Ten years I’ve been writing a column and the only time I’ve ever mentioned eating, I wasn’t talking about food. I point this out not to congratulate my restraint so much as offer proof that I generally shy away from shoving my beliefs down another’s throat. Yet one I’ve held my entire adult life at least warrants mention in these pages.
I’m aware of the caricature of the overbearing vegetarian, but the only time I’ve ever experienced it was from goddamn vegans. Fact is, my 20-plus years as a vegetarian demonstrate that meat eaters are much more curious about my habits than I am about theirs.
I rarely mention it, if only because it makes me uncomfortable, but whomever I’m with at the table that knows me well invariably does. Prompting someone to ask, “Do you eat chicken?”
My mindset, I think, is pretty straightforward. “I don’t eat anything that shits or has eyes,” I explain. The table falls quiet until some knucklehead asks, “What about fish?”
To which I roll my own eyes, repeat myself and dig into my salad. “Don’t you think plants have feelings, too?” someone will question.“I have to eat something ,” I counter.
“What about eggs?” another will then ask.“Aren’t they like aborted chickens?”
“Oh, I’m OK with abortion,” I reply. “Besides, am I to weep every time I blow a load onto the sheets?”
This usually nets silence until someone else will ask, “Why are you vegetarian?”Which is a good question, actually.
Growing up, the fact that my parents could afford steak three nights a week was evidence that they had made it a la The Jeffersons. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way my father decided that I enjoyed my cow still alive, a false notion I was hard-pressed to convince him otherwise.
I would sit at the kitchen table glumly, long after all the other dishes were clean. Finally, I would resign myself to shoving the contents of my plate into my mouth and expelling it into the toilet.Then, when everyone was asleep, I would sneak downstairs and eat an entire bag of Doritos, resulting in my earning the unfortunate family nickname of “Chip Bandit.”
But as a kid, I never gave any thought to where food came from — that is until the day my sister told me that hot dogs were castrated dog penises. Even then, I didn’t think about it all that much. After all, we do a good job of shielding most of what we eat by the bequeathing of magic names: ham, beef, pork, etc. Indoctrinating our children, perhaps, in such a way as to create habits that are hard to break as adults.
In the seventh grade, we had a teacher, Mr. Walsh, who was a professed vegetarian. I didn’t even know what that meant then, except that being one made you gay. I didn’t know what that meant either, but I could tell it wasn’t good. Indoctrination, indeed.
I was fresh out of high school when I became a vegetarian almost solely on the strength of a quote from Walden: “I believe that every man that has ever been earnest to preserve his higher or poetic faculties in the best condition has been particularly inclined to abstain from animal food, and from much food of any kind.” I longed to be a poet, thus ate up Thoreau’s advice.
The immediate effect proved to be that it annoyed and confused my parents to no end, usually a good sign that any kid is doing something right. Incredibly, years afterwards my father still continued to bring home a Whopper or Big Mac and place it in the center of the kitchen table “just in case.”
My being a vegetarian was solidified when my dog Eve and I moved to California. There, I worked with a Filipino who was kind enough to share pictures of his homeland — pictures that featured the town market with its rows of dogs hanging on meat hooks.When I blanched, he told me about the time his family dog died and they buried it in their backyard, only to be awakened that night by neighbors attempting to dig it up.
I couldn’t help but wonder, “Under different circumstances, would I be viewing poor Eve in a different light?”
Being a vegetarian bore unexpected fruit. Like the time I drove solo from California to Ohio to return home. I had been up seven days on crystal meth and had been making strange calls to home, certain that I was being followed. “If anything happens to me, Dad, it was the police,” I warned.
When I finally arrived, my father confided that members of my family were convinced I was on drugs. To which he guffawed, “Mark on drugs? Ha, he’s a vegetarian!”
What else is there to say?
I’m 40, have had more fun than most octogenarians and I’m still here. I’ve thrown 120,000 pounds worth of freight in nine consecutive hours more than once. I understand there are such things as canine teeth and a food chain, but my acknowledgement of them does not preclude the possibility of us extending our evolutionary ceiling.
To wit: There are 3,274 licensed dairy farms in Ohio, and nine dairy inspectors. You think they can even conceivably do their job? If so, google “Conklin Dairy Farms Video.” I defy anyone to eat a hamburger while watching it. In fact, do so at my place and I will buy your meal, but you might want to watch your back meanwhile.
Hell, before writing this, I watched 10 seconds of it and now I’m a goddamn vegan. Which will lead to some lively dinner conversation, I’m sure.
CONTACT MARK FLANIGAN: [email protected]