I initially fell into being a vegetarian without whole lot of thought. I was 16, a time of confusion, peer pressure, and grand thoughts about how the world should run. Within the previous couple of years, both of my older siblings had stopped eating meat, so the seed was planted in my own head and I eventually declared myself a committed ovo-lacto vegetarian. I still remember that the last meat dish I ate was my mother’s cholent; she insisted, saying that she’d made it for me and didn’t want it to go to waste. She also insisted that I read Frances Moore Lappé’s classic 1971 book Diet for a Small Planet, which laid out the social and environmental arguments for vegetarianism, propounds the theory of protein combining (now largely debunked with Lappé’s concurrence), and offers a number of yummy recipes to get readers started on meat-free eating (shhh, don’t tell mom, but I never actually got through reading the whole book).
Over time, I learned a lot of good reasons to eschew meat eating – health, living lower on the food chain, the animals’ execrable living conditions – and it just became a habit I never felt the need to break. When I left home for college, I wangled my way into the vegetarian dining hall (which, by general agreement, had the best food on campus), and a couple of years later when I had my own apartment, it never occurred to me to include meat or fish in my repertoire.
More than 35 years later, I haven’t changed my mind. I don’t feel holier than thou because I don’t eat meat, and I have certainly never proselytized about the vegetarian way (my whole approach to life being along the lines of “hey, whatever works for you”). I just know that I don’t need to eat (or wear) other animals to keep myself alive. I can’t say that my life has been deeply affected in any particular way. In the circles I travel in, many people keep kosher (so they understand about dietary oddities) or they are vegetarian or near-vegetarian themselves, so I rarely feel like I have to explain anything. I make a point of not mentioning my diet to hosts because I really don’t want them to go out of their way to make me something different for dinner. If they serve meat or fish, I’m perfectly content to eat whatever else is on the table. Over the years, it’s gotten easier to dine out (at least here in the enlightened northeast) because almost every restaurant has one or more non-meat offerings.
Home life is an interesting mixed bag. I do about 98% of the cooking for my family. I told my wife that she can eat meat at home whenever she wants, but I ain’t gonna cook it (though I do grill fish for them). As a result, the rest of my family eats beef or chicken only rarely. My 15-year-old daughter (sheesh! how did she get to be 15?) recently declared herself pescetarian, though her reasons are a bit vague, mostly of the “eating animals? eeeuuwww!” variety. Our guests never seem to mind that there are no animals on the table when we invite them to dinner. No one goes away hungry from my house.
So there you have it. I’m a vegetarian because I don’t see any reason not to be. Do I gain some extra mitzvah points, an extra turn on the karmic wheel? Maybe. I just know that I feel healthy, I’m not hungry or craving sirloin, and I contribute to the world in some minute way by making a few fewer animals suffer, keeping a few more trees planted, and eliminating a couple of cows’ worth of methane from the atmosphere.
Works for me.