Thursday, November 26, 2020

Vegetarians deal with turkeys in their family, dinner

Is Thanksgiving still Thanksgiving without the turkey? Trust me, it is.

My turkey-free diet is always a source of fascination, but is under even more scrupulous examination during the holidays, when I am the only one without a piece of the roast beast on my dinner plate. I have often felt I am being rude and somehow un-American by not partaking in the traditional meal. People often seem offended and don’t realize that I am rejecting the meat, not the host.

Although I do eat seafood every so often, I consider myself to be a vegetarian. I have been since I was 12 years old, and it has put me in the spotlight at probably hundreds of meals since then.

I have constantly stood out and been an inconvenience because of my diet. On group trips, I am the only one who won’t eat fast food. I am stuck either going hungry or trying to find a microwave so I can heat up some tofu lasagna. When I am out with friends, they have to be careful to find someplace that will have salads. I am the one who has to politely pass up the meat loaf, created from a famous family recipe.

I stick out even more during the holidays, since most are centered around a meal with some form of meat. My close relatives have often seen the holiday meal as some sort of challenge for me - if I don’t eat turkey on Thanksgiving, then I must be really serious. When I am celebrating with people I don’t know well, they see my eating habits as a window into my soul.

Fellow guests often take it upon themselves to point out that I have forgotten to grab some of the main course. When I inform them of my diet, the whole room becomes interested - then the questions usually begin.

“Do you do it for health reasons or because you don’t believe in eating animals?” Do they think I’m going to spray red paint on them if they wear a fur coat to the next family meal?

“That must be why you’re so skinny.” Do they believe vegetarianism is just a way to cover up mild anorexia?

“Are you sure you get enough protein?” An attempt to defend the superiority of a meat-filled diet.

I understand the questions, and usually they are just polite curiosity. Although vegetarianism is becoming a lot more widespread - notice the Gardenburger billboards as you drive down many a highway - I am still going against the grain.

But I have always wondered how these people would react if I examined what they put in their mouths.

“Do you eat meat because you actually think it’s good for you or because you’re too close-minded to try something new?”

“That must be why you’re so out of shape.”

“Are you sure you’re getting enough greens?”

I couldn’t ask these questions, though, because their diets are traditional. But with the rates of obesity and heart attacks rising, hopefully my diet will become more normal in the future.

I not only grow tired of the questioning because it is repetitive, but because I am not really sure about my answers. I usually say I am a vegetarian solely because of health reasons, simply because I don’t feel like arguing. After all, no educated person can argue the health benefits of meat with a straight face.

But I can’t ignore that I do see a contradiction between reading children storybooks about farm animals and then feeding these animals to them for lunch.

Then again, I did grow up in a farming community, where some of my friends’ parents made their living raising livestock. And after all, I do eat fish, and many would argue that this in itself is very contradictory.

I am not condemning the meat industry; meat just isn’t for me. I don’t have a clear-cut answer for why I don’t eat meat, just as most don’t have one for why they do.

I am a vegetarian because I just feel better about it. I don’t mind that I am destined to a life of side dishes, and I know I’ll probably be cooking a bird for my relatives at my house someday while I alone munch on a piece of Tofurky.

Obviously I have grown used to my vegetarianism drawing attention, so I was surprised when it was hardly discussed during Thanksgiving this year. As I sat down on my father’s floor, my Styrofoam plate full of baked beans, squash and cranberry sauce, my grandfather leaned down toward me.

“Are you still a vegetarian?”

I nodded, and while I expected a usual sarcastic comment, he just smiled.

“That’s good.” He actually looked kind of proud, not because of the vegetarianism, but because I stuck to something for this long.

I may always be the only person not partaking in turkey during Thanksgiving. My relatives might not understand why I don’t eat meat, but they are able to see that “turkey day” can still be enjoyed without turkey.

Jessi Phillips, State News opinion writer, has a column that appears every Monday. She can be reached at phill241@msu.edu.

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