The Web of Family and Society - Being Vegetarian

The Web of Family and Society

I’m not telling you it’s going to be easy;
I’m telling you it’s going to be worth it.
Art Williams

 Gathering around the table

The zest of cumin or ginger, the smell of garlic or coriander – these ancient spices still fill modern kitchens. The family is seated around a table laden with aloo gobi, shahi paneer, chana masala, and chicken tikka. The naan is being broken and dipped into sweet and tangy mango chutney; mint lassis have been poured. Mamma and Papa, brothers and sisters, uncles and aunts and cousins of all ages are gathered to enjoy being together, perhaps to celebrate or to remember.

How is this scene coloured if one of the family – perhaps the youngest son home from university and newly vegetarian, or the new daughter-in-law raised in a vegetarian household – objects to traditional meat dishes? If father says, “Beta, you must try the chicken tikka; it is mother’s specialty,” how does that son or daughter-in-law respond respectfully and lovingly and still hold their own values?

Or consider the scene at another family table set with a traditional meal from the southern part of the USA. Admire the bounty of foods – two bowls of freshly picked butterbeans – one spotted with bacon grease, the other just plain ole beans, water, and salt – warm biscuits made from scratch with white flour and vegetable shortening, platters of sliced home-grown tomatoes and corn on the cob, fluffy mashed potatoes with butter pooling on top, and in the centre, crunchy fried legs and breasts and wings of chickens. I once sat down to this meal and was grateful to see the accommodations made for me, the vegetarian daughter visiting from thousands of miles away.

It had been two decades since I’d eaten any form of meat, yet as we sat together before saying grace, my father, who simply couldn’t fully accept that I’d become vegetarian, asked, “Beck, do you eat chicken?” I had to grin as one sister, thinking I’d be hurt because Dad had once again forgotten something so important to me, jumped to my defence, saying, “Dad, she hasn’t eaten chicken for twenty years! Get used to it!”

How does the conversation flow as the food is eaten? Do carnivores and vegetarians clash over differing philosophies? Or are boundaries and preferences respected?

How our families and friends respond when we choose to become vegetarian matters to us. We encounter encouragement, opposition, scepticism, admiration, and disdain – often sitting around one table. Social tides shift just a little when we make such a huge decision, especially when that decision is made based on compassion, health – both personal and environmental – and ethics. Others sometimes feel that their own eating choices are being judged. This sense of judgment, whether accurate or not, can create a hotbed of reaction and resentment. On the other hand, it can also provide a flicker or a flame of inspiration.

Gracefully being vegetarian in the midst of people who aren’t requires some of the same internal qualities that we wish to cultivate in the world around us – gentleness, tolerance, commitment, and respect for others’ opinions. We sooner or later learn, sometimes only after pulling a really big foot out of our mouths, that no one needs a lecture on our deeper understanding of the virtue of living without eating animals. Those who really want to know will ask. Realizing that we can’t force understanding is an important step. When we catch that concept, we can relax and, while staying fully within our own beliefs, respect the fact that others have the right to disagree. In this way, we cultivate harmony with our families as well as friends and work groups; we continue to participate in ‘table fellowship,’ creating and sustaining the bonds that all of us need – humans and animals alike – so that we feel tethered, connected, to one another.

Practically, how do vegetarians remain involved in the social experience of sharing food when it seems to our meat-eating friends and family that we’ve left their table entirely? How do we keep from alienating those we want to hold close? Isn’t it terribly hurtful to tell Grandma that we can no longer eat the cake we grew up begging for or to tell Auntie that the chicken pakoras we once loved are no longer wanted? Where’s the kindness and compassion in hurting another’s feelings?

It’s not unusual to hear from beginning vegetarians that they can’t face disappointing family members by insisting on strictly vegetarian foods. Being prepared for such almost-inevitable scenarios would probably be helpful for any aspiring vegetarian. We can be tempted to simply ‘be polite’ and accept or pretend to accept non-vegetarian food. This almost inevitably leads to confusion and only delays the honest conversations we need to have. When we first change our eating, friends and family may, in spite of good intentions, simply forget or not understand our new dietary guidelines. Experience has taught many a vegetarian that it’s best to be courteous and clear and to remind others in advance of a feast or tea or simple dinner that we no longer eat any portion of any animal. Be explicit – pasta without eggs, pies without lard, salads without bits of bacon on top. And perhaps offer to contribute a vegetarian dish that everyone can enjoy.

Remembering why we are – or why we are becoming – vegetarians is a good first step. Then we face the knowledge that our job is to monitor our own feelings, words, and actions and that we are simply not responsible for the way others feel, speak, or act. Grandma may be disappointed; auntie may get mad. That disappointment and anger may dissipate quickly or linger for a lifetime; auntie might end up admiring the family’s new vegetarian. Or might not. None of us can see into the future or predict the results of living by our ethics, of being the person we deeply want to be. Most long-time vegetarians can spin tales of how mom (or some other family member) never, ever accepted the fact that her child had stopped eating all forms of meat. However, we can also speak of seeing resistance simply seep away when we consistently, without wavering, remained vegetarian. Our commitment over time clears away many of the concerns families and friends may have. They see that being vegetarian is a way of life that we have fully embraced.

Yet even with supportive family, friends, and co-workers, we sometimes encounter hostility, though more often polite disagreement, confusion, or a hint of disdain. In those moments, we get the opportunity to be our best selves, to root relationships and interactions in sweet civility, motivated by our desire to be kind, loving people.

 A different view

Matzah balls for Passover, turkey for Thanksgiving, minced pies for Christmas, fish soup during Semana Santa, chicken curry at the close of Ramadan – family lives worldwide are filled with celebrations centred around food. From a birthday party to a bar mitzvah, a wedding to a funeral, we mark passages and holidays with food. We bind ourselves together as family, friends, neighbours and even nations over tables stacked with the foods of our culture. We may eat eagerly from paper plates with our fingers or dine delicately from porcelain with silver forks, but we all cement and celebrate with food.

When we become vegetarians, does the cement begin to crumble or the celebration to sag? As we think of dramatically changing our diets and our approach to the concept of animals as food, aren’t we somewhat afraid of that potential crumbling and sagging? An old advertisement for boxed baking products was accompanied by the jingle (sing along if you remember this one ...) “Nothing spells lovin’ like something from the oven.” McDonald’s declares, “I’m lovin’ it.” We’ve been immersed all our lives in a blending of food with love, love with food. If we become or are vegetarians, what do we do about that?

Surely this question has lots of answers, individually tailored to each of us. One approach that has benefited many long-time vegetarians is blending the old and the new. Cheese and bean burritos can sit alongside meat ones. A deep dish of vegetarian lasagne can be served along with the one that has beef, or artichoke soup can sit next to the chapon. Everyone gets something he or she likes. Lots of groups work harmoniously this way.

Within our own circle of vegetarian friends and families, perhaps we want to take yet a different approach. We can create new memories, new traditions, bonds based on a common desire to put our ideals into practice as we break bread together. Jonathan Safran Foer addresses his decision to engage in creating new memories and traditions in his powerful book Eating Animals. He explains, “Changing what we eat and letting tastes fade from memory create a kind of cultural loss, a forgetting. But perhaps this kind of forgetfulness is worth accepting even worth cultivating ... to remember animals and my concern for their wellbeing, I may need to lose certain tastes and find other handles for the memories that they once helped me carry.” After discussing some of the food changes he and his family are incorporating into their lives, including backyard barbecues and Passover, Foer adds, “The point of eating those special foods with those special people at those special times was that we were being deliberate, separating those meals from the others. Adding another layer of deliberateness has been enriching.”63

Forging different traditions and creating new memories can indeed be enriching – a pleasure to which the heart responds. Being surrounded by food made of ingredients we enjoy and feel good about using is a delight. A potluck where vegetarians can eat every single dish laid out? Now that’s a treat. A vegan Thanksgiving? Oh, what a real celebration! Forget the dead turkey carved into slices; perhaps an Asian theme is appealing – eggless pad thai and kung pao tofu; raw carrots, cucumbers, onions, tofu, and Thai basil all rolled into rice paper wraps and smothered with spicy pepper and peanut sauce; squash soup with lime; hot veggie tempura; brussels sprouts cooked with sesame oil; and dairy-less pumpkin, pecan and coconut crème pies. All eaten with gratitude and joy, consciously connecting with our peaceful centre as stories are shared and blessings recounted.