The scene went down like this: After having made my way over to the Leavey Center on a lonely weekend afternoon, I found myself waiting at the bank of elevators on the ground floor for a ride up to the fourth floor. After a few moments passed, the doors to the left elevator opened, and a girl and a guy stepped out. They seemed to know one another, and it appeared that they had been talking while inside the elevator; I caught them in mid-conversation. As they stepped out and I stepped in, I hear the girl query the guy: “What kind of vegetarian are you?” Note here that my italics are meant to convey the stress that the girl placed on the last two words of her question, as though she was growing increasingly frustrated with her failed attempts to classify exactly which school of dietary restriction this guy fit into.
I found myself laughing out loud when I got into the elevator (I had the ride to myself, luckily). The nation’s meat-eating population seems to have a genuine curiosity with the lifestyle decisions that vegetarians have made, and the myriad schools of vegetarianism (vegetarians who eat fish, vegetarians who do not eat fish, vegans) only contribute to the general national confusion over what it means for people to call themselves a vegetarian.
This episode in the elevator was of particular personal interest to me, as I count myself among the growing legions of people who have forsaken meat, for one reason or another. And I’ve been on the receiving end of those questions from carnivores seemingly millions of times before. It’s been my experience that many meat-eaters find vegetarianism to be an implicit moral attack on their character and feel obligated to jump to the defense of all carnivores when the topic of vegetarianism comes up in conversation. How many times can one be subjected to the standard line of questioning?
“Where do you get your protein from?” they ask, or “Do you take vitamin supplements?” Imagine if all meat-eaters were subject to the same kind of questioning about their diets:
“Why is there so much fat in your diet?” or “How do you keep your cholesterol down?” The rules governing polite conversation dictate that we simply do not inquire into one another’s diets, as a matter of general principle, but yet somehow vegetarianism seems to be a special case, an extenuating circumstance.
To borrow from the language of cultural studies, vegetarians are America’s culinary other, a group that has attracted outside attention considering that they make up less than one-tenth of the population. The American cuisine is based upon staples that are resoundingly not vegetarian-friendly: fast-food, steaks, hot dogs and surf-and-turf define the taste of America. For that reason, vegetarianism has emerged as a subculture, incorporated into the organic foods-Fresh Fields shopping-nutrition conscious underworld.
To be fair, though, this is not simply an American phenomenon. Certainly the cuisines of many nations around the world are centered around a meat-based diet, and compared to some countries, America seems positively green. The French have two words to describe those who restrict meat eating in their diet: “vegetarien” (no meat, but fish) and “vegetalien” (the equivalent of our “vegan”). Neither is particularly common. At the same time, though, 12 percent of British youth are vegetarians, a number that has increased nearly 50 percent over the last three years.
I don’t intend this article to serve as vegetarian proselytizing. I’m very secure in my lifestyle choices, as are most other vegetarians. There is not the general sense that we need to convert people to the cause in order to legitimize our diets.
Instead, I mean to point out the curious treatment that vegetarians are subjected to, as characterized by the cited anecdote. You’d never hear someone who didn’t eat meat pose a similar question to someone who was not a vegetarian. We simply do not care. But there is a presumption on the part of meat eaters that what they do is natural, and that those who don’t eat meat are somehow violating a natural order.
In the end, though, such claims don’t hold up. Put simply, we all need calories to survive. We get our calories from vegetables, beans, nuts and a host of other foods, while Joe America gets his calories from meat. Of course, the inquiries are benign, and perhaps some of the inquisitors are genuinely interested in what it means to be vegetarian (perhaps they are thinking of converting themselves).
I suppose this is really just a by-product of too much time spent thinking about a harmless episode in a Leavey Center elevator. People generally love to talk about themselves, so maybe it’s a good thing that carnivores are so curious about what vegetarians are about. But it’s only fair that I repay the favor. So, what kind of meat-eater are you?