‘Coming a Veg’ is a monthly series which highlights vegetarian and vegan “coming of age” stories. Jim’s story reflects on when he, as a young man, decided to become a vegetarian. This was written 8 months ago just as he was making the transition from being vegetarian for 28 years. Jim is an art editor at Penn State University and has lived in central Pennsylvania for his whole life. You can enjoy many of his other writings on his blog, AfterImage.
Everything jelled in my mind in autumn of 1984 to become an ethical vegetarian. I was 22 at the time, and had never heard of this term before. My girlfriend [future wife] had been an vegetarian for about 10 years when we began dating. Our long talks together seemed to stop time, and morning would greet us as we ended our dates. I had found a kindred spirit.
Up to this point, I felt the odd-one-out in regards to the hunting and killing animals. As I began to learn even about the cruel treatment of animals for human sport, consumption, clothing, etc., it rapidly became clear in my mind that I did have choices that I really had never considered before as an option. It was just before ordering a meal with my girlfriend Terri, my father, and his wife at a Red Lobster in Harrisburg, I made a ethical stand that shocked everyone at the table when I did not order any meat of any kind. I cannot remember what Terri and I ate, but it probably was a cheaply made salad and some sort of hot vegetable like an over-baked potato or boiled corn on the cob. I had not told Terri about my choice before I made it — it came about so quickly in my mind while looking at the meat-laden menu at the table that evening, but I knew it was a life defining moment, as well as a stand I needed to take for myself.
I think that my father was insulted that I didn’t order any meat that evening, and he constantly challenged, teased, and insulted me about the choices I was making for the next several years. He called us Hare Krishnas, even after my explaining that we were not and had no intention of becoming a part of that movement.
While we lived in Lewistown, we did frequently visit the Hare Krisha’s farm near Port Royal. They offered free vegetarian food to anyone who came during one of their holy festival celebrations which seemed to be just about monthly. Not having ever had Indian food before, this was a taste explosion to me compared to the PA Dutch meals I grew up with. We learned about their attempt at having the farm become self-sustaining, took several cooking classes they offered, and even qualified financially to received their vegetarian version of Meals-on-Wheels once a week. After a short while, the acquaintances we made at the farm knew that they were not going to convert us, and so we were all able to enjoy the food, conversation, and each other’s company on many occasions.
For a number of reasons, I had gained weight while at college, and with a newly found lifestyle and healthy food choices, I shed the extra pounds rapidly. In 1984 I went from a 42 stretch waist pair of pants to a 31 in about four months, and felt great. Though I have fluctuated weight some since then, I am glad to say that I am at a 31 waist today.
In the mid 80s, I am sure I pushed a few buttons by having a home-made Meat is Murder vanity plate on the front of our car, as well as entering artwork in the local Arts Festival that dealt with the emotional and physical cruelty of animal experimentation. This coming from the descendant of one of the founders of the annual Hegins Pigeon Shoot did not sit well with some in my family, but my grandmothers and great-aunt were accepting of our food choices. Meals were a time of sharing for them, and they never made us feel awkward about the food we ate, or didn’t eat, and were very accommodating.
Since my father had never respected me, my choices, ethics, morals, values, politics, religion, and especially my wife and son, I ended my relationship with him about 20 years ago. My mother, though she doesn’t understand being a vegetarian or vegan, would ask what she could make for us when we visited her. I’d offer some suggestions, as well as things we could bring to accompany her planned meal , but in the end we could be assured that she would usually make cheese lasagna and salad. Even on holidays this was the case, and I’m sure her late-husband and my older brother got tired of this. Today when we are visiting, she will choose a restaurant that she knows we can eat at because “they have salad.” My in-laws have been respectful of about our ethics, and are comfortable eating out with us even when it is one of our favorite vegetarian restaurants in NYC!
Over the years healthier food choices have become easier to find, purchase, and create either from items at grocery stores, health food stores, or eating out at restaurants. It has been surprisingly easier to eat vegan options that are nutritious as well as creative and tasty. Vegenomicon is a world away from the first Moosewood cookbook, but I still cook a few recipes from our copy of this dearly worn and food-stained friend, often altering them to vegan just by using ingredients that we happen to have on hand.
With the exception of two years in Pittsburgh, I have lived in central PA my entire life. Vegan and vegetarian choices have become steadily more and more available here in part due to the college-town lifestyle in State College. Usually I can find at least one appetizer, salad, and an entree at a restaurant. This is not a great selection to choose from, but it certainly is better than it was 27 years ago. One still has to read menus carefully and ask lots of questions about ingredients used in preparation, no matter if you are in a large metro area or a small agricultural based community in PA. It can be tiresome to always be reading product labels, asking waitstaff about how an item is prepared, and even dealing with society at large when they react to the terms vegan and vegetarian. Suggested “healthy choices” on menus are just that, but there are times at the end of the day that I just don’t feel like putting up with any waitstaff attitudes when I ask questions about an item listed on a menu, and so we end up preparing a meal at home.
At work if there are business lunches or one of the social committee’s holiday parties, just about everyone knows I am the lone vegetarian in the group, and they are accommodating, usually either having a special catered option, or having a few non-meat options available to choose from.
Over 27 years ago, I rediscovered a friend who became the love of my life. Her world intertwined with mine, and I examined the choices I was making. I became an ethical vegetarian, and am fortunate to have her in my life, sharing adventures together along the way. I am not sure of when I may be able to state that I am a vegan, but looking back over the past few months, I can see that perhaps one day in the future I’ll be reflecting and realize that it has been the case for quite some time.
The first Monday of every month I feature a new ‘Coming a Veg’ story and would I love to include yours! If you are feeling shy, your story can be posted under a creative screen name, anonymous or at least pass this request along to any other groups or individuals who may be interested. Find more information at this link or send submissions to my email: Pennsyltucky Veggie.