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December 2001/January 2002
Vegetarian Advocate: How to Dine with Carnivores Without Throwing Up

By Jack Vegetarianberger


Some years ago Rani, my vegetarian wife, and I visited Boston and stayed at the home of another married couple, the wife of which, Tobey, has been a good friend of Rani’s ever since they attended high school together. Tobey and her husband, Tim, are a nice couple, despite their social behavior at election time (they’re Republicans). Well aware that Rani and I are vegetarians, Tobey had selected a California-style “health food” restaurant as a suitable venue for our evening meal. Once we’d arrived at the restaurant, sat down, and began examining our menus, Tobey asked us, “Will it bother you if we order meat?”

Keep in mind that this was the first time the four of us, as married couples, had dined together; Rani and I were overnight guests at their new home; and Tobey and Tim are not only (sigh) Republicans but rather dedicated carnivores, so we told them that it didn’t matter to us if they ordered meat. We wanted to preserve the social equilibrium. But Rani and I have regretted our dishonest reply ever since.

As far as I’m concerned, the only negative thing about being a vegetarian is that other people aren’t. I don’t like dining with nonvegetarians. First, I have to listen to them read the menu out loud. (Sample dialogue: “Should I have the chicken dish?” “No, dear, why don’t you order the panda bear stuffed with mushrooms instead? I’d like to try a bite.”) Then I have to listen to them quiz the waiter before ordering. (“About the 96-ounce steak platter: was the cow killed this morning?”) And every time Rani and I eat at an Indian restaurant, which is quite frequent, at least one carnivore nearby orders a sizzling meat dish so we have little choice but to smell the burning flesh of a dead animal.

Be Prepared
Is it impolite of carnivores to eat animal flesh when they dine with vegetarians? I think so. Just as it is becoming less socially acceptable in the U.S. for people who are slowly killing themselves with cigarettes to smoke in the presence of nonsmokers, I believe vegetarians should make their feelings about meat-contaminated mealtimes known to nonvegetarians.

While social circumstances always differ, being able to enjoy a meat-free meal while dining with carnivores generally means you must do some pre-meal planning. The socially uncomfortable aspect of asking someone to not eat animal flesh at mealtime is that your message implies that their dietary lifestyle is offensive. My advice:

Strike first. When you know that you are going to eat with one or more carnivores, suggest that the meal take place at your home or at a vegetarian restaurant, a place where you can control what food is (and isn’t) served.

If you can’t dine at your home or a vegetarian restaurant, tell all of the nonvegetarians that you would very much appreciate it if everyone ordered a vegetarian meal. And don’t wait until you arrive at your guest’s home or the restaurant before making your desire known. In the case of Tobey and Tim, this tactic might have succeeded if Rani had first spoken privately with Tobey.

If we are going to change the public’s perception of vegetarianism and nonvegetarianism, we must make our feelings about animal flesh known. We must create a social climate in which carnivores are well aware that many vegetarians, particularly ethical vegetarians, don’t like to sit down at a meal and watch others tear into animal flesh. Asking a carnivore to order vegetarian food is a starting point, and then (or later) following that up with a conversation about vegetarianism: the health, environmental, and ethical aspects of meat eating; and your personal decision to go vegetarian.

My experience with carnivores is that when talking with them about vegetarianism, it’s best to use a gentle, humor-filled approach. Being factual about the grim reality of the mass slaughter of farmed animals works best, it seems, with young persons; their hearts are still open.

Your advice and suggestions are always welcome.

Chef Anthony Bourdain Dies of Mad Carnivore’s Disease
In light of chef and author Anthony Bourdain’s recent death from Mad Carnivore’s Disease, a debilitating disease in which the victim is reduced to deliriously muttering or shouting “Meat! Meat! Meat!”, I’d like to comment on the attitude of Bourdain—who is actually physically alive but appears to be spiritually dead—toward vegetarians and other nonhuman animals.

As anyone who’s read Bourdain’s best-selling Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly (Ecco Press, 2001) knows, Bourdain hated vegetarians. On the fifth page of Kitchen Confidential, Bourdain bragged about his “naked contempt for vegetarians, sauce-on-siders, the ‘lactose-intolerant’ and the cooking of Ewok-like Emeril Lagasse...” Why Bourdain hated persons who, through no fault of their own, developed the inability to digest lactose is beyond my understanding. Elsewhere in Kitchen Confidential, Bourdain railed against chefs who are “some cheese-eating, surrender specialist Froggie,” the “old-school Euro-geezers” at the Culinary Institute of America, and cooks who are “probably not even American.”

Did someone say xenophobic?
To discover why Bourdain despised vegetarians, I had to wade through paragraph after paragraph of mean-spirited, self-loathing composition until I reached the summit on page 70: “Vegetarians, and their Hezbollah-like splinter-faction, the vegans, are a persistent irritant to any chef worth a damn. To me, life without veal stock, pork fat, sausage, organ meat, demiglace, or even stinky cheese is a life not worth living. Vegetarians are the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit, an affront to all I stand for, the pure enjoyment of food. The body, these waterheads imagine, is a temple that should not be polluted by animal protein. It’s healthier, they insist, though every vegetarian waiter I’ve worked with is brought down by any rumor of a cold.”

This passage tells us a lot about Bourdain and almost nothing about vegetarianism. To write that “vegetarians are the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit” is quite a sweeping statement. When I think of, for instance, well-known living vegetarians, the type of persons who come to mind are people like Jane Goodall and Paul McCartney, who are first-class humanitarians. As for vegetarianism being “an affront” to “the pure enjoyment of food,” Bourdain clearly never had the pleasure of dining at, say, the Angelica Kitchen in New York City. And his characterization of vegetarians as being solely health conscious— “the body, these waterheads imagine, is a temple that should not be polluted by animal protein”—conveniently ignores the fact that many persons who are vegetarians are so for environmental and ethical reasons. As for the vegetarian waiters who are allegedly “brought down by even the rumor of a cold,” well, if there’s a literary society somewhere that hands out awards for the most ridiculous writing, I hope it bestows an award upon Bourdain. He clearly deserves it.


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