What is vegetarianism?
Vegetarians do not eat meat or food made from animal parts. That includes fish, gelatin, animal-based soup stock, and (for some vegetarians) any cheese made with animal rennet (which covers a lot of cheeses!). By the way, Worcestershire sauce and Caesar dressing contain anchovies. So, don’t serve those to your veggie friends, please!
A good number of vegetarians, called ovo-lacto vegetarians, choose to eat cheese/dairy and eggs. Some “pescatarians” are vegetarians who choose to eat fish. When in doubt, ask!*
Vegans are vegetarians who eat absolutely no foods (and use no products) that were produced by or from animals. Vegans do not eat cheese, eggs, honey, some white sugars, some red dye containing insect carapaces, some beers and wines that use animal based membranes as filters… When in doubt, check the label/website, or simply ask a vegan friend!
What are some reasons for vegetarianism?
Most people probably think of animal cruelty when they wonder why someone would choose to become a vegetarian. That is the deciding factor for many vegetarians, it’s true. For some reason, this is met with derision. I’m not sure why people see compassion as a laughable weakness, but that is the reaction I’ve heard the most. The difficulty is that many states exclude livestock from animal cruelty laws and reporting of instances of animal abuse in factory farms/abattoirs is extremely low, possibly due to the precarious position held by the exploited minorities and recent, often undocumented, immigrants who make up the majority of slaughterhouse work forces. However, not only is there an issue of under-reporting animal cruelty, but many vegetarians are also concerned about the under-reported human toll of these slaughterhouses. Therefore, many vegetarians see their personal boycott of the meat industry as a humanitarian act as well.
Another reason vegetarians refuse to participate in the meat industry is its environmental impact. First, they see meat production, beef in particular, as a waste of resources that could otherwise be used to feed more people on a plant-based diet. Meat-heavy diets contribute more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere than any other type of diet. Livestock is raised differently, relying on different resources around the world, but still requiring one third of the fresh water on the planet. Some locales are better suited than others so sometimes livestock production results in deforestation for pasture lands, triggering a slew of environmental harms from increased carbon emissions accelerating climate change to destruction of habitat for endangered species to reduction of biodiversity, and of course the human impacts such as increases in parasitic diseases. Of course, industrial agriculture and monoculture in general contribute to air, soil, and water pollution in many ways, so many vegetarians choose to be mindful of the source of their non-meat foods as well. Many seek organic, local, sustainable sources, but sometimes it’s difficult to navigate what counts as truly sustainable and how to eat conscientiously without hypocrisy. I highly recommend Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma if you are interested in exploring that topic.
Do vegetarians hate meat-eaters?
No. You may meet some who are intensely passionate and get upset when our beliefs are blown off as frivolous, yuppie, girly, hippie, etc. I think in general we understand that it is difficult sometimes for non-vegetarians to reconcile their favorite food traditions with some unflattering information about the meat industry. In fact, there was a study recently about how people choose to disbelieve facts even if they know the information is correct. The researches concluded that, “False beliefs, it turns out, have little to do with one’s stated political affiliations and far more to do with self-identity: What kind of person am I, and what kind of person do I want to be?” [emphasis added] If you answered, “I am a person who cares about the environment and my fellow humans,” great! That’s not the exclusive domain of vegetarians. Acknowledging some difficult information does not necessarily mean one has to quit meat cold turkey (haha, see what I did there?). There are plenty of responsible options for meat-lovers today: Often small local livestock farms favor sustainable practices, and will even let interested eaters tour their facilities; Cutting out a little meat, especially beef, each week can have a significant impact on the environment (and your budget!) if enough people are on board; Your vote counts when it comes to electing officials who admit that our agricultural industries have a long way to go in terms of sustainability and treatment of human capital.
We all make choices that make us feel proud to be good people. If you choose to try some vegetarian cooking, good for you! You have come to the right place.
I know if someone asked what kind of person I am, I would like people to answer that I am an open-minded, fearlessly compassionate critical thinker… who likes to cook and eat good food!
*A note on entertaining vegetarians and vegans:
If you think vegetarianism/veganism is silly and are not willing to prepare a meal that meets your guests requirements for the diet they chose DO NOT HIDE MEAT IN IT OR TRICK THEM INTO EATING IT. Put yourself in their shoes. If there was something that was very important to you and you made it clear to your friends that you were against it, but they disregarded your wishes and tricked you into doing it, how would you feel?
Choosing to fundamentally change the way you eat, every single day of your life, involves an incredible amount of thought, research, determination, and dedication. Please be respectful of your friends’ choices, even if you disagree with their reasons (if you know those reasons. If you don’t know them, why not ask? I bet you’ll be surprised.).
If you are unwilling/unable to cook a vegetarian meal for this person, either don’t invite them, or tell them your difficulty and I’m sure the two of you can work something out. Maybe he or she will bring a vegetarian dish to pass, maybe you will learn a scrumptious new recipe, maybe there is an easy substitution you can make in the recipe you had planned. But really, being sneaky, disrespectful, and downright insulting of your vegetarian guest is just going to lose you a friend.