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February 25, 2020

Accidental Vegetarian.

I was 4-years-old when I noticed the horrible chart above the pigpen at the county fair: A side profile of my favorite dirty-nosed animal, detailing the body parts that would become varied cuts of meat. 

I was in shock that the bacon I ate for breakfast that morning meant a pig had to die. I tearfully told my dad that I would never eat a pig again. And I didn’t. 

I ate my last hamburger sometime during my sophomore year of high school, right before I came across an article about how a cow had escaped a New York City slaughterhouse, running through the streets of Queens. How could I eat an animal bold enough to run toward freedom?

So no beef, no pork. But I still ate chicken. 

I didn’t talk a lot about my meat pickiness, but when friends would inevitably notice, I joked that a chicken bit me once at a farm, and I was getting back at it’s ancestors. 

Every time I told that joke, I thought I was a little awful, but I didn’t know any chickens personally, and hadn’t read about any daring chicken escapes, no I sort of numbed out my understanding of birds being animals, and ate chicken on salads, pasta, sandwiches, and plain on the plate. 

I even ate chicken after my 7-year-old son, Tyler, got a flock of Barred Plymouth Rock birds that he lovingly pet, hugged, and thanked by name as he collected their eggs.  Tyler immediately refused to eat anything that flew. I respected his decision, and wondered how I’d make family meals when no one ate the same damn meat.  

One hot summer day, Tyler burst into the kitchen, tears running down his hot, dirty cheeks. “Something is wrong with Sadie,” he sobbed. 

We walked out to the chicken coop together, and Tyler showed me Sadie, who usually stood perky, huddled in the corner. Her eyes had lost their sparkle. Although she was still with us, I also knew that she wouldn’t be for long. 

I pulled a plastic Adirondack chair up to the chicken coop, and held Tyler in my lap, rubbing his back as he cried. I looked at poor Sadie in the chicken coop, and noticed the other five chickens gathered around her, seeming to stay present. It was almost as if they were sitting bedside, offering her comfort. 

I shook my head and blinked my eyes. These were chickens. They have tiny heads with itty-bitty brains. Was it possible that they were holding a vigil for their dying friend?

I mentioned it to Tyler. “Of course,” he said, “the girls are comforting Sadie. They are trying to help her know it’s OK to go to Heaven.” He dissolved into sobs again. 

I’ve buried a few of Tyler’s backyard chickens in the six years since Sadie died.  Some have slipped away quietly in their sleep, some have passed away in Tyler’s arms. He has grieved each and every bird, offering his condolences to the other girls at the coop. 

Bit by bit, chicken and turkey became less appetizing, until I stopped eating it all together. 

Even though I no longer eat meat, I have three reasons that I don’t openly identify as a vegetarian. 

  1. There is a lot of pressure placed on vegetarians and vegans, and the people who share a table with them. I’ve sat at too many breakfast tables where meat eaters feel compelled to defend their choices after a friend has ordered a veggie omelet without the side of sausage. I’ve also awkwardly picked at my dinner while vegetarian friends intellectually defend their position, educating the table about the environmental and health reasons to drop meat. I encounter enough awkward conversations, conflicts, and persuasion in a day. I just don’t want to bring them to the literal table.
  2. I’m not excited enough. I appreciate my local farm and certainly enjoy a great plant-based meal, but I am not that person who gets Instagram-worthy jazzed by a rainbow-filled bag of farmer’s market vegetables. My boring approach would probably hurt the card-carrying vegetarian cause.
  3. Maybe I won’t eat like this forever. Even though I don’t believe I will, I want the freedom to change my mind. I’ve wobbled on plenty of things in my life, and don’t want to own “failed vegetarian” if I one day decide to have a bite of my friend’s meal.

Even though I don’t openly own my vegetarian approach to eating, I am grateful for the benefits it brings me. I have lost weight and feel better, and I appreciate the peace-of-mind that comes with knowing that each one of my meals is a little vote in the right direction for our planet’s health.

But most importantly, I look at Tyler’s girls differently now. I clearly see their perky souls and admire their funny little friendships. I talk to them, and especially when I collect their eggs, I thank them by name.

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