Do you remember the last thing that changed your life? A moment, not too different from all the others, that just sticks in your mind and makes you see everything in a new light? What triggered it? Was it something that someone said to you? Was it something you saw or read somewhere? Did you pass this new way of seeing the world on to anyone else? To your family and friends or maybe to total strangers?
The reasons why we make changes to our lives aren’t always obvious. It can be difficult to fathom other people’s motivations without a closer look. Everyone has different experiences in life and it is very difficult to predict which of our own experiences will resonate with someone else.
If I asked twenty people to tell me the story of how and why they first became vegetarians, I’d be rewarded with twenty different answers, all of them every bit as individual as the people themselves. Sometimes the life-choice of becoming vegetarian seems like an obvious step, growing out of non-violent, save-the-planet, cruelty-free ideals. Other times, as in my case, it arises from the most bizarre of personality traits.
I didn’t originally stop eating meat due to any warm fuzzy feelings or a live-simply-so-others-may-simply-live attitude. I stopped because I hate losing arguments. The reason I stayed a vegetarian is pure, simple, straightforward revenge.
On a sweltering Tuesday afternoon in Atlanta, I was sitting in a van with a band called Worlds Collide. They were friends from my hometown of Washington DC, who had driven down to Georgia to record an album at my studio. Things were going well and we were taking a long overdue dinner break.
Since the whole band was vegetarian, and since the year was 1992, the only cheap place where they could eat was Taco Bell. I had never been to the Bell before, and would have much preferred eating at McDonald’s. As far as I was concerned, that was the perfect restaurant.
While our van was creeping along in the drive-thru line, we watched a none-too-excited-to-be-there Taco Bell employee carry in the daily delivery of food. As he trudged passed us we noticed what the boxes he was carrying had written on their sides.
“USDA Meat: Grade D (but edible)”
Everyone else in the van moaned with disgust while I ignored them and told myself that they had no idea how the USDA grading system worked and that it must be healthy or they wouldn’t serve it. To be honest, I barely gave it a second thought at the time and when we pulled up to the speaker, over the taunting and jeering of the rest of the van, I ordered a steak burrito.
There have been a few times in my life when I have joined other meat eaters in making fun of a lone vegetarian and, having been on the other side of this teasing, it was interesting to get another perspective on it. But right then and there I didn’t take the time to appreciate the irony. It just pissed me off and I think I called them “hippies”.
Up to that point in my life, all of my interactions with vegetarians had consisted entirely of traded insults. It wasn’t until later that evening, long after we had all finished eating, that I sat down and had a serious discussion about why someone would want to stop eating meat.
It really was more of an argument than a discussion and, without a doubt, it was an argument that I lost hands down. For every point I would try to make, they had a counter point that made more sense and, even more importantly, that fit more closely with my ideas about the world and my sense of right and wrong.
I remember at one point saying, “But if everybody went vegetarian, what would we do with all the cows?!?”
My mouth’s impassioned defense of meat eating had gotten ahead of my brain and I found myself in what I have to admit was the argumentative low point of my life. I realized how stupid it sounded as soon as I said it, but it was too late and the room erupted in laughter. When my friends finally grew tired of making fun of me, they pointed out that if we didn’t create factory farms and force breed all these cows there wouldn’t be a problem. I begrudgingly conceded that they were right and decided to try vegetarianism for a month.
Worlds Collide left the next morning and I headed off to the local health food store to buy tofu.
When I got home, I called my mother to tell her the news. She was skeptical. After all, I had spent my entire childhood asking her for rides to and from McDonald’s. But I was really excited and I guess she could tell, because she offered to send me $100 to help buy food. (This was a thinly veiled way of helping out her financially strapped son without making him feel like he needed the assistance, but it was appreciated. Thanks, Mom!)
In retrospect, it is funny how extreme a change I thought I was making. It felt as if I was trying the most radical thing in the world, which is understandable, because I had been a meat eater in the truest American sense. My favorite meals could be described simply as steak, chicken, and everything on the McDonald’s menu (except the McFish sandwich). I ate no vegetables to speak of, aside from potatoes (usually in the form of french fries), and ketchup (which only counts as a vegetable according to Ronald Reagan, but that is a whole different essay).
Still excited, I got off the phone with my mother and started to make a vegetarian lunch. I began by opening my very first package of tofu.
“Forget this,” was my initial thought, followed quickly by, “There is no way I can eat this stuff for a whole month. Big Mac, here I come!”
Then I remembered Taco Bell.
“Maybe this is better than Grade D meat.”
I went ahead and cooked myself some lunch.
If a world history of lunches were to be compiled, this one would have ranked pretty low. It was overwhelmingly bland, a scary pale color, the texture was mushy, and it was generally horrible. But I persevered and the next day’s lunch was better. Still terrible, but an improvement. By the end of the week I was able to magically transform a package of tofu into a palatable meal.
Palatable meal or not, I don’t know if it would have been enough to convince me to stay vegetarian. So far, the argument I had lost was still an entirely theoretical exercise. I did agree that it was better to not kill an animal than to kill one, and I knew why I was eating tofu instead of my usual fare, but nothing had happened to connect that to the real world for me yet. As things stood, I was ready to stick it out for the month, just so I could say I had tried it. It hadn’t even occurred to me to consider making the life choice of becoming vegetarian.
Then the pivotal moment I was speaking of took place.
I was sitting in front of my television with a plate of curried tofu, broccoli and brown rice, when a McDonald’s commercial came on. It was one of the old ones where the Hamburgler is running through a garden and stealing hamburgers off the trees on which they are peacefully growing.
Suddenly this commercial I had seen a thousand times, and usually ignored, had my full attention. Something about Ronald and his wacky friends was setting off major alarm bells in my head.
All at once, I put my finger on it.
“Wait a minute,” I screamed, not realizing that I was thinking out loud. “Hamburgers do not grow on trees.”
And that was it. I realized that McDonald’s is a liar. The universe made a new kind of sense to me. It was like I had just gotten the last piece of a puzzle to fit and it changed everything. A total paradigm shift. Or maybe it was a gestalt shift. Well, it was definitely a shift.
I had been taught that “meat” and “animals” were two different things. I realized that when I was a kid, if someone had told me I was eating a cow or a pig, I would have been appalled. After all, these were the animals from my favorite nursery rhymes and stories. If someone had offered me an alternative, I would have jumped to take it. So society and, more specifically, McDonald’s lied to me and told me I was eating a hamburger, which was perfectly harmless because hamburgers grow on trees.
Of course I had known from a young age that the food we eat comes from dead animals, but it is something that is very glossed over in our culture. This was the first time I had ever thought about it, and the first time I had ever become aware of the levels to which we deceive ourselves and to which we allow ourselves to be deceived. I saw clearly the way companies like McDonald’s shamelessly wrap their lies in a cartoon-esque wonderland and aim them directly at children.
It made me very, very angry.
I decided I was going to be vegetarian forever.
I turned my newfound anger into resolve and I set about to learning how to cook. And I became quite good at it, thank you very much. Before that month was over, I was making meals that were every bit as tasty as any meat dishes I had ever made, and immeasurably more healthy. I ate more vegetables in my first month of being vegetarian than I had in twenty-one years of eating meat.
I started searching for other things I had been lied to about and thinking of ways to change my life accordingly. A year after I gave up meat, I decided that the dairy industry was as bad as the meat industry and I went vegan.
I found the process of becoming vegan quite similar to that of becoming vegetarian. Both required some thought and effort at the very beginning. For the first month or so, I had to think about it and check ingredients all the time. But it quickly became completely natural and soon it was something I never had to think about. I developed new routines and those routines soon became habits. By the time my initial anger at McDonald’s faded into a slowly burning hatred, I had already realized how easy it was to live as a vegetarian. There was no going back.
From the health benefits and environmental benefits, to just feeling good about not killing anything, the additional reasons I have found for staying vegetarian over the years are many and varied.
* * *
The question I often ask myself is, “Why did it take me so long to become vegetarian?”
I had definitely been exposed to vegetarian ideas from many sources. A lot of my best friends were vegetarians. Many of my favorite songs were about vegetarianism. My little sister even gave up meat for a few years when we were kids. But none of it ever made an impression on me.
I know that one thing that kept me from considering vegetarianism was the attitudes of the vegetarians I met. The most vocal ones I encountered, even my friends, tended to be extremely self-righteous, obnoxious, or evangelical whenever the subject came up. I tried really hard to not be guilty of any of those things, but when I first gave up eating meat, I probably came across as all three.
I wrote this essay to explain, in a non-confrontational way, why I made the decision to stop eating animals. Hopefully, there is something here that everyone can relate to. To readers who are already vegetarian this might be entertaining or insightful. To the non-vegetarian reader, there might be something extra. They might find something that resonates and inspires a change.