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 Lappé 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.