Culinate

To meat, or not to meat?

Food and judgment

By
February 13, 2012

Not too long ago, I took a trip to New Orleans. Sure, I had a business conference to attend, but if I’m honest, I really went for the food.

In the Big Easy, the humidity hangs thick in the air, like the Mardi Gras beads draped from the balcony railings of the French Quarter. Still, every morning I was there I slogged through the wetness for about a mile to the famous Café du Monde, where I wiped my dripping brow and ordered beignets and a café au lait and agreed with myself that I’d like to begin every morning for the rest of my life that way.

The beignets didn’t respond to my marriage proposal, so I just enjoyed it for what it was: a brief encounter, a flirtation, a happy memory. And I made my way through the rest of the city, wishing there were more than three meals in a day.

No meaty worries at breakfast.

My boyfriend recommended (read: insisted) I try a meal at Mother’s, a place I knew nothing about, although when I mentioned it to fellow conference-goers, the response I got was a dreamy, satisfied “Mmmhhmmm.” So a friend and I made our pilgrimage on the last day of our visit. There it was: an unassuming little building on the corner of Poydras and Tchoupitoulas streets, with a sign that read, “Mother’s: World’s Best Baked Ham.”

I should mention: I’m a vegetarian. I cut down on meat in graduate school because it didn’t fit my budget, and the less I ate, the less I wanted it. I took the plunge into true vegetarianism when I moved in with a vegan, and I’ve never looked back on that choice. I prefer my animals alive and happy, and it suits my lifestyle well.

OK, I admit, I’d been pushing my limits in New Orleans — it’s nearly impossible not to. I do eat seafood on rare occasions, so in the absence of vegetarian options in the Big Easy, I’d been eating a lot of seared tuna. And then I walked into Mother’s.

I could smell the ham from the street outside, and as I reviewed the menu on the window, I thought to myself, “Why did the boyfriend recommend this place?” It’s not like he’s unaware of my chosen diet. But it was supposed to be this amazing food, this amazing experience, and I was on a food tour of New Orleans, so in I went.

I ordered a big bowl of grits and some turnip greens and a biscuit. Everything had ham in it — everything. (I’m sure the biscuit wasn’t made with vegetable shortening, if you get my drift.) I picked around the meat, spooned it out, piled it up on the side of my plate, and thought, “Thank God I’m here with a friend who won’t judge me.” Those turnip greens were better than Grandma’s.

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But, walking back to the hotel, I felt guilty: How can I call myself a vegetarian if I even consider my New Orleans transgressions an option?

It’s a question every vegetarian faces at some point in life: Do I stick to my ethics, or do I eat something I would not normally eat for [insert a reason here]?

The Thanksgiving after my sister turned vegetarian nearly 20 years ago, I remember standing in the kitchen as my grandmother picked bacon out of the collards. Jess pretended she didn’t know, and valiantly ate a bowl of greens; she didn’t want to make anyone feel bad.

I have a vegan friend who used to tell people she was allergic to dairy because then they weren’t offended if she didn’t eat the cake they’d baked just for her. Another friend is a strict vegetarian, except she eats mussels “because they don’t have eyes.”

We all make choices about our diets, whether we shun meat, or avoid conventionally grown produce, or indulge in fast food only on road trips. But the fact remains that, while our food choices might reflect a health trend or a code of ethics or a religious stricture, they are still just choices, and some of them are quite arbitrary.

Was it better that I piled ham on the side of my plate for it to be thrown out instead of consuming it? Is it better for the environment if I eat a chemically constructed dairy or meat substitute rather than eggs or milk from a happy, free-range, grass-fed animal? Is it better for me to eat an organic apple from New Zealand than one grown on a conventional farm in nearby Virginia?

There are valid arguments on both sides of each question. What it comes down to is that we all want to make food choices for ourselves, and we don’t want to be judged for our choices.

Luckily for me, years before I stopped eating meat, my sister had done the hard work of convincing our extended family that she wasn’t breaking any laws, religious or otherwise, by going vegetarian. (She’d been inspired by reading the Upton Sinclair classic The Jungle.) So I had it pretty easy when I made the leap five years ago. But I still found myself defending my choices to strangers and friends alike.

Maybe it’s precisely because we have to argue and explain our food choices so frequently that we can get a little self-righteous about it. I’ve got friends who would line up and pay money to see me eat meat. And on the special occasion that I do decide that what I really want is a crab cake or a tuna steak, I feel like I have to eat behind a door in the kitchen to hide my clandestine, treasonous act.

I’ve been told that I can’t really call myself a vegetarian if I eat seafood three times a year, but I disagree. If I’m going to label my eating habits, it’s still the best label to describe the rules I choose to eat by.

That same vegetarian sister really prefers to buy organic. But times are tough and budgets are tight, and she can’t always afford it. So she sticks to organic produce, and worries less about olive oil and canned beans. “I do the best I can,” she says. She does this by trying not to take herself too seriously.

The most relevant pop-culture joke here is probably the scene in the movie "Scott Pilgrim Versus the World" where Todd the Vegan loses his vegan superpowers when Scott Pilgrim tricks him into drinking coffee with half-and-half. It’s a funny scene because we recognize the truth in it: there are a lot of people out there, be they organic-onlies, vegetarians, vegans, locavores, or dedicated omnivores, who take stringent stands on a food choice and become insufferable about it.

Judgment and expectations can take a lot of the joy out of food. So I’ve worked hard to cultivate a sense of humor and a more relaxed attitude about what I choose to eat. I feel that food should nourish both my body and my mind, and guilt has no place in that.

What gives me joy is a basket full of fresh produce from my garden, or figuring out what to do with the kohlrabi I bought at the farmers’ market, or making fresh eggnog for my father at Christmas, or creating a four-course meal with my boyfriend in my tiny kitchen. The joy is in the process, and in these things that are fresh and available and delicious.

This could be said for any process involving food, creativity, and love — meat or no meat. I choose to do the best I can not to consume animals, and most of the time, I do just that. And then there’s New Orleans, with its lack of vegetarian options and the total joy of shrimp and grits at Red Fish Grill.

I have to remind myself that I’m bound to my eating habits only by the twin forces of my will and my desires. I do the best I can. Sometimes that means picking the ham hock out of my turnip greens, and letting the good times roll.

Caryn Lazzuri is a gardener, eater, and writer living in Washington, D.C. When she isn’t writing about or eating food, she busies herself by making museum exhibitions.