Perhaps one of the best things for me to disclose first is why I don’t eat meat or seafood. You see, I haven’t always been vegetarian. My childhood was much like the average American’s in that most family dinners centered around a main course of some kind of meat with the grains, salad, and vegetables as side dishes. My mom would cook everything from chicken noodle soup to sausage or shrimp jumbalaya, and my dad was the resident grillmaster who would make hamburgers, hot dogs, and chicken. While I much preferred dinners of pancakes or vegetable soup over the meaty ones, I didn’t complain. Despite how the lingering smell of bacon made me feel ill, I still appreciated what my parents made for me and I didn’t really recognize that I had any other choices.
As I claimed more independence, and my stay-at-home dad asked me what I wanted him to pack for my school lunches, I would always choose a peanut butter sandwich (cut into fun shapes with cookie cutters, please) over turkey. Waffle nights were some of the best nights. In high school, I continued to cut out more meat without even becoming fully aware of it and by the end of my senior year I finally realized I wouldn’t miss it if I stopped eating it completely (and seafood wasn’t something I had eaten since elementary school; the smell had always gotten to me, and something about the look of it had nearly always creeped me out). I finally made the connection that I felt much better when I didn’t eat meat, and that both the smell and the taste of it actually made me feel quite ill.
To be honest, “coming out” as a vegetarian isn’t something I’ve ever really dwelt on. I have been lucky in that the people around me are understanding and accepting of my choice not to eat meat or seafood. While I’m not ashamed of my decision, it’s not something I feel I must advertise, either. I never introduced myself by saying “Hi, my name’s Demelza; I’m an omnivore” and I don’t meet new people now by saying “Nice to meet you, I’m vegetarian.” If I turn down a burger at a church barbeque or pass over the green beans with ham at a buffet, no one demands to know why.
That being said, my vegetarianism isn’t something I hide, either. If people ask me, I will tell them why I don’t eat meat. I have found that if people are interested, they will ask. I recall on one occasion I was out with friends at a restaurant for lunch, and one of them noticed I wasn’t eating any of the fried appetizers that had been ordered and that my “entrée” was simply a side of steamed vegetables and a salad. Upon her inquiry, I admitted that I didn’t eat meat and that the only option I really had at this particular restaurant was the vegetable side. When she started picking at me, telling me that I “could have gotten the soup” I pointed out that the soups of the day were chicken noodle and potato bacon. When she asked me what was wrong with the meat and the appetizers, I told her that it made me feel sick when I ate meat and that greasy or fried foods also did not seem to agree well with me. My friend felt a bit defensive after I said that, and said she liked both. I reassured her with a smile, replying “And that’s fine. We all like to eat different things, and that’s okay.”
While vegetarianism and veganism have been growing in popularity, I think that—much like my friend at that restaurant—a lot of people in our society still feel defensive about their own decisions to eat meat. I think that is why their reactions often range from bragging about the juicy steak they just ate to the classic “what about the PLANTS’ feelings?” I’ve never personally come into contact with the latter sort of retort, but I think it's kind of funny when people start bringing plants' feelings into the equation. I mean, you never hear anyone complaining about “plant rights” unless they're arguing with a vegetarian.
I think another reason why it has been so easy for people to accept my vegetarianism is because I don’t dictate what my friends or family should eat. I still help with family dinners, and yes, one of my family’s favorite dishes I make is chicken pot pie—and I am fine with cooking that, as long as I am not the one who actually touches the chicken part (I personally do not like to touch or even look at raw meat). Although I am a vegetarian, I recognize that not everyone else wants to or needs to be one also. If you respect other people’s decision to eat meat, it is my hope that they will be just as respectful of yours to not eat meat. Think of it like this: you don’t make a big deal over the fact that your best friend likes butter pecan ice cream and you can’t stand it, and you wouldn’t discriminate against someone who is allergic to dairy products or force them to eat ice cream, so why would you do something similar to a person who doesn’t want to or cannot eat meat? In the end, the decision to choose what you put into your body is your own. And who knows, maybe when your friends see all the delicious foods you eat instead of meat, some of them might just start to follow your lead.