On Meat And Memory: What Vegetarians Give Up

Jonathan Safran Foer's Times Magazine essay on vegetarianism brings up an interesting point: for many people, becoming vegetarian means breaking with a lot of the cherished food memories that have made us who we are.

Foer writes eloquently of his early attempts at vegetarianism, his re-commitment when his son was born, and the moral underpinnings of his choice ("Try to imagine any end other than taste for which it would be justifiable to do what we do to farmed animals"). But what stood out for me about his piece was the descriptions of food he'd given up. He writes,

Some of my happiest childhood memories are of sushi "lunch dates" with my mom, and eating my dad's turkey burgers with mustard and grilled onions at backyard celebrations, and of course my grandmother's chicken with carrots. Those occasions simply wouldn't have been the same without those foods - and that is important. To give up the taste of sushi, turkey or chicken is a loss that extends beyond giving up a pleasurable eating experience. 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 (forgetting, too, can be cultivated). To remember my values, I need to lose certain tastes and find other handles for the memories that they once helped me carry.

It's true that not every tradition is worth preserving, and plenty of things that we now consider abhorrent were once happy memories for some. At the same time, Foer is more honest than many vegetarians about the personal cost of not eating meat. For me, becoming a vegetarian didn't involve jettisoning a lot of beloved foods. I was such a picky kid that my favorite foods were toast, apples, and ice cream, and although I enjoyed a brief food renaissance when I went to college, I didn't really become emotionally attached to meat. Giving it up at the age of 20 was easy.

But I got sick. Vegetarianism led to near-veganism led to an obsession with "healthy" food (combined with a summer on a very strict beans-and-broccoli budget) that left me underweight, cold, and anxious all the time. I was never diagnosed with an eating disorder, but my friends were concerned, and my doctor sternly told me to gain weight. Which I did, in part by eating seafood again.

I still do it, and I'm still not completely proud of it — while I don't share Foer's ethical fervor for the vegetarian cause, I do know that fishing can be as bad for the environment as factory farming. I think of my eating style as a way to eat less flesh and use fewer resources than I would as an omnivore — which it is — but it's also a way of honoring good memories and keeping bad ones at bay. Being a pure vegetarian or a vegan still reminds me of a time when I was sickly and scared and not taking good care of myself. Eating the occasional clam linguine or California roll reminds me of getting better, of feeling physically and mentally healthy again. I know that many, many people thrive on animal-free diets, and I believe that, with the right preparation and the right frame of mind, I could too. And I don't believe, as some do, that vegetarianism is just another eating disorder. But I am afraid of how easily my ethics can turn into self-denial, my self-denial into self-punishment. And I don't want my diet to remind me of my summer of beans.

Foer says that when his grandmother made her chicken and carrots, she "wasn't preparing food, but humans." And it's true that food is rarely just food — it's also the stories and the values that surround it. For me, for now, a can of anchovies tells a story about healing myself, and it's not a story I'm willing to give up just yet.

Against Meat [NYT Magazine]