In a family that ate meat, being a vegetarian was never something I considered. Although I had been a picky eater from the start, and still am, the concept of foregoing meat entirely was not even on my radar as an option. People ate turkey on Thanksgiving, ham on Easter, lobster all summer along and a healthy dose of chicken and filet mignon in between. Of course there were loads of vegetables to accompany those meats, but a meatless meal was a rarity. In fact, it didn’t exist at all.
Around the age of nine, I picked up my first “official” novel to read. I chose Charlotte’s Web. If you’ve never read it, you absolutely must! If you have read it, then you know the direction in which this is going. The story details the relationship between a bunch of animals on Zuckerman’s farm, and particularly the one between a spider named Charlotte and a pig named Wilbur. So, as to not give anything away for those of you who should really get on that and read it tonight, it teaches kids about love, friendship, death and basically how pigs have feelings, too. When I finished the book, I vowed to never eat bacon again. And I didn’t for almost two decades. This was also the first time I realized the effect that a book could have on people. Wilbur was every animal, every piece of meat and you could not have convinced me otherwise.
Giving up meat wasn’t difficult. My pickiness as an eater has always stemmed from issues with texture and meat, along with bananas (and so many other things) in my humble opinion, doesn’t have the most appealing feeling in one’s mouth. It’s chewy, stringy and when you realize what you’re eating, I mean, when you really think about it, it’s somewhat barbaric. Or as any vegetarian or vegan will tell you, completely barbaric.
At nine, the only meat I ate was bacon, turkey and lobster. My family never ate lamb or veal — two things I’ve never tried and never will — so although they were and are carnivores, they are fairly basic in their carnivorous ways. I didn’t know that people ate lamb until I was old enough to actually pay attention to menus and saw it as an option occasionally. In my head, I could never quite separate the idea of a fluffy lamb being cut into pieces and being someone’s dinner choice; in my head that plate was full of wool. Do I need to mention that there were lambs in Charlotte’s Web too?
By the time high school rolled around, I no longer ate any meat — fish eventually was included on that list, although it’s a subject I know is up for debate on the meat-eating scale for many. The last thing I gave up, if we’re to define it in that way, was chicken broth. Goodbye, packaged sodium-saturated Lipton soup mix and Ramen — you will be missed.
Because my choice to not eat meat wasn’t steeped in an environmental stance or even one based on what might be deemed humane or not, I was never outspoken about it. Most people never even noticed that I didn’t eat meat and to this day my father swears I’ve been eating lobster religiously my whole life without skipping a beat. And I was and do, except for those 13 or so years in between.
What it came down to was a combination of texture, Charlotte’s Web and, in the cases of meat I had never had and would never have, cuteness of the animal. I realize this is silly and too simplistic especially to those who take their vegetarianism and vegan lifestyles (Hi, Jamie!) very seriously, so I apologize if I sound trite or condescending.
I remained a vegetarian for a long time, dated primarily vegetarians because of my personal hang-ups with the thought of kissing those who might have meat stuck in their teeth, and that was that.
Then one day not long after I had moved to New York City, I went to the store with my last $13 until payday and loaded up the basket with Lipton noodle soup and Saltines. I was feeling homesick and out of sorts because New York was kicking my ass emotionally and mentally. Without it even registering, I took the soup home, made it and watched Law & Order. It was only after I finished the first packet of soup and went for another that it hit me: I had just consumed a meat product.
The initial reaction was guilt. It was as though I had betrayed myself. Next came the fear that I’d be severely ill from it so I ran to my computer to Google possible effects of chicken broth on the body after about 13 years without it. The results were mixed, and it was hard not to think that those who did suffer serious reactions did so because it was all in their head. As a hypochondriac in training, I laid myself down on the couch and waited for the worst. It never came.
Over the next few years, I started eating chicken again occasionally and would even order a burger from time to time without incident to my stomach or body — I guess it had remembered how things had used to be.
The last thing that made its way back into my life was bacon, which was just a couple years ago and was actually the one thing with which I truly struggled. It was the bacon that had started all this and it was bacon I craved one morning when my downstairs neighbors were cooking it. Again, there was guilt, but a guilt that was far more severe than that of when I had the chicken broth. This guilt came from the kid inside me who swore she’d never eat bacon again because of Wilbur the pig in children’s book. I had a BLT the following day. I loved the taste, but my heart and my mouth were not too keen on the texture factor, or rather the Wilbur factor, as I called it.
I think saying I “gave up” meat, then “gave up” being a vegetarian is probably the wrong wording. In both instances, I don’t feel I gave up anything, I just changed my mind. While I can tell you why it all started, I can’t tell you why it exactly all ended. Neither case warranted a big production or announcement, it’s just what happened. It was also cheaper, in those days when I had nothing, to go for the packaged soup or frozen fish sticks instead of Morningstar veggie burgers.
So here I am back to eating meat, albeit pretty rarely and only two or three kinds, but it’s happening. I don’t know if this is a story about being a vegetarian then turning my back on it, or more of a story about the first book I ever loved that affected me to my core that it changed the way my nine-year-old self saw the world. I like to think it’s the latter.
The books we read, especially as kids, shape us and have such an undeniable power to open our eyes and teach us a lesson about worlds we’ll never know (I’m still waiting to move to my farm), that to not consume as much of the written word as we possibly can is tragic. Charlotte’s Web was my introduction to that power, and if E.B. White were still alive I’d tackle him to the ground with hugs of appreciation.
Anyone else have an epiphany after reading it? Or perhaps another book that hit the spot and had a major impact on your life? And if you’re looking to jumpstart your vegetarianism, might I suggest Charlotte’s Web? Yes, The Jungle by Upton Sinclair will help in that area, too, but that book doesn’t have a pig named Wilbur in it.
Photo: Garth Williams/Harper&Brothers