Aras recently wrote about his “month” of “not” eating meat and added a few questions throughout that I suppose were rhetorical. Well, for the next thousand words or so, I’ll pretend they’re not.
At the outset he claims to have gone “all out” with not eating meat, like me. I would hardly consider myself “all out.” First, I’m not a vegan, despite having been a vegan for a few stretches of a few months. Second, I’m generally a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”-type of vegetarian. At restaurants, I’ll avoid food that I can nearly guarantee has meat in it (nearly every soup unless it says otherwise), and if there’s a large doubt, I’ll ask. But I won’t push the issue to demand separate cooking spaces, etc. There are people who do that, and I respect their decision, but though I’m against meat contamination, the main thrust of my not eating meat has to do with reducing consumption.1
The first question Aras asks is about the ethics of throwing away already owned meat instead of eating it. Everyone approaches this differently. When I stopped eating meat, there was still tons of meat in my mom’s house, and none of it got thrown away. In fact, there still manages to be a ton of meat in her house that doesn’t get thrown away. If Aras included his whole family in his scheme, then it was simply a peculiar scheme, that I’ll return to below.2
The next question has to do with eating at a formal event. Basically, Arai, it does suck. That’s the life of being a vegetarian in the Western (or, in the case of Vilnius, wannabe Western) world. You are nearly always an inconvenience, especially to extended family members who keep forgetting your dietary restrictions. Before any big dinner function (wedding reception, say), I’ve gotten into a habit of eating a meal on my own, since I know that the bread and salad at the table won’t be able to compete with the night’s drinking afterward. I have fond memories of sitting in a parking lot in Rosemont, IL, eating a stuffed spinach pizza from Edwardo’s by myself to prepare for a Šokių Šventė banketas.3
Airlines are getting better about serving vegetarian food, by offering it as one of the main choices, instead of as a special dish, though there are certain limitations.4 Banquet halls are also getting better, but we’re still a far ways away from being normative. When Medieval Times offers a vegetarian meal that isn’t steamed vegetables with a cup of melted butter, I’ll know things are ok.5
This bends into Aro next question, of “if real vegetarians are ever caught so off guard.” No, we aren’t, since we understand that we live lives that are, despite increasing visibility, outside of the mainstream. I know to eat before a wedding reception. I know to bring snacks aboard an airplane. It’s like having a game or something ready with which to occupy your child when you’re about to embark on something that will test her patience. You anticipate and prepare, two verbs that are central to any adult’s vocabulary. And you enjoy being surprised when you’ve overprepared.
And sometimes it means not being a part of a certain social circle, or understanding that you can never fully be a part of a certain social event. For example, I love my friends, but I’m sick of going to barbecues at their houses. No matter how many delicious “sides” there are and how full I can get off them, we can’t escape the fact that the centerpiece of the event, and what the host usually prides him or herself with the most, is a giant slab of carefully, lovingly prepared meat. Similarly, my friends in Chicago go to a rodízio every year. I simply decline the invitation, since $40 for an all you can eat salad bar (and it is a good one!) is an obscenity.
But, considering how scarce meat was in the western world until about a century ago, and how scarce it continues to be throughout much of the world, an all you can eat meat buffet (as well as a night devoted to pushing the limits of said buffet) is its own obscenity.
Finally Aras brings the issue to Vilnius and about being a vegetarian there. I’m not as much of an expert on this topic as Ed (who eats fish) or my friend Veronika, who has been a militant vegetarian for the near decade she’s lived in Vilnius, but I do know a few things.
First off, there are certain cuisines/restaurants one simply avoids. The rodízio is one example. German restaurants and French bistros are another. These culinary cultures are simply not accepting of vegetarian lifestyles, and one anticipates this in advance. When I go to a French restaurant in Paris, I know that I will either be eating some kind of omelette or a pair of measly “entrées” (sides) while my friends go to work on half a pig. It’s funny that Aras specifically mentions Bravaria, since it was another German restaurant in Vilnius I was planning to go to over the summer until my suspicions (there won’t be anything there I can eat) were confirmed by the menu on the web.
Next, one learns of places that do have decent vegetarian meals, without having to resort to going to Balti drambliai all the time. Briusly and Beirut (while it stays open!) both offer multiple vegetarian dishes of astonishingly good quality. Sue’s has an even more expansive (and expensive) menu. Even my over-maligned Tres mexicanos serves its vegetarian clients multiple dishes (I think there are five things on their menu one can order without meat without ordering it specially).
But even local Lithuanian cuisine, based as it is on farmers who were too poor for meat, has greasy, starchy, non-meat alternatives, making places like Čili kaimas or Amatininkų užeiga perfectly fine dining options. Furthermore, the crêpe/blini/blynai culture of Eastern Europe gives both sweet and savory options that never even come near meat. One won’t convince me that Теремок in Moscow has a tastier thing on the menu than their “Блин ‘E-mail.’” So it’s not the case that because Vilnius lacks “vegetarian restaurants,” it’s difficult for a vegetarian out there. In fact, I never felt particularly without a place to eat, unlike in Paris, where one can get sick of cheese omelettes. Furthermore, Vilnius is much more amenable to drinking and dining than the US is, where usually if I’m out drinking with friends, I’m limited to pub food (read: nachos, french fries, or something else deep-fried).
So what’s the crux of my response to Aro post? Something about how being a vegetarian is not personally terribly difficult, but it does still have a non-trivial social cost, one that Aras felt in passing, remarked upon, and then abandoned, since, for him, this was merely a one-month experiment. I, for example, and Aras has witnessed this personally, try by all means to weasel out of dinner parties, knowing that I’m, simply put, a pain in the ass. Most people I know are not used to preparing vegetarian dishes (or considering the extremely wide array of non-meat dishes outside of omelettes and pasta), so I know I’m a burden when they invite me over. Some families, like Aro, I’ve learned are up for the task. But I can’t hold it against my stepfamily for not being similarly adventurous.
I have friends who abandon their vegetarianism when it’s polite to do so. I certainly do many, many things out of politeness only, and I used to eat shellfish this way. It took my mom about three Christmas dinners before she remembered I don’t even eat shellfish anymore, so I politely ate the stuff, especially since I saw how proud she was of the effort she went through to make a dish just for me. But these days, I would simply refuse, as I simply can’t eat shellfish anymore. It grosses me out, as does all animal flesh. When I tackled vegetarianism here last, I wrote that going back to meat is simply not an option anymore. This isn’t an experiment; it’s a way of life.
This whole post I have avoided trying to compare the social cost of not eating meat with the social cost of being a recovering alcoholic. There are obviously vital differences I can’t even begin to imagine. Yet I find it slightly instructive that it’s the example I kept wanting to return to. You’re a person who, for whatever reason, is cut off from what remains a vital social component of your cultural life. And you also know that there is no going back–no returning to that cultural life. All you can do is wait for everyone to join you, pretty much, to wait for culture to change. It’s not worth it (or even the case, for me) to feel sorry for yourself about the differences. You just anticipate and prepare, over and over.
- On the other hand, I generally don’t “eat around meat,” which Aras did during his experiment. [↩]
- On a side note, I would certainly not choose a winter month for an experiment in vegetarianism, unless it’s an experiment on “how bad can things get?” The variety of food available in the wintertime is much lower, and that’s felt acutely by vegetarians. I’m glad I’m not yet sick of potato leek soup. [↩]
- Friends were jealous when I later told them what I ate for dinner, when they compared it to their rubber chicken. Of course, I also paid the $50 or whatever for food I didn’t eat. Thinking about functions in that way is an exercise in madness. If I considered a banquet ticket to include the price of the food, I’d never go to another banquet again. [↩]
- This truly is tragic. American Airlines used to offer a vegan meal, a vegetarian meal, and a Hindu meal. Despite how impossible it is to get in a special meal request with them, the Hindu meal was always fantastically aromatic in comparison to the steak and potatoes everyone else would eat. AA apparently drew some Venn diagrams, however, and collapsed all three into a simple vegan meal that I’ve never found particularly exciting. Too bad! [↩]
- The fact that during the epoch the restaurant celebrates pretty much no one on Earth ate meat with any regularity causes the vegetarian option to serve as a complete insult. [↩]