Why did I become vegetarian?
Soon after I became vegetarian one of my friends asked my mother what she thought about it. Mum replied that I had never liked meat much anyway. So here are a few experiences that made me realize how much I hated eating meat:
- Finding out that our pet lambs that I fed every day didn’t got to greener pastures – they came to our dinner plate.
- Choking on a chicken bone.
- Making chicken stock and being repulsed at handling the chicken carcass.
- Being relieved I wasn’t out with my mum when she ordered my dad and siblings bulls penis soup.
- Feeling uncomfortable at a friend referring to meat as a “carcass”.
How did I become vegetarian?
Once I moved out of home and had my own kitchen, I began cooking less and less meat dishes. I loved packing my meals with lots of vegetables and discovered legumes and tofu. When I moved into my next share house I found a vegetarian household. Within a month of moving into that household I became a vegetarian and have never regretted it.
Being among other vegetarians made it easier to be vegetarian. It meant I had a safe space in the student house where there was no meat and no hassle. My housemate gave me great support and taught me about being vegetarian. It was here that I learnt to love nut roast. We spent hours sitting around the kitchen table discussing vegetarian food, chewing over ethical issues and having a whinge. We even had a vegetarian Christmas dinner before Christmas day, a tradition that I keep up with my partner today.
I had a lot to learn. This was before you could find any information on the internet so I spent time reading books to understand about reasons for being vegetarian and making sure I was eating the right nutrients. My guides were Vic Sussman, Rose Elliot, Mollie Katzman, Sarah Brown and the Australian Women’s Weekly. You can see some of their books in my cookbook list. I also joined the university food co-op which was another great place to meet other vegetarians.
Coming out as vegetarian
It was hard at first. I felt I was asked the same things over and over. I would answer their questions and satisfy their curiosity and educate them and put up with their jokes. Some people just couldn’t imagine not eating meat! I tired of the spotlight shining on me because I was a vegetarian. But as people began to accept it as part of who I was it got a lot easier. I also become more confident and better informed.
Questions, questions, questions
A sample of some of the questions I got in my early days of being a vegetarian:
- Why are you vegetarian?
- What about protein, iron and/or nutrients?
- If everyone went vegetarian what would happen to all the cows?
- How can you be vegetarian when you still wear leather?
- Don’t you just want a taste of my burger?
- Don’t you miss meat?
- But what do you eat?
These days I don’t get asked very much as people I know just accept that is my way and I don’t make a big fuss of it. For some good answers, if you are facing such questions, you could check out the Australian Vegetarian Society’s FAQs, the IVU FAQs, Gena's advice on talking to others and Carla’s advice on group meals.
Update: one of the questions that annoys me is: what is you were on a desert island with only an animal to eat, what would you do? For anyone facing this question, what the questioner forgets is that either the animal has something to eat and thus there is other food to eat on the desert island or the animal is starving too and has no meat on it. And besides chances of you being on that desert island are as slim as you being in a plane crash in the Andes Mountains and eating your colleagues when they die.
Update: another questions I often hear is "why do vegetarians eat fake meat? If they want to eat meat they should just eat the real stuff". This seems to lack empathy for vegetarians giving up meat for ethical reasons who still live in a world where meat has nostalgia or emotional pull and they miss the taste of meat, favourite meals or even the rituals associated with eating meat (see my comments on Eating with Family and Friends below). Meat eaters expect vegetarians to not try and convert them. Similarly, we expect meat eaters to have some compassion for us. It doesn't always happen but sometimes we need to be able to live and let live. (Or as my grandmother used to say to the Jehovah's Witnesses, "You don't try and convert me and I wont try and convert you.")
Challenges I encountered
Ethical issues: When I first went vegetarian we often discussed the ethical issue of when compassion for animals should take back seat to compassion for people. I had to consider this in Poland when I was treated most kindly by strangers with not much English who offered me a bed for the night and a bowl of beef stew. I ate it because it seemed rude to refuse. It is the most meat I have eaten since I went vegetarian.
The unhealthy trap: Lots of literature says that vegetarians are terribly healthy but unwary vegetarians can put on weight. I went through a period of eating too much rubbish because it was easiest. When main course was mostly meat, I would find myself eating lots of carbs (chips, bread and pasta), cheese and chocolate. I would eat dessert as compensation for a poor meal.
Other foods to avoid: When I first went vegetarian I thought that it was merely a matter of avoiding meat (and seafood which I never liked either). I found out that strict vegetarians steer clear of many more animal derived ingredients. I confess to being a little inconsistent. I make a great effort to avoid both meat stock in soups and risottos and fish sauce in Asian meals. However while I try to avoid other products such as gelatine (found in many yoghurts, lollies and jellied desserts) and rennet (in cheese), I don’t manage to do so altogether. I also will drink beers and wines that aren’t vegetarian, though I would prefer vegetarian ones if possible.
Entertaining: My house is mostly vegetarian. The main exception is the occasional smelly fish or tinned beef chilli that E enjoys on the odd occasion. It is his house too after all. But when I invite people around for dinner or a party I only offer vegetarian food. Usually I am catering but the main reason is that it is a pleasure to have an event that is all vegetarian, where I don’t have to avoid certain dishes.
Cooking meat for others: I have cooked meat for others since I went vegetarian but I don’t enjoy it. When I worked in the UK as a carer for elderly people I cooked steak and sausages but I was never very confident because I couldn’t (wouldn’t) taste the food.
Partner and baby: Once I went vegetarian it impacted on life when I chose a non-vegetarian partner and had children. Fortunately my partner E eats very little meat at home, but I look forward to him ordering vegetarian food when we are out so that I can taste his food. When I got pregnant I thought my vegetarianism might be an issue but it wasn’t. It was only when I started Sylvia on solids that I found more disapproval than support from health professionals. Fortunately by then I was fairly confident about eating a healthy vegetarian diet.
Also see my post on raising a vegetarian child to be tolerant of meat eaters.
Eating out as a new vegetarian was tricky. Soon after becoming vegetarian, I was told by a country chef that vegetarians were the bane of his life! Since then I have found that many places are accommodating but I still face situations where I must be creative and either ask for meat to be taken out of a dish (though I usually end up paying for the meat) or combine a couple of starters.
Is that really vegetarian? Some places still baffle me. I have found a slab of chicken instead of tofu in my soup and refused to return to the restaurant because of the devil-may-care attitude. I have been served “vegetarian wanton soup” with chicken in it and been told breezily that yes it is “vegetarian wanton soup with chicken”. Asian food tends to be trickiest because of all the hidden fish. Recently I went to a Malaysian takeaway café that had a long list of vegetarian dishes with a disclaimer saying dishes may not be 100% vegetarian. Upon closer questioning I found that every one of these dishes had shrimp paste or powder and were not in fact vegetarian.
Not all vegetarians are the same: Just as some omnivores prefer chicken to beef, some vegetarians prefer tofu to chickpeas. Yet I find one of my chief complaints about eating out is that often I have only one dish that I can order. It means I don’t have to make any hard decisions but it is sometimes exciting to have the tyranny of choice at a vegetarian restaurant. I am most displeased when the one option has very little in the way of protein, especially when the meat dishes are mostly protein.
Phone ahead: If a meal is being externally catered, phone ahead either to the caterers or to the people making the arrangement. It makes life easier. I have arrived at a wedding and found no one has told the caterer because I forgot to remind my friend. The caterers were great and made me something but I was a bit behind everyone else in my courses. Recently I went out for a group meal at a restaurant where we gave dietary preferences beforehand and the set menu was created with these in mind.
Eating with family and friends
I grew up on a meat and three veg diet. It was quite a challenge when I went home to eat with my mum and dad and siblings when I decided to be vegetarian but my vegetarian dishes now co-exist quite peacefully beside the meat dishes.
Creating new traditions
Special occasions such as Christmas, birthdays and holidays often are celebrated with traditional food. Christmas in my family meant turkey and ham and would keep the family fed for days. For my first Christmas as a vegetarian, I made a nut roast to eat instead of the turkey. I have made this nut roast almost every Christmas since then. Not only does it serve me well for the big roast lunch but it also makes wonderful leftovers when everyone else has turkey and ham sandwiches.
My family has quite enjoyed how my vegetarian traditions have diversified their options. They used to laugh at my nut roast but now they enjoy a piece. I sometimes have to jealously guard it so I have leftovers. I also introduced swiss cheese at Christmas breakfast when everyone else had ham on toast.
My mum makes lots of roast dinners. One of my compromises was to agree to eat roast vegetables roasted in the same pan as the meat. This was because it was far easier for my mum, but she often does such large roasts that she will do a pan of vegetarian roast vegetables. As at Christmas, I often take along a nut roast for an easy protein alternative but my mum will often make lots of interesting vegetable dishes for me to compensate for my lack of meat.
My family has lots of barbecues in the backyard. At first my mum cooked my veg sausages inside on a frypan while everyone else was enjoying the great outdoors. She was trying to keep my food separate from the meat but I felt like I wasn’t able to mingle with my family. After some discussion, we now cook my sausages on the bbq on a piece of foil or separate grill so we can all enjoy the outdoor meal together.
Volunteer to bring a plate of food
If a meal is at someone’s place, offer to take food along. I like to find out what sort of foods are being served and take something to fit in with the theme. This is personal preference. I once went to a Christmas dinner in Ireland where everyone had turkey and roast veg and I had a stirfry. I would much prefer a nut roast with roast veg but I know a friend who would just have a tomato sandwich.
As Ricki so eloquently says, getting together with family and friends is primarily about the people rather than the food. If the food is terrible or a bit of shrimp paste sneaks its way into the meal (we’ve all been there, haven’t we?), then it is best to remember why you are there in the first place, make compromises for your loved ones and/or have something decent to eat when you get home.
Unlike some vegetarians, I never liked meat a lot and rarely miss it. Vegetarianism isn’t just about taking meat out of a diet. It is a whole new way of cooking and eating. The idea of eating faux meat (tvp, seitan, mock duck etc) does not appeal to me. However there is always an exception. I found myself missing sausages and now eat vegetarian sausages quite often. They are also convenient to take to a bbq.
I realised that I missed sausages because I missed the comfort, the convenience and the nostalgia rather than the taste. Over the years I have found a few great “faux meat” recipes that taste great and bring back the memories but aren’t processed food and don’t taste so meaty as to repulse me. And I do love a bit of vegetarianising meat terms (facon = fake bacon, tricken = trick chicken, and shamburgers = sham hamburgers, chilli non carne = chilli con carne, cheatballs = cheating meatballs).
- Tofu bacon (or facon): thin slices of tofu marinated in soy sauce, maple syrup and smoked paprika, then fried. I also love Coconut Bacon (excellent in sandwiches) and Bean and Buckwheat Facon (fake bacon). I have tried alarmingly pink commercial facon and made soggy tempeh facon before but they don’t come anywhere near home made. (Update see my list of 20 recipes using facon that I love.)
- Nut roasts: I love nut roasts because they are a substantial centre to a meal that takes the place where roast beef or chicken used to be. They have helped me to continue to enjoy roast dinners which were a frequent childhood dinner and still appear regularly on my mum’s table.
- Vegetarian haggis: I was pleased to find this recipe because my partner E is Scottish and loves haggis. He is happy to eat a vegetarian version (who really wants to eat sheep’s stomach and haggis?) and we eat this every New Year’s Eve.
- Vegetarian mince meat: Amazing mix of ground walnuts and cauliflower baked with seasonings that made my lasagne look as close to mince meat as anything I have made. (Another genius idea from Ricki)
- Vegetarian sausages: it is easy to buy good vegetarian sausages but hard to find a good veg sausage recipe. My favourite are the mushroom, chestnut and couscous sausages but I also enjoy the famous Chorizo Sausages that are made with gluten flour.
- Vegetarian sausage rolls: I used to just make a nutroast-style filling but I’ve never looked back since discovering Liz O’Brien’s version of vegetarian sausage rolls (thanks to Cindy). My carnivorous brother has said the only reason he would know these are vegetarian rather than meat sausage rolls is that I made them.
- Vegetarian Hog’s Head: I have never eaten a real hog’s head nor do I have any desire to do so, but I wanted to share this just to say that it is possible to have all the pomp and ceremony of a feast without killing a hog.
Twenty years after deciding to become vegetarian, I am still happy to eat a meat-free diet. In fact, the very idea of eating meat seems so strange to me that occasionally I get surprised at people wanting to eat meat.
I don’t miss meat and I am comfortable eating with the meat-eaters in my life. I still get frustrated at the occasional person or café that does not understand but generally I find that most people and places are very accommodating. Being vegetarian has made my diet more interesting and varied. You only need to browse my index to see just how well a vegetarian can eat.
Unlike when I became vegetarian, there is now an amazing wealth of recipes and tips on the web for those who are interested in a vegetarian diet. Here are just a few places with interesting information:
- StoneSoup – Jules' reflections on being vegetarian for a month
- Lisa Dempster – How-to-be-Vegan series of blog posts (no longer available)
- Veggie num num – being vegetarian
- The Veggie Table – lots of resources
- Planet VeGMeL – an aggregation of lots of vegan (and some vegan-friendly) blogs in Melbourne
- Vegan Hope - reflections on vegan junk food
- Where’s the Beef – great resource for Melbourne restaurant reviews from a vegetarian perspective and lots of great recipes
- Choosing Raw - great advice on going vegan - "add first, subtract later"
- Becoming vegetarian - useful guide from a Melbourne naturopath
- Vegan 101 series at JL goes vegan