going on a diet for a couple of weeks in the future, or cutting out sugary beverages, should be no big deal.
2) I eat too much throw-away, junk protein. Everyone has asked me if I would remain a vegetarian after the year was complete, and I knew from the start that I wasn’t going to do that. However, the experience has made me realize that too often I consume animal protein that is of low quality, and I don’t even really taste it. Given how amazing the best veggie burgers are (I’m looking at you, Cheesecake Factory), why I would ever consume tasteless fast-food burgers that are just gray, unremarkable pucks of beef is hard to explain. While I have returned to omnivorism, I will eat less meat in the future, and I will only choose to do so when I feel like I’m actually going to have an experience that honors the animals that gave their lives to feed me.
3) Restaurants do stupid things with their menus. I know that vegetarianism is a choice, as is veganism, or a gluten-free diet (for those who don’t have celiac disease), and it isn’t the world’s responsibility to accommodate diners with dietary restrictions of their own creation. That said, restaurants could be a lot more friendly to vegetarians and elevate their menus at the same time. Tossing unremarkable pieces of chicken breast into your Alfredo sauce isn’t authentic to the dish, isn’t creative, and just turns a vegetarian entree into something that vegetarians can’t eat. Restaurants do this over and over again in myriad ways, and it is just pandering to the least attractive aspects of the American palate.
4) It is useful to reflect on the sacrifices we might need to make to save the environment. As we know, livestock raised for human consumption take a heavy toll on the environment, and I enjoyed my year of holier-than-thou preening about my tiny carbon footprint. In all seriousness, though, I often found myself thinking about whether or not I should prolong my commitment to vegetarianism as a result of my concerns regarding global warming. Would we all be able to switch to a meat-free diet if forced to do so by imminent environmental collapse? Is that too much to ask to save the world for future generations? I will continue to reflect on this question, and if I do return to vegetarianism in the future, this will likely be the reason why.
5) You can be a vegetarian and still enjoy the pleasures of artfully prepared food. I wasn’t so sure about this before my year of firsthand experience. I sometimes have wondered if vegetarians are numb to the aesthetic qualities of great cuisine. It is certainly more difficult to have an elevated experience that is “a feast for all the senses” (sorry about the cliche) while maintaining a vegetarian diet, but it can be done. On my second-to-last night as a vegetarian, my wife and I enjoyed an eight-course, vegetarian chef’s tasting menu at High Street on Market (a restaurant in Philadelphia), and the inventiveness of the dishes and mixture of ingredients and flavors was delightful. It was a memorable meal to be sure, and as is the case with the best vegetarian cuisine, one doesn’t even notice the absence of meat or fish.
Now I head off into an exciting few weeks in which I’ll try all of my favorite foods again for the first time in a year. In some ways, the giddiness I feel as I think about what to eat and where to go is almost reason enough to put myself on a restrictive diet again from time to time.