So, after some careful contemplation spanning the past week, I have come to the exasperating conclusion that beginnings are hard. When thinking about the beginning of anything I can’t help but think back to David Copperfield; however, I feel the "I was born..." route comes off as a bit self-indulgent and narcissistic. Why, after all, should it make any difference to you when I was born? Where I was born and to whom? Presumably, you have your own life of intricate details that concern you on a minute to minute basis, and uncovering all the details of mine is not what drew you here in the first place.
So where to begin? Perhaps with some relevant history? Food history to be exact. Well let’s see, this is not my first foray into the world of vegetarianism, though it is my most serious and I’m hoping that it’ll be my last. I don’t recall the first time I heard the word vegetarian, it seems to me to just be one of those words that enters into one’s vernacular without much pomp or circumstance. It’s just a word that crops up one day and you never feel the need to question it, usually accompanied by the completely stereotyped images of long-haired, unwashed hippies, young girls, and the socially-aware-yuppy-hipster crowd. It’s a word that can instill anything from awe, envy, pride, fear, disgust, and outrage. Of course, the first time I went vegetarian I was hopelessly uninformed, and didn’t actually know anything about it other than the fact that I wasn’t suppose to eat meat.
My first tango with a vegetarian lifestyle was when I was between the ages of fourteen and fifteen. It was the late 90's and I was in middle school; the Euro had just been established; Nunavut had become a territory; Our Lady Peace and The Smashing Pumpkins were all over the radio. Jean Chrétien was still Prime Minister; Bill Clinton was still in the White House; a war had erupted in Kosovo; and the Chinese government had just announced their new internet restrictions. Tragedy struck at Columbine; Jack Kavorkian was found guilty; Bill Maher was still hosting Politically Incorrect; The Sopranos and Queer as Folk had just begun; and NewsRadio had totally bombed out but The Simpsons was still cool. Both The Matrix and The Phantom Menace had nerds everywhere fully erect while American Beauty had captivated the hearts and minds of millions and somehow, someway, despite never - to my knowledge - having met a vegetarian let alone a vegan, I decided to take the plunge.
I’d love to say I did it for political reasons. That my ethics simply wouldn’t allow me to continue to consume the flesh of sentient beings. I’d love to say it was environmental, that at fourteen I was intelligent enough to understand that my choices had a direct impact on the planet. I wish I could say it was my attempt to get healthy but none of this would be the truth. The honest truth is I went vegetarian simply because I was tired of eating meat. Tired of it, sick of it, couldn’t stand it anymore. I’d always been a picky eater, particularly when it came to meat, and continuing to eat chicken breast or ground beef every single night had me feeling a little... I guess, uninspired. So I gave it up, without much thought, without any understanding and with no support. I say no support, but I don’t mean to imply that anyone actively tried to discourage me, or dissuade me from my chosen path. I simply mean that those around me, like myself - like all unquestioning omnivores, I assume - were virtually clueless as to what that meant. Yes, we all understand that a vegetarian doesn’t eat meat, but beyond that, most of us, particularly those who’ve eaten the Standard American diet (S.A.D.) their entire lives are bafflingly unaware.
When you grow up as an omnivore you learn, whether intentionally or inadvertently that meat is the center of every meal. No matter what else you do to dress it up, or present it, no matter what you serve it with, everything else is filler. The meat is the purpose, it’s why you’re there, it’s why you’re eating. We’re taught that mashed potatoes are nothing if not served next to a roast. French fries are nothing if not served alongside a burger. Steamed broccoli and rice are nothing if not served with grilled chicken or fish. So when you tell a hard-wired, life-long meat eater that you’re a vegetarian they instinctively imagine a plate of lonely mashed potatoes drowning in a sea of melted butter, or a bowl of plain rice, and think what a very sad life you must lead. Or worse, the more adventurous minds might imagine a pale quivering block of slippery tofu next to that bowl of rice and shudder in disgust. When you take the meat away from omnivores all they see is side dishes. I know because I thought that way once myself.
And that, I’m assuming, is exactly what my family and friends thought as well, when my fourteen year old self made my announcement. It’s hard to blame them, especially when I didn’t know enough myself to combat the stereotypes, or deconstruct the many ridiculous ‘vegetarian myths’, so for one entire year I lived entirely on side dishes and junky snack foods. It was an unfortunate experience. At fourteen I didn’t know shit about cooking, and while my mother is an excellent cook she just didn’t have the time - nor the patience, I suspect - to cook two separate meals every single night. So she would make the meals she was accustomed to, and I would work around it by ignoring the meat. A lot of times I was left feeling hungry or unsatisfied after eating, but I can’t say I ever found this particularly upsetting. Maybe I chalked it up to being ‘just one of those things’ that I’d have to learn to live with. Who knows.
Suffice to say one can’t sustain oneself on such a meager and nutritionally lacking diet for long. By the end of that first year I had become quite lethargic, and was sleeping all of the time. I had no energy, was even paler than normal and never felt quite well. I was told I was anemic, and so a few days after my first year of vegetarianism I went back, somewhat begrudgingly, to eating meat.
In the years that followed I reverted entirely to my pre-vegetarian ways and was happy. Yet somehow the idea of vegetarianism always stuck with me, even though my year long trial wasn’t as ideal as I would have liked. When I thought of it at all, I thought of it fondly. Whenever vegetarianism was mentioned in conversations I would always proudly proclaim that I had been vegetarian for a year. I would wear that year as a badge of honor, but despite this it never occurred to me to return to vegetarianism until I reached my early twenties.
My second dance was much shorter lived, maybe lasting a month or so, at best. Though I was older, and I thought wiser, I was still no closer to understanding vegetarianism in full. Yes, I could cook now, and good, too. I was making my own meals each and every night, but I was still an omnivore, raised by omnivores, who were in turn raised by more omnivores. As stated above when you take the meat off an omnivores plate all they see is sides, and so my second bout of vegetarianism went the way of the first, with me eating big boring plates of plain rice and canned beans for dinner, or salads comprised of diced tomato, and iceberg lettuce drowning in ranch dressing.
What had inspired this second go round you ask? Honestly, the period was so short lived I can’t recall. However, I have a feeling it might have been a bad and misguided attempt at a ‘get skinny quick’ scheme. So that was that, I once again reverted happily to my old carnivorous ways without much thought, and yet somehow that vegetarian ideal had rooted itself deep inside my brain, and would from time to time rear its head to remind me of its omnipotent presence.
Which I think pretty much brings us up to date. I’m nearly a year into my third dance, and I’m feeling great, without even the slightest inkling or desire to take a step back. But what brought me here again you might ask? And this time my reasons are a little harder to pinpoint. You see, this time it wasn’t just one thing; it wasn’t just one idea that helped to open my eyes; it was everything around me. That seed that planted itself in my brain in my early twenties, grew and flourished without my even knowing it. Its roots spread out and entwined themselves. A bud emerged, and began to flourish. Leaves and stalks and flowers began to grow until one day there was a garden of information and ideas waiting at my fingertips and my eyes were finally open to them.
In early 2009 I had a bit of a health scare, nothing serious it turned out, but the experience was enough for me to wake up and realize that just because I was young didn’t mean I was impervious to pain and suffering, illness and death. That realization really got my attention and for the first time in my life I made a conscious decision to do everything I could for my body to ensure that I lived out my full natural life with as little pain and illness as possible. That’s when I began cutting out refined flours, sugars, pastas and grains. That’s when I started cutting back on red meat and pork. That’s when I became more aware of the chemicals that go into our food, and of organic and natural alternatives. I started taking vitamins, and I began incorporating more vegetables into my husband’s and my meals. I may even at that point have begun cooking the occasional vegetarian dish. The other dramatic change I made was to increase my exercise. I quickly began feeling good again, and by the end of 2009, one week before Christmas I believe it was, I stopped eating red meat and pork cold turkey. That was it, I was done.
This decision made me feel great. Not only because I knew it was the right thing to do, and because it was the healthiest thing for my body, but because it made me feel good physically! I wasn’t as lethargic after meals, my stomach didn’t get as violently upset. (I’d always been plagued by a viciously unhappy stomach, and as a child had been tested for every stomach and intestinal disease to no avail) My skin was looking better, my hair was more alive, and I’d even lost a little unwanted weight.
Then, a couple of months into 2010, another little health crisis rocked my world. This one was a little scarier, but in the end it turned out to be nothing serious, and in fact I think a lot of it was amplified by stress and constant worry. It was this experience that truly got me on the fast track to health. This is when I really started raping the cooking section of my local library. Checking out 20 books at a time: health books, nutrition books, heart healthy cookbooks, cancer survivor cookbooks, cooking for diabetics, no salt, no sugar, gluten free, and, of course, vegetarian. Once I started checking out vegetarian cookbooks I discovered two entirely unknown - to me - worlds connected to vegetarianism: veganism and raw food.
As the months went on I begun incorporating more vegetarian - and subsequently vegan - meals into my weekly repertoire and found that I was enjoying it. Not only because I was finally, after years of cooking, just beginning to get creative in the kitchen but because the food was so damn good, and it made me feel great too. All the positive changes I’d felt in my mood and body after giving up red meat and pork gained strength as I slowly cut back on chicken and fish. I started joining vegetarian, vegan, and raw food groups online, started reading more articles about the lifestyle, and eventually through one of these online communities I was introduced to the mind-blowing world of Vegan Podcasts. There are many good vegan podcasts out there, but the one shining beacon that drew me in like a moth to the flame was the Vegetarian Food for Thought Podcast by Colleen Patrick-Goudreau. It was listening to her soothing, non-judgmental voice as she spoke with genuine unbridled compassion for all sentient-beings that finally got me thinking seriously about vegetarianism again. During this time I was reading a lot of Buddhist literature, particularly works by the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh, who also advocate a vegetarian lifestyle. Subsequently around this time I got a new job, that not only increased the size of my wallet, but made vegan products easily accessible to me.
It seemed to me that the universe was trying to tell me something. Everything in my life was coming neatly together and pointing in one direction, but it was a path I’d been down before. Twice and failed at. Not only that but I had a husband now, a husband I cooked for on a daily basis, and though he was not a mad, frenzied carnivore, he certainly liked his meat. There was a lot to consider. For the first time in my life I knew there was a network of vegetarians and vegans out there who I could go to for support. I knew that I could get enough nutrition as a vegetarian or vegan easily, I had access to the goods I needed, and the money to buy them, and I had a wealth of other resources available to me, but still I hesitated. There was, after all, a lot to consider and what exactly would my husband think? But by the time I’d considered it, I realized I’d already subconsciously cut back our meat eating to once or twice a week. Once I realized that we were already eating vegetarian almost every night, it clicked. The meat on my plate went from making an appearance once or twice a week, to once every two weeks, and then once every three weeks, and then once a month, and by the time I got to that point I thought, "Why bother continuing at all?" And that was it. On August 1st of 2010 I very unceremoniously became a vegetarian for the third time in my life, and the transition I can say was rather smooth. Not a bump-free ride, mind you, but in comparison to my earlier attempts it was very smooth, indeed. And you know, I don’t even remember what my last meat-based meal was - it meant so little to me. It wasn’t until several months later however, on American Thanksgiving of all days, that I decided to go vegan, this too wasn’t as hard as I would have imagined, and that more or less brings us up to speed.