Dear Captain Awkward,
I am part-time vegetarian. I feel like I get a lot of flak: ”well are you
are a vegetarian or not?” and ”we saw you eat meat; so why should you get
the special vegetarian food?” But I’m not waffling or being weak in my
convictions. I have good reasons to eat meat sometimes and require
vegetarian food at other times.
1) For various health reasons, I limit my consumption of meat to way less
than the typical North American diet. Which means that if you saw me eat
meat at lunch, then it doesn’t mean I’m eating meat now; in means I HAD
MEAT ALREADY and NEED TO NOT EAT MEAT NOW for a day. Or two.
2) I’m concerned about the environmental impact of meat production. The
solution to this, I believe, is to eat less meat. A lot less meat, but not
no meat whatsoever. Eating meat once a day rather than 3 times a day is
like driving a Prius instead of a Humvee. We don’t question the
environmental ethics of the Prius driver for consuming some gasoline.
3) My daughter, age 10, is aware of factory farming, and horrified. But
she loves meat. I don’t want to squash her empathy and compassion just
because it’s inconvenient. So, we talked this over, and decided that what
we can try to do is only eat humanely raised meat; which, in effect, means
that we limit meat to when I get to the froofy grocery store that has the
grass-fed beef and the cage-free chickens. I think this means we will have
to present as vegetarians when we go out. Otherwise we will come across as
total snobs: “yes we eat meat… but your meat isn’t good enough.”
4) I just plain like vegetarian food and vegetables and get bored with
meat, and disgusted by sausage in my food.
It would be simpler if I could just be a vegetarian, but I like some meat,
and my daughter would rebel; and, (due to reactive hypoglycemia)
occasionally I desperately need a high-protein meal, and in many
situations meat is the only option.
So… I am very interested in vegetarian and vegetarian-friendly
restaurants, what my vegetarian friends are cooking, and the vegetarian
options in the cafeteria. I eagerly discuss these topics with the
vegetarians, but then they act betrayed when they see me eating meat
later. The omnivores are just confused.
Is this all that confusing? Am I allowed some middle ground between
standard American “all meat all the time” and “don’t let any meat touch my
food”? How do I explain my food preferences so that I get the food I want
but not the flak?
— vegetable eater
Dear Vegetable Eater,
I’m a big fan of eating whatever you want and however you want when you want without a lot of friction from others, so your letter gives me an opportunity for a general manners review for adults breaking bread with other adults. These are very general and I’m sure people can think of a jillion exceptions depending on the closeness of a relationship or the nature of the food or the nature of the restriction, but I know a lot of people with wildly different food needs and preferences (including many of your fellow vegetarians-except-for-that-one-circumstance) who eat together regularly without friction, and my experience says that these principles work pretty well as a starting point.
- What is on your plate is interesting to you. It should be boring to other people.
- What is on other people’s plates should be pretty boring to you.
- If you are going to comment on someone else’s food, stick to positive stuff like “That looks delicious!” “Where did you find it?“
- No telling people something that they are eating is “gross.” No pontificating on the health benefits (or drawbacks) of a certain food while you or someone else at your table is eating that food.
- Stop talking about food as “sinful” or “bad.” “I’m being soooooo baaaaaaad by eating this cupcake.” Ok, whatever, Yogurt Commercial Lady.
- Stop commenting on the amount of something someone is eating. “You sure were hungry!” “You eat like a bird!”
- Telling people you plan to eat with about your food allergies or dietary restrictions helps them accommodate you. “I’m allergic to peanuts, so no Thai restaurant please. The air alone in there will kill me.” “Can we choose a place with several vegetarian and vegan options?”
- If you tell a restaurant “No onions, please, I hate them” they will not put onions in your dish. If you tell them you are allergic, they are obligated to find pans/knives/plates/utensils, etc. that have never touched an onion so they don’t risk making you sick. Respect the difference between “preference” and “allergy.”
- If you have a very restricted diet and you are going to an event where food will be served, help the hosts accommodate you by letting them know ahead of time and consider bringing something you know you can eat to share.
- If you’re an omnivore, you host a lot of dinner parties (or put together menus for indie film crews), and you have lots of vegetarians in your social circle, think about making vegan or vegetarian main courses and making meat an optional side-addition. Too many times vegetarians and vegans end up feeling like an afterthought as they piece together a “meal” of lettuce and bread.
- Good pot luck or buffet-serving practice: A little card listing ingredients next to each dish that allows people to discreetly make good decisions.
- If you’re planning a restaurant outing, linking to online menus ahead of time can help alleviate anxiety and help people make good decisions about what to order and whether they can or want to go.
- If people tell you they can’t eat something or don’t like something, believe them the first time.
- Remember that food preferences, like sex preferences, evolve. Just because you liked one thing a certain way last week doesn’t obligate you to want it now.
- No convincing people to eat a certain dish or a certain way. Offer, if you want, but don’t evangelize and accept refusals politely.
- Don’t eat “at” other people, don’t assume others are eating the way they do “at” you.
- Respect the agency and autonomy of others in choosing what and how they eat. Assume they have their reasons for eating as they do that are just as valid as yours. Even if you don’t think that’s true or you hotly disagree with their choices, if you are breaking bread with someone, treat them with respect.
- Recognize that there are enormous class, access, and economic issues at play in terms of who gets to choose exactly what and how they eat at all times.
Readers, what are we missing?
Vegetable Eater, my read on your letter is that you try to be very thoughtful and deliberate about your consumption, that you identify with vegetarianism culinarily and ethically (especially in contrast to the “standard American diet,”) that you want to be or wish you could be a vegetarian all the time, but for now you are an omnivore who eats meat only when it can be sourced as ethically as possible and/or only when you really need the protein and/or only once/day or every couple of days.
I also think you and the people you eat with regularly are blurring lots of lines in how you talk about food. No one should be commenting on your food choices as much as you describe them doing. However, if you are commenting on their food choices, and/or spending a lot of time discussing yours, people will feel more comfortable offering you commentary.
If you live in a part of the country where meat is ubiquitous and vegetarians really have to work to defend and carve out some menu space for themselves, you probably had to really speak up to get any veggie options, and after speaking up so strongly, people don’t understand why today you just really need a little bit of chicken so you don’t pass out at your desk. I also think how much friction you get depends on how much “work” other people feel they’ve had to do to accommodate your food preferences. If I’m the office manager, and you made a big stink about the catering I order for meetings because of the lack of vegetarian options, or if when we eat together we always have to go to your favorite place and never mine, if I see you eat meat I am going to at least wonder what’s up. I wouldn’t necessarily wonder *out loud*, and that wondering doesn’t mean others should police your food choices (and people in charge of figuring out catering should just get veggie options without treating it as weird), but a question along the lines of “Is having a vegetarian option still a priority or is chicken ok?” can be more about checking in about your needs than about judging you.
Going forward, you could try describing your eating habits as “I prefer to eat meatless food about 90% of the time, with rare exceptions when I cook at home or when I know the meat was humanely sourced” without mention of the “typical American diet.” You’re absolutely right to note that this will come across condescendingly, as “you know, that inferior crap that YOU probably eat” or “My meat (and need to eat meat) is good and conscious, but yours is gross”, especially if you live one of the Midwestern Meat Meccas and especially if someone’s hospitality is involved. When hanging with vegetarians, share recipes and talk farm policy with enthusiasm, but maybe lay off any “UGH, OMNIVORES. I KNOW, RIGHT?” talk (since you are one). And, when eating in mixed vegetarian/omnivore company, you could try expressing a preference rather than an identity, i.e. “Can we get Indian or Persian food instead of BBQ? Daughter and I like places with lots of veggie options” vs. “Come on, you know I’m a vegetarian.” See if that buys you a little less friction, and remember that people who harp on your food choices are acting like jerks and that you don’t have to eat or perform in a way that pleases them.
Finally, since you and your daughter are passionate about sustainable agriculture and the environment, I suggest that you look into volunteer and activism opportunities where you can meet like-minded folks who will understand and have your back and work to change policies through collective action.