My History with Vegetarianism and Veganism
As long as I can remember, I’ve had a strained relationship with food. I don’t have many food memories stored up, but I remember loving pizza, fruit, cereal, and burgers. I started gaining weight in 3rd or 4th grade. It wasn’t so much that I craved food, but that I was eating junk. I had no idea how to eat properly, and enjoyed chips and candy frequently. By 7th grade, I had repeated stomach problems so severe that I was taken to a doctor who told me to not eat red meat or fried foods. Ever. My stomach issues cleared up. I was able to mostly eliminate red meat and no longer ate fried foods. My diet was not actually improved; I was only doing the minimum required to not be in pain. The candies, sodas, and other foods continued.
When I was in middle school I became friends with a kid from a family that was vegan. He also didn’t eat wheat, salt, or sugar. Eating at his house felt like being in a different country, and my parents certainly didn’t know how to feed him at our house. Things were always awkward between him and most other people. A lot of ridicule was thrown his way, and behind his back he was referred to pejoratively as “veggie boy.” I defended him, but in my mind the family’s vegan lifestyle was akin to a minority religion. He was always thin and short, traits that were attributed to his diet. Vegetarianism and veganism were seem as extreme in Oklahoma culture. The official state meal, adopted in 1988, consists of fried okra, cornbread, barbecue pork, squash, biscuits, sausage and gravy, grits, corn, strawberries, chicked fried steak, pecan pie, and black-eyed peas. While one could make a strong argument for at least part of this being designated “Oklahoma Historical State Meal,” as a current meal it definitely marginalizes plant-based lifestyles.
I started to form my own opinions on eating meat when I was in high school. Veganism didn’t seem right, or healthy. My friend seemed to be malnourished, so I made the assumptions everyone else had made. Still, the idea of eating animals seemed increasingly in conflict with my love of animals. Love of animals is a misunderstood term, and one that has been a part of who I am for most of my life. I liked to read about animal behavior in encyclopedias, National Geographic magazines, and in my subscriptions to National and International Wildlife magazines. I was hooked on natural history and plastered the walls of my bedroom with images from magazines of the animals I liked the most — cats, insects, giraffes, gorillas, dolphins, peacocks, dinosaurs, and many others. I was starting to see them as fellow inhabitants of the same planet and that belief made it harder and harder to want to see parts of animals cooked up for me to consume. I wasn’t making a full connection. It’s easy to forget what the thin round brown disc on a burger actually is. It’s almost designed to prevent knowing. I would go back and forth on my willingness to eat animals for a few years. I found it easier in college; the student union offered a veggie patty that I could have with my Josta soda and I could get a bean burrito or veggie sub for dinner. Feeding myself allowed me to eschew the animal foods that were generally consumed by other family members. I still wasn’t terribly strict with myself, allowing myself to enjoy the McDonald’s where my roommate worked.
I drifted away from these values after college. I have always been an eager people pleaser, and when I started spending time with a group of new friends, I didn’t want to seem odd. Enjoying the meats they cooked allowed me to fit in better. I would still try to be mostly plant-based, but did not turn down animal meals either. I still had issues with eating the animals, but I was more than willing to trade in my personal beliefs to make sure my friends were comfortable. It’s the only way in which I feel Southern.