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A sometimes vegetarian still finds herself torn every time she picks up a menu.
updated 7/10/2007 7:28:56 AM ET 2007-07-10T11:28:56

Every time I sit down to eat at a restaurant, it’s the same dilemma: Should I choose what I want or order vegetarian? Sometimes I’m lucky and what I want is meatless. But if what I really want is the boeuf bourguignon or the veal pepperonata, I squirm, caught between moral horror, my taste buds and a desire not to be the “weird” vegetarian. I’m 38, and I have been engaged in this internal war, off and on, for nearly 20 years. I have been a vegetarian, semivegetarian and old-fashioned carnivore. Right now, I eat everything — but with a pervasive sense of unease. I thought my dilemma would get clearer over time — that my sense of what’s right, at least right for me, would have naturally evolved toward some conclusion. But it hasn’t. I’m more torn than ever.

In the beginning, I must confess that I was motivated more by a concern for calories than animals. When I went to college, everyone assured me that I would inevitably gain 15 pounds. I was so freaked out, I started cutting calories (and thus avoiding meat) the minute I hit campus. But it sounded better to say I was a vegetarian than that I was obsessed enough with my weight that I’d give up an entire food group. I lost 10 pounds and became addicted to the attention (“You’re so skinny. I hate you!”), along with the moral superiority our fat-hating culture affords the thin. If my diet saved animals, all the better.

Not that I didn’t take a certain amount of flak. Non-vegetarians don’t like to have vegetarians to dinner. The first Thanksgiving home from college, my family worried — irritably — over what I was going to eat while everyone else ate turkey. (They settled on lobster stuffed with crabmeat. I didn’t have the heart to tell them that wasn’t strictly vegetarian, either.) Friends didn’t appreciate forgoing pepperoni on their pizza because one person in the group — me — couldn’t eat it. And there was a certain wacko label that went with the whole thing. Once, at a party, when I took issue with a guy who had made a hideous racist comment, I overheard a friend whisper to him, “She’s a vegetarian,” by way of explaining my liberal tendencies.

Learning to love meat
But it was a boyfriend who prompted my first flip-flop. He was from Italy and had a fine palate and a certain civilized insistence on eating well that felt healthy and appealing, especially to someone like me who was perennially flirting with an eating disorder. When we moved in together, I began eating everything, particularly the stuff I’d really missed: the sausage and pepperoni that had been staples of my Italian-American diet growing up. He also introduced me to new delicacies such as ribs, roasted Italian-style, with a mere sprinkle of salt, olive oil and fresh rosemary. They were tender and aromatic, like something that had been cooked over an open fire for days rather than for a few hours in our broiler. They were so good, I couldn’t stop eating them. I’d put down my fork with deliberation, only to pick it up again and decimate what little remained on the platter.

I learned to love meat again. I felt slightly guilty, but my boyfriend’s approval was ample compensation. It didn’t help that we lived in Chicago, chock-full of ethnic neighborhoods and the restaurants that go with them. We ate sausages and meat dumplings in the Polish neighborhood, schnitzel at a German place and pork vindaloo from local Indian spots. The way I ate didn’t make people uncomfortable anymore. Plus, I just plain liked the taste of meat. I accommodated the extra calories by stepping up my running regimen.

The boyfriend lasted less than a year, but he changed my relationship with food. I could see that there was a lot to be said for the Italian way of eating: consciously, inclusively and with loving attention to the nuances of flavor. So you’d think I’d simply decide I was an omnivore and be done with it. I tried, for a while. But untethering my calorie obsession from meat ended up making room for the bigger, knottier issue I’d only dimly considered before — namely, the animals. Although I’d always been a dog lover, I never felt any special affinity for cows and sheep. But somewhere along the way (probably from the Italian boyfriend), I’d picked up a smattering of information about cuts of meat and where they came from. Increasingly, when I looked at a piece of beef on my plate, I no longer saw the calories I’d have to jog off the next day. I saw something that looked unnervingly like flesh — flesh not all that different from my own. This tugged my mind to uncomfortable comparisons. Skinned and butchered, how different would I look on a plate? How different was this piece of meat from me?

On again, off again
I didn’t know. But the idea bothered me enough to launch myself back into vegetarianism, at least sporadically. One week, I shunned meat; the next week, I’d salivate nonstop over the idea of pepperoni until I broke down and bought a stick, devouring it in one sitting. Or I’d sit across from someone who’d ordered a plate of spaghetti and meatballs, and my childhood memories — and taste buds — would overtake all reason. The next month, I’d be on the veggie wagon again, only to cave to pressure at a family dinner and eat my mother’s Easter rib roast. Part of it was, again, not wanting to be the squeaky wheel. (My mother is a big eye roller.) But there was a larger issue, one that was even tougher to resist: I craved the taste and couldn’t imagine never eating these things again.

Meanwhile, in the science journals I read as part of my work as a health journalist, I noticed a small but burgeoning trend in research on the sentience of animals. Fish may feel pain. Sheep could distinguish the faces of their peers — and even human caretakers — from strangers. Cows suffered anxiety. Chickens were able to utter different calls to communicate the ups and downs of life.

I also read about Temple Grandin, Ph.D., a high-functioning autistic woman and leading expert in animal science at Colorado State University at Fort Collins. Grandin creates techniques that make the slaughtering process less stressful for the animals. In addition to being less disturbing for the cattle, these procedures also improve the market quality of the meat, which can be affected by increased stress before slaughtering.

Grandin’s methods have been lauded for making the process of slaughtering cattle more humane. And I’m sure they have. But the need for them made me feel even worse. Clearly these are not dumb, insensible creatures who are oblivious to whether they live or die. Quite the reverse. Does it matter that they can’t think their way through a tricky calculus problem or write a symphony? I couldn’t help but empathize with them. Because wouldn’t I, too, feel hysteria if I knew my seconds were numbered? What made me so different from these animals? I wondered.

The moral argument
We relegate thoughts about the creatures we eat to about the same space we give to any crisis halfway around the world that we feel we can’t understand or have a direct impact on. We don’t like to think about it because there’s so little we feel we can do about it. We make assumptions that negate the pain and suffering (at least in the case of the animals) and absolve ourselves of responsibility in preventing or relieving it. Just because we turn our back on the situation doesn’t mean it isn’t there anymore. But what is our responsibility? Or, at the very least, what is mine? Much as I try to ignore the question and dig in, it haunts me whenever I eat meat. Worse, it has left me with the somewhat horrifying conclusion that I am a vegetarian morally but not in practice, the exact reverse of where I started.

It would be nice if I could find a way to let myself off the hook, to say that I’m not cut out for vegetarianism, that maybe my body requires meat. But I don’t believe that’s true. That would presume real vegetarians, by some fluke of biology, have an easier time of it. But I have sat across from too many vegetarians tucking resignedly into a plate of steamed vegetables in lieu of the evening’s meaty main course to believe that commitment comes without a price. Instead, I choose guiltily between the filet mignon and the chicken, wishing I possessed a stronger moral character.

Of course, I can continue to live a conflicted life, and no one will judge me but me. But though I crave resolution, so far, I am unable (or unwilling) to make the sacrifice. What does this say about me? Am I incapable of exercising empathy when it’s inconvenient? Which leaves me to contemplate a particular irony: It is not other people but animals who are forcing me to consider the depth and breadth of my humanity. Every time I pick up a menu.

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