Food Fight: The Real Vegetarian

What does it mean to be a vegetarian?  Am I a “real” vegetarian?  Are you a real vegetarian?  Does being a vegetarian mean I do no harm to any living beings?  Do vegetarians have to sign contracts and be evaluated by an official jury to become “real”?

In my last Food Fight post I outlined how I eat in detail.  I mentioned that I’m a vegetarian and I also mentioned that I eat eggs and cheese and that my feelings are a little mixed about it because eating cheese supports the meat industry and I’m not keen to do that yet I have not chosen to draw my line there at this point in time.  Renee, a commentor on the last post, brought up some other details about the dairy industry which I felt were valid points.  But then she told me I can’t call myself a vegetarian because I eat cheese and cheese is made with rennet (enzymes from a cow’s stomach).

Dictionary definition (Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary): A person who does not eat or does not believe in eating meat, fish, fowl, or, in some cases, any food derived from animals, as eggs or cheese, but subsists on vegetables, fruits, nuts, grain, etc.

There you have it.  Some vegetarians (like myself) do eat food derived from animals but don’t eat the flesh of animals.  I can most definitely call myself a vegetarian and I most definitely am NOT a vegan.  I don’t think it can be more clear than that.

I was raised as a vegetarian from birth.  It’s the way I eat.  I didn’t choose to be a vegetarian in the first place but later when I tried eating meat and fish and fowl I made a conscious decision to remain a vegetarian but NOT because I love animals.  I did it because it feels natural to me to eat the way I was raised.  It suits my body.  I feel good when I eat this way.  I like it.  Meat is gross to me.  I’m sorry if it disappoints anyone to know that I didn’t choose to be vegetarian for noble reasons.  Actually, I’m not sorry.  Eating is very personal and I chose what’s right for me.  What’s right for me includes eggs and cheese.

My concern for the well being and kind treatment of animals is very real and very strong.  But it’s important to reiterate that I don’t think eating animals is wrong.  If it’s wrong for people to eat animals then it’s wrong for lions to eat gazelles.  If lions can’t eat gazelles, they die off.  Nature made many animals dependent on eating other animals and in the natural setting the way the food chain is set up helps maintain a balance of animals and insects that works.  Nature also made many animals into omnivores, giving them the edge of not being dependent on one type of food.  Humans are such animals.  Just because we can choose not to eat meat doesn’t make it wrong for us to choose to eat it.

I take my cues from nature.  Humans are omnivores and as far as anthropologists can know – they always have been.  I choose to be an omnivore who doesn’t eat the flesh of animals.  I respect other people choosing to eat animals and I equally respect other people who choose not to eat any food derived from animals.  The only thing I don’t choose is to ignore how animals raised for food are treated and cared for.  There is a respect inherent in nature between prey and quarry.  In the distant past of human history that respect was inherent in us.  It is only in our more recent history that we have disconnected from our more natural relationship with animals as food.  People used to have to work harder to have their meat.  A human having to kill the meat he/she eats is a lot more respectable than going to the grocery store and buying a slab of animal flesh any time you want it.  So we’ve lost our way and have, through overpopulation, ruined the balance that nature designed to keep the earth healthy.

I care very deeply about the treatment of all animals but that doesn’t mean I think it’s wrong that they are used for food.  When Max rescued a baby garter snake we fed it tadpoles from our little pond.  I’m not gonna lie, I didn’t love hunting out those babies and offering them to the snake but I knew, as all people must know, that a snake is not a vegetarian creature and it would be entirely wrong to impose on it a diet it can’t survive on.  So we fed him the tadpoles and knew that it was nature’s circle of life in action.  But those tadpoles, until we snatched them out of the pond, lived a natural life.  The frogs who live in that pond were not put there by us.  They found our pond and chose it as their habitat.  My point is (in case it isn’t obvious) is that those tadpoles weren’t raised in a tank in my house under unnatural conditions and they were eaten by their natural predator.

There’s one last point I feel it’s important to make: if you are a vegetarian because you don’t want to cause any injury or death to other living beings, you are fooling yourself to think that you can eat in such a way that you never cause harm to other living beings.  Every single person on earth who eats food, no matter what diet they choose, causes injury and death to other living beings.  It is 100% impossible to farm vegetables and grains without also causing collateral damage to mice, rabbits, frogs, voles, snakes, gophers, and sometimes the larger animals whose natural habitat we’ve claimed for raising crops pushing them to new territories where they sometimes starve to death as a result.  Most people don’t care about insects but even if you’re growing food organically, as I do, there are casualties to insects and sometimes small creatures.  When I was working in the community garden a few years ago I was weeding and accidentally speared a frog with my weeding tool.  I don’t know if it was fatal or not.  I picked the poor fellow up and put him out in the adjacent field of tall grasses.  If I, a careful and caring gardener, can injure a frog while weeding, imagine what all those tractors and plows and harvesters are doing to the other little creatures.

We all eat at the expense of other living beings.  That’s not an opinion, it’s a fact of life.

Where you draw the line is for you to decide.  Vegans do considerable less harm to other living creatures than meat eaters do, but everyone has blood on their hands.  I think the main thing to focus on is how we are treating the animals we’re raising for meat and eggs and how they’re killing these animals before they reach the dinner table.  These things matter a lot.

I said that was all but there’s one more thing I need to say: vegans and vegetarians fighting each other over little details of diet is like Catholics and Protestants fighting over how to interpret the bible and the proper way to worship.  The majority of vegans and vegetarians have some common beliefs and concerns and if we all want meat eaters to care about the ethical treatment of animals then it won’t do to fight each other.  There will always be meat eaters, there is never going to be an entire planet of vegetarians and vegans.  People are omnivores.  What is an obtainable goal is to inspire all meat eaters to care how their meat is raised and to inspire meat eaters to eat less meat over all of it can be raised humanely.  This should be a shared vision between all people.

I am a vegetarian.  Please don’t tell me where to draw my line.  Please consult the official definition of vegetarian before telling people what they can and can’t call themselves.

6 thoughts on “Food Fight: The Real Vegetarian

  1. Jen

    Hi Angelina, I’ve been away from your blog for a long time now and I’m so happy to be back. Love your writing, missed it! Thank you for this post. Now I will try to catch up on the past couple years.

  2. angelina Post author

    I’ve been away from yours too – but I just spent some time at your food blog and read about your dad. I’m so sorry to hear about him dying – but the story you told about it was incredible. I’m really happy to commented to remind me to check in with you again. Damn – such a gorgeous blog!! Just so you know – Dustpan Alley is shut down (you can still read it online but I don’t post there anymore) I needed to start a symbolic new chapter so I am now writing at

  3. B.

    “We all eat at the expense of other living beings. That’s not an opinion, it’s a fact of life.”

    And those two sentences just tell it like it is. It really is so true. Please don’t give too much weight to what others might say concerning your eating habits. If they feel the need to be mentally tormented concerning every forkful of food others take it is very much their own problem. Food, of all kinds, is a gift to us humans. We should be grateful for it, enjoy it, & not waste it.

    I thank you for your sensible take on things…..& your refusal to bash us omnivores!


  4. angelina Post author

    Brenda – so true! Food really is a gift. I am just as annoyed with vegetarians bashing omnivores as I am with omnivores bashing vegetarians. I’d like everyone to turn their focus to other food issues that I think are more important. But even with that – I’m not going to bash people who buy all imported produce or who buy meat from CAFO’s – making people feel bad is never an effective way to make them change. I just hope to keep conversations open, share information, and inspire others while trying to inspire myself.

  5. Chrissy

    I believe that cheese these days is mostly made with vegetarian rennet, so I think you are ok on that point. I never really thought about dairy products supporting the meat industry, but so are so right! We have *mostly* removed ourselves from that industry- we eat meat, but it comes from real farms, not CAFOs, but we do still eat cheese and milk from a grocery store. You’ve really given me something to think about. Thank you for this post!

  6. angelina Post author

    Hi Chrissy! Thanks for commenting – I know you can buy vegetarian rennet but I’m not sure that’s an industry standard. I should do some research!. I can’t afford to buy artisan cheese from small responsible producers – I wish I could. So I’m the last to judge anyone – the main thing is that we are all making conscious choices and thinking about and researching the companies we’re supporting. It’s my goal to eventually eat only organic and all from small producers who generally have more clean and humane practices in producing food. A friend of mine is only buying cheese from small producers and simply eating a lot less of it. I think that’s a great way to go – so I’m working on developing a larger repertoire of vegan dishes. I don’t plan to go vegan but if I ate more vegan meals I could then splurge on good cheese made from milk from cows raised humanely. So that’s some change I’m working towards in my own kitchen.

    You have a cute blog! Very cool that you’re urban homesteading and have your family on board!

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