Twenty-five years or so ago, my husband and I decided to dig in more deeply to our Christian pacifist aspirations. We had been working on the biblical, theological, and philosophical reasoning, and had taken on the all-consuming task of training our two young sons to address conflict non-violently. After much discussion, we agreed that a vegetarian diet would be a great reflection of pacifism: one might respond to Jesus Christ’s completion of sacrifice by trying not to rely on killing animals to provide for one’s own thriving. I made the further decision that we would, in fact, become vegetarian, that we would try to thrive without eating dead (or live) animals. The kitchen was my domain at the time. I controlled the means of nutrition, so the power was in my hands, but I was determined that everyone should want to be vegetarian. That was the challenge. The boys, at two and four, had not been consulted, and their father was fonder of the idea than the change itself, although he characteristically allowed that he would follow my lead.
It is definitely not the case that I gracefully guided my cheerfully cooperative brood through an orderly transition from carnivorey to vegetarianism. Rather, I fumbled along with varying degrees of success and resistance until one day, years later, nobody was interested in eating meat anymore. I didn’t know it would take five years; there was no schedule. I didn’t have a strategy. I didn’t take notes. But, looking back, I can categorise what I remember into three points that would have made a great plan of action, if I’d been more organised.
1. Long-term view2. Gradual addition3. Intensive indoctrination 1. Long-term view: I already knew that conflict would be counterproductive (I am not the only stubborn member of the family), and I was ready to give up speed to avoid combat. So, I did not announce the project or identify a goal. Without an official change in policy, a stated trajectory, or a timeline, there were fewer easy targets for resistance.
2. Gradual addition of new foods. Coeliac runs through my extended family. I know well--from my own experiences and those of my relatives--that it can be hard to cope with the imposed loss of favourite foods. My stealth vegetarian campaign focused on slowly and steadily adding new recipes, instead of removing familiar meals. (Yes, of course, this meant that the old stand-by meaty-meals came up less frequently on the rota, but I didn’t bring that to anyone’s attention.)
A quarter of a century ago, there were not many convincing meat substitutes (options are so much better today!), so I did not do much with one-to-one replacements of chicken or beef products. I do remember using dehydrated cubes of TVP (dehydrated texturized vegetable protein) sometimes, but it was not sufficiently meat-like to seem like a replacement. Most of the time, the new meals involved cheese, eggs, a wider variety of vegetables, and combinations of legumes and grains. Of course there were dinners with dissatisfaction, boycotts, and deep sighs of longing for the good old days. Then it was time for hamburgers and a slower transition pace.
I remember that meals with diner-participation were especially popular. A multiplicity of choices conveys abundance, rather than loss, and the chance to make a big mess was always appealing. I set out arrays of chopped, sliced, and grated vegetables; bowls of hummus, pesto, and cheese; and sauces and salsas for top your own pizza night, top your own baked potato night, and fill your own tacos night.
We were fortunate enough to have friends who were already vegetarian. From them we gained not only new recipes, but an external affirmation that this shift was plausible. We were also fortunate to have patient friends who bore with us as we figured out how to do hospitality as fledgling vegetarians.
3. Intense Indoctrination.
In a way, this was the easiest part. We were already reinforcing pacifism with a running commentary and consistent responses (‘How else could these two story book characters have solved that problem?’ ‘No, it doesn’t matter who kicked whom first; kicking is not ok’.) We just extended the non-violence narrative to include human treatment and use of animals. Whenever I saw an animal reference, I narrated the wonder of creatures and the disconnection between celebrating animals and killing and eating them. The possibilities were endless: books with animal characters, farm scenes, fishing scenes, Oregon Trail computer game (‘Yes, you can hunt for buffalo but you don’t have to’.), nature magazines, board games, supermarkets, restaurant menus, clothes with animal figures, shop signs, visits to the wild life preserve, trips to the beach (we lived in Florida for most of this period), neighbourhood pets, stuffed animals--at each opportunity, I added an meaningful observation.
Did I go overboard? Perhaps. I certainly paid in embarrassment for some of my rhetorical zeal, when the kids went through a stage of commenting loudly in public places: ‘Eewww! That man is eating a cow! Do you think she knows she is eating parts of a pig? On no! There’s part of a dead chicken on that plate!” We had more work to do on inside voices and the subtler aspects of social engagement.
But, there was plenty of time for nuance as they grew up, and we were not operating on a level playing field. It took a heavy dose of home-grown, pro-animal-life propaganda to counter the pervasive message that animals are for killing and eating. Multimedia, retail advertising, casual interactions, and extended family expectations were inescapable. The carnivorous campaign had a bigger budget, the power of a multi-national corporate machine, an association with American national identity, and a cultural perspective so normative as to be invisible as a perspective. Christian pacifism in sibling and friend interactions and at the dining room table needed all the ideological passion we could muster.
Nearly 5 years later, we had more than three weeks of vegetarian meals on our regular menu rota. My last non-vegetarian meal had been fish, just off a boat we could see from our sea-side restaurant; that moment came and went without fanfare or regret. Our home had become a dead-animal free zone. The boys and dad club still sometimes ate meat when we ate out. Then, our younger son suggested to his brother and father that they should give up meat for Lent. (He was six, going through a rather pious phase, and planning to be a Franciscan monk when he grew up.) They moaned and groaned, but could not come up with good reasons to resist. And that was it. They did not return to meat after Easter. When we adopted an infant daughter just before Christmas that year, we were a vegetarian family, so she was a vegetarian too.
We are empty-nesters now. The children live far away, and they are independent adults who prepare their own food. The boys and their wives now eat some meat; our daughter has been a vegetarian her entire life. My husband and I are still vegetarian, and we are ready to begin another period of dietary transition. We know a lot more about factory farming than we used to; we know more about how eggs and cheese reach our table. So, we have begun to investigate local farm practices and animal conditions to find better sources for the dairy products we still eat. I am back to experimenting in the kitchen, and I’ve already added a number of vegan meals to our regular rotation. We might be on a very slow road to becoming vegans, or we might just be reducing the animal products we consume. Check back in twenty-five years to find out!