The Vegetarian’s Dilemma, The Omnivore’s Solution

Has it really been since April that I’ve last posted?  Yikes.  So much for maintaining a blog.  Well, what can I say — it’s a busy life raising two young children.  So busy, in fact, that we didn’t exactly start our homestead this year as planned.  Neither I or my husband had too many free hours during the week to plant or tend to a garden.  The good news is that we’re moving to a new homestead (yay!) in November and will definitely be planning some raised beds this spring.  I’m really looking forward to growing some of our own food.  And speaking of food…

Coming this fall — our new/old farmhouse! And yes, Phish’s “Farmhouse” has been stuck in my head ever since we first saw it.

I became a vegetarian for ethical reasons when I was 21 years old.  It was a class discussion during Philosophy 101 in college that prompted the switch.  I’d always been an animal lover and a reader of labels, always checking for the little bunny logo to tell me that no animal had been harmed in the making of the product.  To stop eating animal flesh altogether was a natural and easy choice to make.  I read everything I could on the subject – learning the horrors of factory farming, the heart-breaking sadness of the life of an average dairy cow, the deplorable living conditions of sows confined to gestational crates.  I started shopping differently at the grocery store, trading meat for “faux meat” products.  Veggie burgers, veggie chick’n nuggets, veggie hot dogs, veggie sausage patties, veggie bac’n… you name it, they faked it.  I was happy with my newfound diet and subsequent self-righteousness.   Yes, everyone who wasn’t also an enlightened  vegetarian was, as far as I was concerned, a murderer.  Or at least an accomplice.

Soon, being a vegetarian wasn’t enough.  I needed to take it a step further once I learned that a conventional egg-laying hen would never spread her wings, never see sunlight, and would share a space the size of an 8×11 sheet of paper with several other hens.  For her whole, short, miserable life.

So, it was out with the eggs and in with the Ener-G Egg Replacer.  And scrambled tofu.  Also gone was the milk and cheese – in their place were soymilk and soy “cheeze.”  I was on a sanctimonious high.  Look at me now!  Look how humane I am!  Look at my healthy, vegan lifestyle!

Did you know that Spicy Sweet Chili Doritos were vegan?  Me, neither.  I threw two bags in my shopping cart each time I went to the store.  And Oreos?  Also vegan.  And soy ice cream and vegan whoopee pies and even vegan buffalo wings.  With vegan blue “cheeze” sauce.

No animals were harmed in the making of this fatty.

That’s right.  I gained weight.  A lot.  Over the past ten years, I’ve justified every crappy, caloric morsel that’s gone into my mouth on the basis that it was “humane.”  The trouble was, my definition of “humane” was very, very narrow.  It either had animal ingredients in it, or it didn’t.  I saw food in absolutes, in black and white.

During my pregnancy with my daughter, B, I craved meat.  I craved cheese and eggs.  Especially eggs.  In my Bradley Method birth classes I learned how critical eggs were to fetal development, how perfect the composition of Omega 3 essential fatty acids were, and how these nutrients couldn’t be replicated with a supplement.

So I ate eggs.  But I knew that if I was going to eat eggs, I’d have to do it the right way.  I had to keep my conscience clear.  I bought eggs from our local farmer’s market one weekend after talking to the farmer about his chickens and how they were kept and raised.  Satisfied with his answers (and with the fact that I knew exactly where his farm was and had driven by it several times in my life), I bought a dozen and went home that very day to cook up an unforgettable swiss chard omelette for lunch.

Slowly but surely, I started adding dairy back into my diet, too.  And more whole foods – luscious fruits and bright vegetables from the farmer’s market, which we were now frequenting on a weekly basis.

When B was about 10 months old, I gave her her first piece of tofu.  She vomited for six hours.  Weeks later, we’d try again, with the same result.  She had a soy allergy.  With this discovery, gone were the Morningstar Farms products I’d come to love and count on as dietary staples for nearly a decade.  They all contained soy protein isolate as their key ingredient, the thing that made them “meaty.”  As it turns out, lots and lots of food products contain soy in their ingredients.  And they were no longer allowed in our house.

We began relying on grains and dairy as our primary protein source, as the baby was too young for nuts and neither she nor my husband liked beans.  (The same isn’t true for me.  I could eat lentils every day and never tire of them.  Mmmm.  Lentils.)  So dinnertime was usually a pasta dish or a rice-based casserole.  Usually with cheese on both counts.  And pizza.  We ate a lot of pizza.

After the birth of Mister, my second child, I was absolutely disgusted with my weight.  But it was more than just the pregnancy – it was the result of truly irresponsible eating for the better part of a decade.  Now I’ve never been what one would consider “textbook” thin, but I was a very healthy weight in college before I became a vegetarian/vegan.  I don’t mean to villainize the lifestyle or the diet because both are legitimate, healthy, respectable options.  And I share the ideals and the values and the meaning behind it with those who practice it.  And I’ll also say that there are definitely ways to do it right so that you’re eating a varied diet full of whole and healthy foods.  But I hadn’t been doing that and, with a family who couldn’t eat soy and who hated beans, our sources for complete proteins were very limited.  I was tired of eating pasta all the time.  I mean, literally tired.  My energy levels were nil and I was just putting way too many carbohydrates into my body.  I needed a radical change.

I talked it over with my husband many times.  Many, many times.  These were long, thoughtful conversations.  He’d been a vegetarian for three years; I for ten.  To make the switch back to omnivorism was a huge decision to make, and we wanted to do it right.  We agreed to carefully research the farms in the area for our meat sources and select a few from whom we’d be comfortable sourcing our meat.  We based this on how the animal was fed (e.g.: grass-fed, grass-finished for cows), whether growth hormones or antibiotics were used (definitely no on both counts), what kind of life the animal led (not just “access” to the outdoors, but truly living a pastured life), and how and where the slaughtering was done.

Happy pastured chickens, photo via MotherEarthNews.com

After weeks and weeks of research and satisfied with our findings, we bought a chuck roast to cook in the crock pot with some seasonal vegetables from the farmer’s market.  I seasoned it simply then cooked it low and slow in its own juices for a whole day.  Before we took our first bite, I led our family in a prayer – and I never pray – to thank the cow for his sacrifice so that our family could be so well-nourished by his flesh.  I thanked the farmer for his hard work to raise such a happy animal and to ensure it had such a good life.  And then we all took a bite.

It was delicious.  And soon, it was gone.  Even my daughter – whose iron levels tested very low at her recent two-year-old doctor’s visit – enjoyed the meal and has really taken to eating meat.  I’m thrilled to see her eating a more varied diet and to be getting a complete source of protein.  We agreed that we’d add a meal that contained meat from one of these farms to our menu planning for one or two nights a week, depending on that week’s budget.

Ah, yes.  The budget.  See, in order to fund our omnivorism (local, humane meat ain’t cheap), we had to cut out a lot of our staple food products from our grocery budget.  To find money for a whole pastured chicken or for uncured Heritage bacon, we had to eliminate the processed and packaged foods.  So now, if we want cookies, we bake them from scratch.  If I want a snack, I dehydrate kale in my food dehydrator or roast chickpeas in the oven until they’re crispy.  It’s a lot more work but a lot more rewarding.

No elastic waistband! Real, actual jeans! Yay, me!

Because yesterday, I zipped up my pre-pregnancy jeans for the first time in… well, it’s been so long that I’ve lost count.  Without adding in any exercise to my daily routine (and yes, I know that I should), I look and feel better than I have in months.  Maybe even years.  The first time I ate meat, I could actually feel my energy levels increasing with each bite.

Again, I want to emphasize that plenty of vegetarians and vegans do just fine – in fact, they thrive – on a meatless menu.  And ours is, for the most part, still a vegetarian lifestyle.  Except, once or twice a week, we eat a humanely-raised animal to give our bodies what we feel they need.  It’s what’s right for our family.  We still don’t support factory farms or inhumane practices when it comes to raising animals for food.  Our dollars go exclusively to local farmers who we feel exemplify the farm-to-table ethos.  I feel really good about this change, and I’ve found a whole new appreciation for my slow cooker and the wonderful magic that it can work on a meal.

I still share a bed with a rescued Jack Russell mix each night, and I still shampoo and condition my hair with cruelty-free products each morning.  I am the same animal lover I always was.  In a strange way, eating animals has renewed my appreciation for them.  I live near a lot of farmland.  Running errands or visiting friends always means driving by some farm or another out here.  And when I drive by – often slowly, so that the toddler can have a look and wave at them – I look at the animals differently now.  I genuinely appreciate what they do and why they exist.  I am grateful to them, and to the farmers who thanklessly work so hard to raise them from birth to death for the purpose of feeding people.  It’s an admirable job that they have.  They’re not murderers, not by a long shot.   Motherhood has afforded me the good sense to start seeing things in shades of gray, instead of in black and white.

I am happy in my shade of gray.  Happy and sated.

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