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Sunday, June 5, 2011

Flexitarianism?

I became a vegetarian when I was a sophomore in college. I read Peter Singer’s classic Animal Liberation in an honors class and swiftly cut the chicken fingers out of my chicken fingers/cereal/ice-cream dining-hall diet. Eliminating meat from my diet wasn’t difficult for me. I could barely look at it without activating my gag reflex as I read and learned more about animal suffering and the environmental and health catastrophe of industrial factory farming.
My family was accommodating despite being a little perplexed and my mom generously started cooking extra veggie side dishes to go along with the traditional Christmas ham and Thanksgiving turkey dinners. My grandfather even found some bible verses that supported my choice (a high vote of support from a strict Roman Catholic.)
After graduating I moved to New York City, home of 101 delicious ethnic vegetarian take-out options. When Jon and I started dating he ate meat- mostly pork chops cooked on a hot plate in his hotel room (he was a traveling contractor then.) When he moved in with me he converted. At first by default, I cooked vegetarian, and later by choice. Our biggest dietary conflict was occasionally finding ourselves in a restaurant with a lackluster selection of vegetarian choices. No big deal.
Then, we joined the Peace Corps and moved to Grenada. Directly upon arrival we learned that our host mom had stocked her freezer with chicken to feed us. We weren’t ready to give up on our long-standing vegetarianism, which unfortunately caused a lot of tension. However, after a long talk with her we made a compromise and agreed to eat fish. We justified this to ourselves by imagining that eating fish would support the local economy in a place where ‘fisherman’ is still a prevalent job title. Also, how much damage could these guys in their little wooden boats really do? They couldn’t possibly be capable of the mass carnage of bycatch and environmental destruction that makes fish caught by commercial operations so objectionable. So, our new mom gave the chicken to her daughter and replaced it with...many, many cans of tuna- not much better, maybe even worse from an ethical standpoint, but we decided our relationship with “mom” was more important for now. She truly couldn’t imagine a dinner without animal protein in the starring role, so we made a concession and ate fish once, sometimes twice a day for the duration of our seven week stay with her.
Unfortunately, we later learned that the local fishing industry is fraught with its own problems. Fisher-folk blatantly disregard game laws aimed at maintaining fragile fish and shellfish populations. Endangered delicacies demand the highest prices providing more than enough incentive for fisherman who are struggling to survive financially to take sea turtles, lambie (conch), lobster and fish without remorse. Compounding the problem, enforcement of game laws is basically non-existent.
When we finally moved into our own apartment we swore off fish and ecstatically began cooking for ourselves again. Luckily, there are plenty of locally grown vegetables available here. A drought when we first arrived made this less true and also made what was available more expensive. Even so, we could easily find and afford: eggplant, potatoes, cabbage, onions, garlic, beets; and when it finally started to rain again: pumpkin, lettuce, green (bodi) beans, butternut squash, tomatoes, bok choy, bell peppers, cauliflower, and more. Add rice, beans and pasta and we were all set. We both learned a new set of recipes to go with our new set of ingredients and even attempted veggie versions of some Grenadian classics. Eating at home, we were happily vegetarian again.
Many of our new Grenadian friends and co-workers easily accepted our choice. Luckily for us, vegetarianism is far from unheard-of in the Caribbean. Rastafarians, well represented in Grenada paved the way for us. Stricter Rastas are nearly vegan while those who are a little more lax just omit pork. As a result, ‘soya’ products are widely available. Soy milk, tofu, and even dehydrated chunks of soya ‘meat’ can be found in many local supermarkets. The ingredient labels of some of these products are a little suspect but that hasn’t stopped us from occasionally including them in chili, tacos or a stir fry.
So, when there are plenty of vegetarian options available and a generally tolerant local population, why have we faltered? Well, despite general acceptance of a vegetarian lifestyle in Grenada, Grenadians by-and-large are a meat-eating people (they have an especially intense love affair going with chicken.) All the traditional dishes include meat in a fundamental, can’t-just pick-it-out kind of way. Food at festivals, parties, events, and cooks is invariably meat-centric. After about 4pm, BBQ chicken is often the only food available without going home to cook or spending a fortune in a restaurant.
Please allow me a short tangent here: The chicken issue has been of special interest to Jon whose veggie diet was a popular topic of conversation with his co-workers. When they teased, he countered that chicken three times a day was hardly a better or healthier choice. When he shared some of his reasons for opting not to eat chicken, his co-workers insisted that they were eating local, Grenadian chicken and that none of his concerns applied to their small scale, farm-raised, cruelty-free fowl. Observing the sheer quantity of chicken consumed in Grenada, we had both been more than a little skeptical when people had insisted that all the chicken in Grenada was local, but this exchange with his co-workers spurred Jon to do his research and get to the bottom of the matter. He found that about 92% of the chicken is, in actual fact, imported. Jon’s co-workers were un-moved, but this tidbit did help to continue to steer us away from that late night BBQ when we emerged late at night from a bar with rumbling stomachs.
Despite that small victory, I have to admit that I have eaten meat here in Grenada. It has never been easy to turn down a meaty dish offered up by a gracious host. Here, however, it is extremely difficult. It often feels like our vegetarian-ness compounds our already obvious otherness is social situations. It creates another layer of distance between us and the people we are supposed to be integrating with. When I have tried to explain my choice, more often than not my explanations about pollution and antibiotics and cruelty have produced blank stares rather than understanding or sympathy.
So, finally, at a Christmas dinner for the teachers at one of my schools, about ten months into our service, tired of saying “no” and very, very hungry, I ate a little ham. It was tough and super salty and made me feel more guilty than satisfied. But, I didn’t have to answer a thousand questions about what was or wasn’t on my plate and I could just be a part of the event. I have had meat on a few occasions since; pelau at a birthday party, oil down at a cook... Each time I feel like I’m compromising an important part of who I am and what I believe in. At the same time, eating like everyone else has allowed me to feel a deeper level of acceptance and has alleviated the social awkwardness that accompanies scanning around for hungry dogs or shadowy corners to hide the meat someone has served me. I’m not proud of myself. In fact I’m a little ashamed that I haven’t lived up to my own ideals. I’m only human though, and more than anything else, this experience is teaching me that the most meaningful thing I can do here is build relationships. If I need to eat a little meat here and there to facilitate that, then I’m willing to make that concession.