The Grass-seed Radical: Thirteen Years of Vegetarianism
I was twelve years old at the time, and for a twelve-year-old, those sorts of family parties are always boring affairs. So I brought a book--okay, a stack of books--with me for company. My family had recently rescued two neglected dogs, and I found myself keenly interested in animal welfare on a sudden, so I'd checked out of the library Ingrid Newkirk's Save the Animals! and Peter Singer's Animal Liberation, expecting--in my twelve-year-old's naivete--that they would mostly be calls to spay and neuter one's pets, bring them inside when it got cold, and feed them regularly, the latter two of which had been problems for our dogs' previous owners.
What I found, instead, was an exposé of a world few civilized people like to consider: What happens to our meat before it reaches our plate? And no, I'm not talking about whether the cook at Outback ascribes to the five-second rule--although that as a former kitchen manager, I think I'm safe in saying that what goes on in many restaurant kitchens also doesn't make for civilized conversation--but what happened up to the moment when our meat went from being "animal" to being "food." Because who likes to think about those sorts of things? And isn't meat a necessary evil?
I didn't--and really, I still don't--like to think about those things anymore than anyone else. But I've always had the failing of being unable to ignore something once I'm aware of it, and once I was aware of factory farming, I couldn't look at meat without seeing ... well, what it was before it was meat. And how exactly--in excruciatingly gory detail--it got from there to my plate.
So I swore off of meat that day, unable to continue supporting an industry that is as cruel as the factory farming business. Over the next thirteen years, my reasons for remaining a vegetarian have changed somewhat, given the increased availability of free-range and cage-free meats, but my determination has not. People often ask, "Do you ever see yourself going back to eating meat?" And I suppose that for many Americans, what I do does seem like a terrible sacrifice. I've never denied this when talking to others who consider becoming vegetarians: It's hard in a culture like ours, where meals center on meat, to adjust to forgoing it entirely. But I can confidently say, after thirteen years, it's hard to see it as that way. It's not so much a choice and certainly not a sacrifice. It's simply the way that I live. It's like moving to a new city. At first, the streets are unfamiliar, and all you can think about are the familiar and much-loved people and places from the old city. But after a while, you get used to it, and it's strange to think, "There was a time when this wasn't my home." And the idea of going back, while momentarily appealing in a nostalgic way, seems strange and perhaps a bit distasteful.
When I was twelve years old, I think I would have been proud of this day: the day when more than half of my life has been spent meat-free. I'm sure I would have loved to hear the rhetoric that thirteen years of vegetarianism has taught me. At age twelve, I was a good little radical. I went to animal rights' marches and belonged to PETA. Things are nicely black and white at age twelve, and like any radical, I knew that I was on the side of What Was Right. However, I was also still shy at that age, and I did maintain something of a grip on reality, most unbecoming to radicals, that kept me from fully realizing my radical potential. For example, I was never the type for confrontation. I was simply too shy. Oh, my family heard plenty out of me. It's probably no surprise, then, that my sister and my two closest cousins followed me into vegetarianism. (Sharon is still a vegetarian and one of my cousins is a pollo-vegetarian.) But radicals always want you to approach everyone. To make them aware. They have this idea that people want to be made aware, that we're all always just sitting and waiting to hear the awful truths about what is simply a part of life for us. And I could never get into that.
Which isn't to say that I didn't try. Radicals are also creative in the ways that they "get the word out," and when you're an insider, this creativity seems hilariously clever. In a way, radical groups are like fandom: To a member of the group, it's the center of the world, and those who exist at its most extreme boundaries are worthy of the utmost respect. To an outsider, though, you seems like a group of nutjobs spinning your wheels over something pointless. Jokes that seem hilarious to insiders are lame or even insulting to those outside of the fold, like those clever animal activists who made themselves some enemies when they compared statistics about how many animals are killed as part of experiments to the number of human beings murdered during the Holocaust. And of course, those who dare mock the Noble Cause are immediate enemies.
Save the Animals! is primarily a book of ideas about "getting the word out." This book--and its author's organization, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA--advocate show-stopping, creative ways of advocating for animal rights. For example, an activist could go into the forest on the first day of hunting season and blare "The Star-spangled Banner" and watch all of the hunters stand up. (Or, more likely--especially where I live, which is close to D.C. and, hence, Dick Cheney--get shot.) PETA loves stickers. They sell rolls of stickers to their activists that are supposed to go on everything from packets of ground beef at the grocery store to fur-trimmed coats to bottles of shampoo that were tested on animals. "WARNING:" they read. "Animals suffered to make this product!" I still have a roll of these stickers moldering somewhere, though as far as I know, they were only used once, by a friend of mine and fellow activist, to remind me that the boots of my rollerskates are made of leather. The residue from that sticker is still on my skate, a funny/sad reminder of what was. What I was.
I did try. Newkirk's Save the Animals! hammers home the importance of phone calls. Call companies that still test on animals to express your disapproval. Call companies on moratorium to express your support ... unless they go off of moratorium, at which point, you'll be back to calling every day to express your disapproval. Now, anyone who knows me in real life knows that I despise using the telephone. For a long time, I was a radical vegetarian with a big guilt trip because good radicals call anyone and everyone about The Cause, and I was afraid to.
So one day, I girded my loins and picked up the phone to call--as suggested by Save the Animals!--the USDA's Meat and Poultry Safety Hotline to protest the oxymoron in their name: meat and poultry safety when we all knew that meat and poultry is far from safe, especially for the animals. Save the Animals! gave a list of suggested talking points. I remember one: Ask why egg-laying operations smother male chicks en masse in plastic garbage bags. However, as I still ate eggs (and still do), I felt that this would have been hypocritical of me.
But, voice a'quiver, I did my radical's duty to the poor woman on the other end of the USDA Meat and Poultry Safety Hotline and pointed out that meat and poultry is not safe. Twelve-year-old me would not have been happy to know that one of my most important--and favorite--responsibilities as a kitchen manager, ten years later, would be teaching food safety, especially how to safely handle meat and poultry. I don't know what calling the Meat and Poultry Safety Hotline was supposed to prove. Convince the woman on the other line--just doing her job--to give up good guv'ment benefits in protest of the fact that egg-laying operations smother male chicks en masse in plastic garbage bags? Certainly, she wasn't in a position to effect policy change, if that is even possible, considering the expensive voice that the agribusiness has bought themselves in the American political system. And as awful as smothering male chicks en masse in plastic garbage bags is, it really has little to do with meat and poultry safety.
After hanging up the phone, I was for some reason mortified at what I had done. I assure you, that mortification exists to this day.
That was the last phone call that I made for The Cause.
So I suppose that--unwilling to pick up the phone or put stickers on everything or blare "The Star-spangled Banner" in the woods to save deer--I was stuck not even with grassroots action. No, I was lower than that. It was more like grass-seed action. I was left only with the option of talking to people I knew about The Cause. And in truth, most people don't know much about the testing of cosmetics on animals or the benefits of vegetarianism or the execution by anal electrocution of animals raised for fur.
By the time I realized that I was stuck at the ugly and unformed grass-seed stage of effecting radical change, I was in high school. Now it's probably not hard to imagine that in an institution where a person can be ostracized for wearing the wrong brand of jeans that my vegetarianism was the subject of considerable, shall we say, discussion. Because I advocated for animal rights, I was asked if I supported the spanking of monkeys. I was told that I was a hypocrite because I wore a fish-shaped hair barrette. (This all calls to mind another topic that I've considered blogging about: Why the fuck do some people call high school the best years of one's life?) Actually, one of the defining moments in my adoration of my one-day husband Bobby came when he "rescued" me after lunch one day from relentless harassment by an older student about my vegetarianism. But in the way of any good radical, all of this pain and harassment I suffered was really a good thing: It was yet another chance to "get the word out."
And this was a defining moment for me. Already, I'd been reduced from grassroots to grass seed by virtue of my shyness. I'd found a venue where others were gladly starting the conversation for me: high school. And heck, starting the conversation is the hardest part, right? Around this time, my best friend was a fellow activist, like me. She often forgot that I was the one who had changed her life by making her realize the suffering others endured for the satisfaction of her palate because she was a better activist than me. She wasn't shy about arguing with anyone. (Our friendship later ended when her ex-hippie and über-progressive mother wrote a letter to my mother calling me a whore for sitting on Bobby's lap at a shopping fair where we were trying to raise money for the high school animal rights' club.) But my friend took the life of a radical right in stride. Sitting at lunch, she would wrinkle her nose as a friend unwrapped a ham sandwich. "Do you know what some poor pig went through to make that? Don't you know that pigs are as intelligent and friendly as dogs? Would you eat dogs? Do you know that they chain pigs up by one foot and cut their throats? Isn't that gross?" and so on. She was getting the word out, I guess. She was also diminishing the list of people willing to sit with us at lunch.
After the whore-letter incident and the end of our friendship, a year later, my stand partner in band class said something profound to me. "You know, Dawn, I like you. Even though you're a vegetarian."
Keep in mind that, in high school, this is not only a perfectly logical statement but somewhat amazing that I might, in fact, be likable despite my non-conventional lunch-line choices. I grinned. "Thanks!" I said.
"You're not at all like Lily," he said of my old friend. "She gets really annoying with it."
And what I'd sort of felt all along--call it a gut feeling--about activism suddenly clicked then. Grass-seed activism--the kind that grows only under the right conditions--isn't such a bad thing. Though I wasn't the sort to call out friends on their choices in lunch sandwiches or telephone Proctor & Gamble five times a day to blather to some hapless telephone operator about the evil of the corporation for which she worked (which as an employee, doubtlessly, she knew firsthand), when my stand partner mentioned this to me, I'd managed to convince about a dozen people to try vegetarianism, including my friend, seemingly without effort. How many had she changed? Not one.
Twelve-year-old me doubtlessly would have expected that, thirteen years into the game, I might have some harrowing stories to tell of protests and marches and civil disobedience ... or at least giving some poor USDA hotline employee a piece of my mind. Twenty-five-year-old me cares more that the last thirteen years have made me healthier, (ethically) wealthier, and yes, wiser too.