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Hell Ghent for Leather

When I tell people that I don’t eat meat, the first thing they do is look down at the gorgeous, vintage cowboy boots I am inevitably wearing. These same people say, “Sam, your boots, while fabulous in a sleekly-rugged, just-the-right-amount-of-badass way, are made of leather. Leather, as you may know, is the tanned skin of cows young and old. Doesn’t that contradict your vegetarianism?”

My response: “Yes. No. Sort of. Should we get some sandwiches?”

I can’t answer this question. Ten meatless years went by before I could even sum up my choice in one sentence: I don’t feel that I have an automatic right to any sentient being’s body but my own. But does that make me a vegetarian? I wonder if this simple, inflexible word has outlived its usefulness. After all, the cowboy boots aren’t the only (almost literal!) skeletons in my closet: once every couple of months, my husband (another non-meat-eater) and I go out for sushi. And, come summer, I toast marshmallows (which are made with gelatin, an animal byproduct). So, I’m not a vegetarian, then? I’m a sushi-marshnallow-secondhand-leather-only-and-otherwise-no-meat-itarian? Hmm.

I quietly gave up meat during my first week of college (in the midst of the declining, post-Cobain grunge movement) because I was then, and still am, a softie, plain and simple. I like animals; I can see their personalities. This photograph in the Boston Globe of a 4H girl resting with her calf makes me happy. I wasn’t much of a meat eater as a child either; most kids, when they learn what meat is, are upset for about five minutes, but I never really got over it. At the time, I didn’t know of any environmental reasons to stop eating meat, but in 2006 the United Nations found that raising livestock produces more greenhouse gasses than driving cars. And in July, a Washington Post article cited a study from Carnegie Mellon that found going meatless just one day a week would have a greater positive impact on the environment than converting to a totally local diet. Who knew?

But despite the environmental and health benefits of eating less meat, the word vegetarian carries with it a nut-loaf-and-commune stigma that keeps some people from going even partially meatless. The word implies an “all-or-nothing” lifestyle that belies the flexibility required to maintain a low-meat diet on the long term (my occasional sushi binges, for example). There are plenty of people who don’t call themselves vegetarians but who are sensitive to animal rights and carefully weigh their choices every day, artfully balancing what is best for them, for the animals involved, and for the planet. Maybe we need a name for these people too, because they might be doing the most good.

On the other hand, maybe the idea of needing a name is part of the problem, in which case we should take a cue from the town of Ghent in Belgium, which declared that Thursdays are meatless days. Vegetarian meals will be served in schools and public cafeterias, and restaurants in town will promote vegetarian selections. The message is clear: one town eats veggie one day a week, no strings or stigma attached, and poof, it produces the environmental equivalent of removing 18,000 cars from the road. There’s a compact lesson here about something expansive: people don’t have to adopt a whole different lifestyle in order to have a positive effect on their bodies and on the planet, and small acts can be more important than bold statements of identity. In this case, maybe the shorthand (“vegetarian,” “vegan”) just comes up short.

10 responses to “Hell Ghent for Leather”

  1. Avatar Patrick says:

    Hi Sam, I read your post. I really liked it! I know we’ve spoken about vegetarianism at Mocksgiving and it is nice to see you articulate it as well. Usually posts about lifestyle choices of that nature come across as “holier than thou” or militant in nature. I agree that we need to expand our lexicon when it comes to the aspects of vegetarianism that don’t quite fit the usual mold. I think it is one of many things in this world that needs to be rethought, reinterpreted and reintroduced. Maybe that’s an idea for your next article?

  2. Avatar Dave Galvin says:

    I like Sam’s tolerant approach to vegetarianism, as well as her once-a-week plan. My own diet is a variation on that theme. I limit my meat to at most one meal a day. That has me eating healthier, eating better meat when I do eat it (because I’m not going to waste my one meal on fast food), and getting to experience a wide variety of vegetarian meals that I wouldn’t otherwise have tried.
    P.S. marshmallow is misspelled the second time it appears.

    • Avatar lee lee says:

      Good point, Dave. I kind of do the same thing–I eat meat only when I eat out at a restaurant, which is definitely less than once a week–but that’s really because I’m lazy and my husband, who cooks, is a vegetarian. Well, my footprint is still smaller!!!!!!!!

  3. Sam Sam says:

    Thanks, Patrick and Dave. I think about this stuff a lot, probably too much! Being militant doesn’t seem to do anyone any good, and it seems to imply a black-and-white schema to a series of choices that aren’t at all black and white. Dave, I think that’s a really smart plan that you have; not only does it cut down on your environmental footprint, but it also keeps you healthier (because you’re right; why on earth would you waste your one meat meal a day on a Bic Mac?).

  4. Avatar Eric Benson says:

    I don’t think the word vegetarian has become useless, just overused. Who can really say they are a vegetarian? Someone who never eats meat? Someone who eats only fake meat (mmmmmm…)? Perhaps it’s the people who don’t eat meat and can’t even think about it. No…a vegetarian is someone who believes they are a vegetarian. No one can tell you otherwise, so why tell people otherwise? Answer your questions with an honest, “I could give two ****s about the leather on my shoes, I’m still a vegetarian.”

  5. Avatar Mary Kate says:

    I myself am a vegetarian. I am not a vegan, I will make that clear right now. I do eat eggs, occasionally (although for the most part I would prefer not to), and I do drink milk, although only in my coffee from Dunkin Donuts (which I think, by the way, they should change their hot coffee cups to cardboard because styrofoam is so bad for the environment! Although, then again, I probably could just buy one of those coffee mugs they sell there and just have them refill that daily, for a price of course). But, back on track. I do also eat cheese, but a very limited amount. I obviously will not call myself a vegan by any means, although I consume very little amounts of dairy and eggs, and can’t remember the last time I had Jello. But I do call myself a vegetarian. I haven’t eaten meat, of any kind, including fish, and chicken, of course, in 12 years. Except for the occasional times my mom has lied to me and told me the pasta dish was meat-free, when, after tasting it, I realized it wasn’t. And, since I’m being honest, I DO go out to restaurants, and although I choose items that should NOT contain meat, I cannot guarantee that they haven’t come in contact with a meat product, seeing as you ARE eating at a restaurant that serves non-vegetarian dishes. Although, in those cases, every time I go out to eat, I hope that the chef or server is following the food safety rules, but working in restaurants for many years, I know that this is not always true. (Which is why I prefer to eat at home, when I know how my food is prepared.) And once again, I will be honest, but this is not something I am proud to admit. I do own some items made out of leather. I will not wear leather pants, or jackets, and even try to avoid shoes made of leather. But, it’s hard to find shoes and belts that are not made 100% without leather. Yes, I could go to the extent to special order these items, but 1) I don’t have the time and 2) these products tend to be fairy expensive, and I just don’t have that type of money. So, once again, yes, I am ashamed to own these leather items, and I wish that leather free items were more widely available and cheaper, because then I would have better options. But if you wanna debate with me, I Will call myself a vegetarian. I don’t expect you to be, but that is what I choose for my lifestyle. It’s not that I require a “label.” I could care less about that. Just don’t expect me to eat that steak you put in front of me, and don’t be upset with me if I ask myself to excuse myself from the table. I am a waitress, and serve meat every day that I work, and although sometimes it’s certainly not the most appealing item for ME to serve, you have your own choices. I don’t judge you, nor should you judge me. If people need the label, then let them have it. If they don’t, and just contemplate their food choices widely, whether involving a meat dish or not, then let them. I think it would be healthier for people to become more open to the idea of vegetarianism but I never judge anyone or pressure people to change to the lifestyle I have chosen for myself.

  6. Avatar Jordan says:

    Although I eat meat fairly often I have to admit it does make sense and I would participate in a meat free day once a week. I happen to think it would be a great way to make a little change in our meat obsessed culture and it may help people loose a little weight in the process.

  7. Avatar Jordan Skinner says:

    I totally agree with what Sam is saying here. Sometimes we just assume if someone says their vegetarian they must be sensitive to animal rights as well. It might be as simple as they don’t like meat. They also are not obligated to live the full lifestyle of stereotypical vegetarian. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. They are still making difference in this world. Little things can change the world in big ways.

  8. Avatar Original Dave says:

    Sam people tell me all the time I’m not a “real vegetarian” because I rescue unwanted bacon from waste by eating it, or because I listen to my body’s cravings, or am too polite to turn down my grandmother’s meatloaf, or… well you know all the arguments.
    And I say F* em. I’m not going to define my lifestyle choice by the expectations of others. If I choose not to eat meat and call myself a vegetarian, that’s my prerogative.
    If I go to a funeral mass every now and then, it doesn’t make me a Catholic.

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{Seven Deadly} Sins
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Mischief Making
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Green Ethics
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