I’m always surprised when a meat eater shows me disrespect and derision when seeing that I choose not to eat meat. I frequently hear the trope that vegans and vegetarians are inherently self-absorbed and annoying to be around. Those who enjoy meat often write that vegans are preachy or difficult. But you know what? In 30 years as a lacto-ovo (dairy- and egg-eating) vegetarian, I’ve never come across that in person.
Yes, I’ve politely asked waiters to accommodate my needs. I’ve asked about alternatives to meaty preparations of dishes, and been disappointed when every vegetable dish, soup and salad on a large menu is prepared with meat or meat byproducts. But I have not glared at my tablemates, lectured people on their dietary choices or berated chefs. It is not rude or unreasonable for me (or a Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Jain, Seventh Day Adventist, keto-diet-follower, gluten-free diner, diabetic, GERD sufferer or anyone else) to ask politely for food that meets our particular needs.
I occasionally meet (and often read about) omnivores who see those of us with different culinary needs as being troublesome, inconvenient or even, somehow, threatening. Some have confided in me that they secretly feel squeamish when thinking about having animals killed for their meals, so they resent vegetarians for merely existing. They’re uncomfortable around people who avoid meat since our presence reminds them that the pink packages they purchase from the meat counter were once parts of living beings. Our existence proves that meat isn’t essential to health or happiness, and some sadly find that threatening to their comfort and traditions.
Shortly after I established Apple’s Vegetarian Club, I got a threatening anonymous message via intracompany mail. Why? Because I was so bold as to offer recipes and nutritional info and invite people to join me for lunch to discuss health and animal welfare. I didn’t publish polemics or accost people with speeches; I simply made information and encouragement available in a conference room once a month.
Over the five years during which I published Style With Substance, a newsletter of cruelty-free product news, I occasionally received hate mail telling me that I was going against God and nature by offering alternatives to cosmetics and household products that maimed and killed animals unnecessarily. Haters wrote that vegetarianism and a search to avoid animal cruelty were proof of my satanic and anti-Christian nature. But did I ever attack people for using makeup tested on rabbits or wearing leather jackets? Not once. I only offered alternatives to those who cared to find out about them. Did my newsletter include screeds or attacks on those with different views? Never. Indeed, I cautioned readers who wanted to contact companies to urge them to stop testing on animals to always be polite and respectful. But some people truly detest those of us who suggest that alternatives to the norm are possible and even beneficial.
My mother took my vegetarianism as an affront to her, though I never once put her down for eating meat or said that my choices made me superior. When she ate meat at the same table, I did not glare at or shame her. She chose to interpret my desire to live my life differently as equivalent to a slap in her face and a personal rejection of her. She decided it meant that I thought myself too good for her and her way of life—something I never said nor believed.
I’ve read that vegans can be pedantic and overly assertive and confrontational; in my 30 years as a vegetarian, I’ve never witnessed that happen in person. Not once. Do they exist? Sure; I’ve seen articles in which cranky vegans were quoted. I’ve been disgusted by the destructive, ugly, illegal antics of PETA and the Animal Liberation Front and other extremists who have sparked backlashes against gentler supporters of animal welfare. I’ve seen photos of confrontational vegans. But I have not met those people. I’ve met literally hundreds of vegans at vegetarian clubs, festivals and special events over the course of three decades, and made many more vegetarian and vegan friends in the course of a life lived in liberal communities near San Francisco, Seattle and Boston. If nasty vegans were truly so common, don’t you think I might have run across one?
I’ve also read and heard people whine that I must hate good food because I don’t eat meat or fish, but my vegetarian daughter and I are foodies who truly love fine dining, sophisticated preparations and presentations of beautifully prepared foods from all over the world. The mischaracterizations of those of us who simply, quietly don’t want to consume animals are common, and mystifying.
So why did and do people like Anthony Bourdain and Julia Child and Gordon Ramsay detest vegetarians so? Why do they judge our tastes and choices so harshly, assume that we are rude, tasteless, boorish or unsophisticated? Bourdain wrote, “Vegetarians are the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit, an affront to all I stand for, the pure enjoyment of food.” He described vegans as vegetarians’ “Hezbollah-like splinter faction.” He went on to say that vegetarians are a “persistent irritant to any chef worth a damn” and that “They make for bad travelers and bad guests. … [If] you’re unwilling to try things that people take so personally and are so proud of and so generous with, I don’t understand that, and I think it’s rude. … Being a vegan is a first-world phenomenon, completely self-indulgent.”
Julia Child said of vegetarians, “Personally, I don’t think pure vegetarianism is a healthy lifestyle. It’s more fear of food—that whole thing that red meat is bad for you. And then there are people who don’t eat meat because it’s against their morals. Well, there’s nothing you can do with people like that. I’ve often wondered to myself: Does a vegetarian look forward to dinner, ever?”
Gordon Ramsay, who recently said that he’s following a vegetarian diet himself, used to find it hilarious to hide meat in food prepared for vegetarians who made it clear that they do not wish to eat meat. He delighted in subverting the deeply held beliefs of people who find meat eating problematic for ethical or health or other reasons—something equivalent to sneaking bacon into an Orthodox Jew’s or an observant Muslim’s lunch, or forcing a Hindu to eat steak tartare, or refusing an allergic diner’s request that you leave out an ingredient out of sheer petty spite. It’s not just contemptible—it’s immoral.
The truly rude, inhospitable, judgmental and threatening people in this world tend not to be those concerned about eating animals. Those who tease me and tell me I’m oversensitive, stupid, rude or unsophisticated aren’t vegans. I don’t want to tease or attack meat-eaters; I don’t find derision, contempt or lack of respect for strongly held ethical beliefs amusing or acceptable for anyone. So please, before you tease another vegetarian, joke about hiding bacon in their food or roll your eyes if they ask whether there’s chicken stock in something, think again about how you’d feel to be mocked, chided and derided for living according to your private principles. Live and let live.
[Illustration: A Feast for the Eyes, Giuseppe Arcimboldo, 1590]