Vegetarianism: Dirty Little Secrets

I eat mostly vegetables and fruit, some complex carbs and small amounts of fish and chicken. Ironically, I am much closer to being a true vegetarian today than I ever was when I declared myself one as a naïve teenager.
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When I was 13 years old, I made a rash decision to swear off eating all animals. Forever. My epiphany was grounded in the idealistic notion that my selfish need for protein was a wholly insufficient reason to decapitate a chicken. Mind you, I grew up in New York City and had never even seen a chicken, except perhaps at the children's zoo in Central Park. My juvenile empathy did not extend to my mother, who was then burdened with making two separate dinners every evening, so that the rest of the family could continue to eat normally.

In retrospect, my true motivator may have been run-of-the-mill adolescent rebellion. After all, my health-conscious mother had sent me off to school every day with an untradeable healthy sandwich on rock hard Pepperidge Farm bread and two carrot sticks. Why wasn't I allowed to enjoy the wonderfully squishy Wonder Bread all my friends loved? My distaste for meat may have been prompted by my mother's paranoia of undercooking it, which resulted in plates of overcooked grey colored flesh with a shoe leather consistency. Can you say "yummy"?

Mom also tried in vain to ration the sweet treats every kid craves. Her strategy was to padlock the goodies away in the far reaches of the cabinet above the refrigerator. She should have known better than to try to get between kids and their favorite cookies. We evaded her well-intentioned efforts by shimmying our little hands through the minuscule opening and grabbing whatever was reachable. Skinned hands were a small price to pay to feed our insatiable sweet tooths.

For the next 14 years, no chicken, cow, or pig parts touched my lips. My diet consisted mainly of starches, high-fat dairy, and desserts. I decided vegetables were boring and ate fewer of them. Essentially, I was on the very junk food diet my mother had worked so valiantly to have me avoid. I remained blissfully unaware that my restrictive diet scored near zero on the health barometer.

Except for some leftover hippies, I was an oddity as a non-carnivore in the '70s and '80s. Many people treated me as if I was doing something quite admirable, thinking it involved a herculean dose of self-restraint. Mistakenly assuming I subsisted on raw vegetables and tasteless tofu, they expressed admiration for my purported willpower.

Once I started practicing law, I moved to Chicago, and was taken aback to discover that I was living in the meat-eater's capital of the country. Native-born residents couldn't fathom getting through breakfast without a slab of crisp bacon or a few links of Polish sausage. Things got uncomfortable when I was required to dine with law firm clients, who looked askance as I tried to make a meal out of cottage cheese and a double serving of creamed spinach. I often wondered if they were asking themselves, "Do I really want to entrust my legal problems to this non-meat-eating wacko?"

Meanwhile, I continued to get my daily fill of Dr. Peppers, Cokes, Snickers bars, Ding Dongs, and Hostess Cupcakes with squiggles on top. I made weekly forays to my local Woolworth counter to scarf down a gooey banana split. A large bowl of generously buttered popcorn was my go-to dinner.

That was my version of a vegetarian diet. And I've known many a non-meat-eater who follows a very similar diet regimen. After all, it's the perfect excuse to indulge in tasty but nutritionally-bankrupt fare. No animal ever died in the name of delectable pumpkin cheesecake, flourless chocolate cake or crème brulee. Far from depriving myself, I now realize that I was actually indulging in chemically-ladened processed garbage. So much for being holier than thou.

One day, as impulsively as I'd decided to banish animals from my diet, I reversed course and made a snap decision to revert to a normal diet. I'd gotten to the point where I realized I really didn't care that much about the stupid chickens. Off with their heads! By this time, it had also dawned on me that my non-meat-eating habits were probably not doing my body a world of good.

Once having made the call to rejoin the American way of life, I worried that when animal flesh hit my gut my body would imitate Linda Blair in "The Exorcist." I tested the waters with Chinese food, assured that the chicken serving would be garnish-sized. Much to my relief, I discovered that my body had not misplaced its carnivore digestive juices despite years of disuse.

Since seeing the error of my ways, I have gradually gravitated to a healthy Mediterranean diet, which allows for a reasonable and enjoyable life. I eat mostly vegetables and fruit, some complex carbs and small amounts of fish and chicken. Ironically, I am much closer to being a true vegetarian today than I ever was when I declared myself one as a naïve teenager.