Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Choosing a Definition


In August 1973, a Minnesota friend invited me to work on a reading curriculum. I lived in Stillwater while completing the project.


The St. Croix river flows past Stillwater, Minnesota,
a town of 11,000 when I moved there in 1973.

            Steeped in lumberjack lore, the oldest town in Minnesota sits contentedly next to the St. Croix. This river town has a charm I’d never met before, and it became my home for the next thirty-six years. Early on—in September 1981—I became a vegetarian. My reasoning, once again, was based on what I considered peace and justice issues. Here’s the story of how that happened.
            A convent friend visited, bearing a gift. The cover of Laurel’s Kitchen: A Handbook for Vegetarian Cookery and Nutrition proclaimed that it was “America’s first complete guide to cooking delicious natural foods.” Annette knew that I gardened and enjoyed trying new recipes. “The gift seems perfect for you,” she said.


My battered copy of Laurel’s Kitchen sits before me.

            She was right. Together, the two of us sat next to the river—she meditating on its lazy flow and I devouring the book’s introductory section: “Giving the Gift of Life.” Her gift lies open now on my computer desk so I can easily find the passage that changed my life. I began the paperback not knowing that the words printed on page 39 would touch some part of myself that had awaited definition.

As of mid-1975, world famine has intensified to the point that fifteen thousand human beings, most of them children, are dying of malnutrition each day. For the first time in its twenty-seven-year history UNICEF has declared an emergency situation. Meanwhile, for all our own anxieties over economic recession, the major health problems in the United States continue to be those related to overconsumption. Our consumption patterns are hurting us, and they are now jeopardizing life the world over.
            Our meat-based diet is perhaps the most obvious example. We now consume about twice the protein our bodies need, and beef is our hands-down favorite way of doing it. As Frances Moore LappĂ© has shown us, every pound of beef on our table represents sixteen pounds of grain and legumes removed from the total available to a hungry world. What we do not all realize is that this high-protein feed is administered to a steer during the last few weeks of its existence. The sole function of most of the soybeans and other feed crops we raise is to turn lean range-fed beef into the marbled fat beef that our doctors warn us against.
            The relationship between meat consumption and available grain is therefore more sensitive than we might think. If demand for meat goes down, the steer’s last-minute cram session does not take place. In 1974,when the market for meat did fall, the grain that was so unexpectedly released actually did find its way to poorer countries. (The italicized word is in the original.)  

            I responded wholeheartedly to these paragraphs. Here’s how my thinking ran: If my eating less beef would help the hungry of the world, then eating no beef would help even more. By doing this, I would be silently affirming my belief in the holiness of all life. Moreover, less consumption meant fewer steers raised and that meant fewer of these sentient creatures would die.
            The final statement of course had to be that I would also cease to consume chicken and fish. They, too, were sentient creatures, and chickens especially were being raised in abysmal conditions.
            “I’m a vegetarian now,” I announced to Annette.
             “What prompted this?” she asked.
            I read her the three paragraphs. She refrained from citing the counter arguments about one person being able to do little to feed the whole world. Knowing me well, she knew that for me life is holy. Sacred. And becoming a vegetarian would be a way of living that belief.
            We drove home. I emptied the freezer of chicken, beef, and fish; gave the trove to a friend; and settled down to learn how to cook as a vegetarian and what to order at restaurants. I’ve never regretted this decision.
            As Lao-tzu said, “A journey of a thousand miles begins beneath one’s feet.” Out of the stillness of my commitment arises the transformation.
            

55 comments:

  1. Couldn't agree more. As a cook I'm required to prepare meet, but I very rarely consume it. Usually from politeness, not from choice.

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    1. Dear Bodrum, . . . in the early days of my being a vegetarian, friends would invite me to their homes and forget that a salad had bacon bits in it or that a Caesar salad had anchovies. As you say, out of politeness and appreciative of their generosity in trying to do a vegetarian meal, I would always eat what was served.

      But as time passed all of them were thoughtful enough to remember my new commitment. Now at a restaurant, friends examine the menu first for what I can eat! I'm blessed with friends who understand. Peace.

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  2. It's nice to know that some people have the courage of their convictions. I gave up red meat for a year once, but I found I felt no difference--either physically or physcologically.

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    1. Dear fishducky, . . . I'm not sure that physically I've ever noticed any difference. It's just that I"m making a statement to myself about life. I've always done in silently. Never proselytizing. Nor did I mean to do that with this posting. Peace.

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  3. One, and then another, and then another . . .

    Love,
    Janie

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    1. Dear Janie, I'm not sure what you are saying to me. But I thank you for commenting. Peace.

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  4. Wow! You don't often find yourself faced with a moment of complete transition like that and I admire you for listening to your instincts and living your convictions. Thanks for sharing the excerpt from your cookbook. I've never considered the relationship between a meat-based diet, grain production, and impoverished communities before, but it's interesting!

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    1. Dear Emily, please read Arlee's comment below. There's great truth to what he says, but there is also truth in what the cookbook I read said. A mixture I suppose of both is what brings about world hunger today. That and nature. Peace.

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  5. I can see why people do but I dont think I could ever be a vegetarian!

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    1. Dear Baur, my mother used to say, "'Everyone to their own desires,' said Mrs. O'Leary as she kissed the cow." And I think that's true. We all go our own paths and being true to them is what is important. Peace.

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  6. Only been two years for me. I'm a late-bloomer pescatarian. ;)
    Good for you. And I love Stillwater! :)

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    1. Dear Rita, you know in the beginning I didn't miss meat at all--beef or pork--or chicken, but I did miss fish because I marinated it in milk and then baked it lying on celery leaves. But as time passed, even that remembrance of taste left me. And so being a vegetarian is no hardship for me. I'm not a vegan for I do eat eggs and cheese. Not doing so demands a real attention to what one eats so as to balance protein and I didn't want to be thinking of that all the time. Peace.

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  7. I don't think I would ever give up meat, but I usually don't consume great quantities of it either. I do believe there is some fallacious reasoning behind famine and food shortage that has nothing to do the consumption of food in more developed nations.

    The biggest problem I think stems from socio-political upheaval and control in the parts of the world that are most faced with these problems. I think the practical scientific solutions are there, but the people in control hold back the food supplies and prevent adequate assistance from quarters who are willing to provide help.

    The help we provide assuages some of the problem but we can't provide long term solutions to those areas without complete cooperation from everyone there. Allowing mass movement of refugees to our country and other countries is probably the worst solution of all. We are setting ourselves up for the downfall of our way of life.

    Lee

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    1. Dear Arlee, I agree with some of what you have said here. Every time there is a famine we learn that tons of food sent to those who are starving never reaches them because of greed on the part of the officials delivering the food and the power behind them.

      I don't buy your assessment that allowing refugees to come to our country (do you mean immigrants) will being about the downfall of our way of life. Our country is able to produce food for ourselves and many other countries. It's getting the food into the hands of the hungry that seems to prove difficult. Peace.

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    2. Dear Arlee, I just watched on the PBS Newshour an interview in which the head of the USAid Administration for Africa--Mr. Shah--spoke about the new program to bring aid to African countries suffering from hunger and poverty. It involved getting US investors interested by working with twenty-six (I think that was the number) countries to make changes in grain and land use. The US program is starting with three counties--Ghana, Ethiopia, and I can't remember the third--that are willing to enact laws and regulation within the next eighteen months s to create a readiness for investment. Perhaps you can go to the PBS website and see a podcast of this interview. (It would be for Friday, May 18.) Peace.

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  8. I eat little meat, and I am enlightened by what you've shared here. I can see myself considering becoming vegetarian. I already have a sister who is. My husband, though, would not be interested in it at all!

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    1. Dear Shelly, becoming a vegetarian was so easy for me because I lived alone. If you became one and your husband didn't, either he'd have to cook his own meals or you'd need to prepare somewhat separate menus. That's a big step. Peace.

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  9. It was enlightening to hear your vegetarian story. I don't eat a lot of red meat, mostly because I prefer fish. However, I do eat meat and have no real intention of giving it up any time soon!

    My daughters were vegetarian for several years (all through middle school and until they got to college) but eventually gave it up. Neither eat a lot of meat, and probably won't. It was a challenge to get them to consume enough protein through their "growing years" as they didn't like alternative sources.

    I admire your convictions!

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    1. Dear Sandi, balancing the protein (amino acids, etc.) can be hard and when children are growing I think that being a vegetarian may not be the answer. Giving up one thing--perhaps chicken or fish or red meat--would seem a better answer. I admire your fortitude in helping your doctor get that protein. Peace.

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  10. I have not eaten any red meat for more than 40 years, but fish is the one exception of eating flesh, for me. It is because I know that I would (and have) caught and eaten fish without any intermediaries, but I could not eat a chicken, a turkey, a cow, or a pig. I could not kill and eat it myself. That's why I call myself a pescatarian. :-)

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    1. Dear DJan, please note Rita's comment above. She too is a "pescatarian." Peace.

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  11. Interesting. My son and his wife are vegetarians and they have raised their son on a vegetarian diet since he was born. He is the healthiest grandchild I have.

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    1. Dear Sally, please note Sandi's comment above about her girls being vegetarian when young and the challenge of getting them to eat enough protein. To be a young vegetarian takes parents who accept that challenge. Also several really good cookbooks help. Peace.

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  12. I am a vegetarian as well. Not for philosophical reasons - meat simply stopped agreeing with me. Migraine after migraine. A week with no meat - no migraine. Eat chicken the following night - migraine.
    Headaches which left me blinded with the pain and helplessly vomiting made the decision to give up meat very easy. I now have two or three migraines a year where I was having that number each week.
    Since giving it up, I have also adopted and claimed the philosophy against meat eating.
    Sadly, my partner is a carnivore through and through. His choice.

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    1. Dear EC, in Shelly's comment above she says she could be a vegetarian but her husband is a real meat eater. So the two of you share that. I've never heard of migraines being connected to meat. So this is new information for me. Thank you for sharing it. Peace.

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    2. Dee: I suspect it is the things we do to meat, rather than the meat itself. At the time I stopped eating it, organic meat was hard to find and very expensive. Anti-biotics were also often fed to chickens in particular. I think that things have improved markedly - but I am now quite happy to remain vegetarian. Not yet vegan, though I think it will come.

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    3. Dear EC, yes, I too am happy to remain a vegetarian. And like you, I may become a vegan if only I can find a restaurant where I can meet with friends and still find something to eat beyond a salad. Peace.

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  13. My mother became a vegetarian over twenty years ago. My children grew up on Italian minestrones. These were based on legumes. I still love that food. I also love eggplant and mushrooms. We still eat meat, but not as much as many people do. My daughter is very strict about all food and rarely eats meat. She and her children are very healthy. xxx

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    1. Dear Crystal, I have grown to find legumes so tasty--all the different kinds, each with their own flavor. I, too, love eggplant. Thirty-one years ago when I decided to do this (it will be thirty-two in September) there were very few vegetarian cookbooks. Now there are many and the recipes are so tasty because of the herbs used. Peace.

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  14. I tried recently after following a truck loaded with chickens for slaughter but I back slid. Perhaps you will inspire me to try again. Maybe thinking outside of my own health and love of animals might do the trick. Thanks.

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    1. Dear Arkansas Patti, we all, I think, find what works for us and what suits our needs and personalities. The journey to meaning in our life demands different things of us. For me vegetarianism is a way to say how much I value the lives of all people everywhere. When I learned that the grain here could feed people in other countries, I wanted to silently witness to my belief in their intrinsic worth. It's the Oneness I believe in. Peace.

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  15. I love this glimpse in to the workings of your mind, Dee. I was a vegetarian for many years until my body rebelled as I nursed my first child (it desperately wanted protein). Over the years, I've gradually slid back to preparing less meat for health reasons, but the paragraphs you cited here are very compelling and inspire me to do more. Thank you!

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    1. Dear Kari, I'm not surprised that you were a vegetarian for many years. In reading your blog I often think that our value systems are so alike. And I so appreciate your passion for peace and justice issues. You write about them so convincingly. And yet you always are open to other ways of thinking and being. So nonjudgmental. Peace.

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  16. I would have to say that except for fish and eggs, I am almost a vegetarian. Growing up on a farm allowed me to see what happened to the pet calf who became a steer. Like Kario, meat is seldom on my plate.

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    1. Dear Susan, I'm not a vegan because I do eat eggs and cheese and milk. Like you I grew up on a small farm and saw what happened to chickens that ended up on our table. I think that was the beginning for me of thinking about the value of life in all sentient beings. Peace.

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  17. Bravo, Dee. You hold true to your convictions no matter what. I am not vegetarian but I am not crazy about eating meat.
    Be well and happy,
    cheers

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    1. Dear Pam, I do try to hold to my convictions, but sometimes I've failed miserably. One of the times was when I was about ten and I said something unkind to my brother. I will always regret that and feel shame. Peace.

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  18. Your decision is an honorable one -- young adults especially seem to understand it now (at least the ones I know do). There are many good resources online to help oneself be educated about the food (especially meat) industry. I'm glad you found that book when you did.

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    1. Dear Deanna, yes, the resources on line on excellent and there have been some very incisive books written about hunger and grain, war and famine in the past few years. Peace.

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  19. You have so much sincerity in you, Dee. It is rare to find someone with a heart that expands as large as yours. I love the fact that you don't question whether or not your individual acts will multiple to larger more systemic change. You respond with your heart and do what you can! That's a great thing, Dee. Debra

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    1. Dear Debra, it's true that I don't question my individual act. It speaks to me of my commitment and that's enough. If the man from the Turkish school (see last Saturday's posting) asked me today how I'd define myself I'd have to add another definition--a vegetarian. Peace.

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  20. This is what I call a true conversion experience, Dee. I'm not a vegetarian but we eat less and less meat as time goes on, especially red meat. Instead we eat lots of pulses and other forms of vegetable protein and feel better for it too. A challenging post.

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    1. Dear Perpetua, indeed it was a conversion experience. I wasn't on the road to Damascus but on the river bank of the St. Croix. But the experience was truly life-changing just as Saul of Tarsus' was. The scales of blindness fell from his eyes a few days later; mine fell immediately and I saw a new way of eating and expressing--inwardly--my commitment to doing what I could for others. Peace.

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    2. Thank you, Dee. Powerful, powerful, post combined with Perpetua's comment, and your reply back. (Glad I chose to read the last couple of the 44 comments in the thread!)
      I have never before heard that explanation of why vegetarian.
      Like Perpetua, we eat less and less meat, and then it is 80% chicken or turkey, (you know the old 80-20 rule!!).
      I have never prayed about vegetarian eating, or thought of it in a discernment type of way. Food for thought. (Pardon the pun).
      Thank you, Ladies.

      Prayers,
      Patricia

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    3. Dear Patricia, thank you for responding to this post. I didn't quite know where I was going with it when I began. Then I realized that instead of explaining at great length the why of my being a vegetarian, all I truly needed to do was quote "Laurel's Kitchen" and share my thinking back in 1980 when I read those words.
      Peace.

      PS: The posting gives the date as 1981, but I went back over my memories of '80 and '81 and realized that the event occurred before Bartleby--one of the cats with whom I lived--died. And he died in March 1981.

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  21. Your life is such an inspiration of evolution and growth.

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    1. Dear Melissa, . . . thank you and thanks also for the other comments you left today on past postings. In the midst of your travel, you're finding time to read my blog. That truly touches me. Peace.

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  22. lol Dee we finally don't see eye to eye on something. Still I respect you for your dedication and am happy that this makes you happy. For myself I enjoyed a well balanced diet as you know but I love meat. Can't help it. Don't hate me. :)

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    1. Dear Melynda, yes, vegetarianism makes me happy! And I do try to balance my protein and eat nutritiously, but somethings I just eat junk food! Peace.

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  23. There's been lots of dangers in the past with eating beef with all the potential diseases, i'ts probably a good idea to stay away

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    1. Dear Baur . . . I agree! Peace.

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  24. I admire your commitment to your ideals. Peace & tofu to you!

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    1. Dear Michelle, oh that tofu! I like it only when it's cut into small pieces! Peace.

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  25. All the meat industry has tampered with the genetics of the animal and it's feed. Even a vegan diet needs careful planning to get a natural food. Profit and the bizarre desire to over produce all foods by changing their yields and actual size leaves us in a place where our bodies are just not that happy. Both vegans and others are having to source food the is still natural. Even fish farms are producing unhealthy fish because of the feed to fish.
    Your idea to alter your way of life is one that helped you. that's what is good.

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  26. Dear Heidi, all you say is true about the meat and food industries. And what is also true is that my decision did alter my life and that's made a difference. Thank you. Peace.

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