Vegetarian Update: Enlightened, Not Enraged
March 10th, 2010

I am ten days into this adventure.  I had hoped that by now I would have some sense of the effect this experiment is having on me.  Perhaps evangelical transcendence, utter frustration, or something in between.  Sadly, so far my response is the lukewarm: I think it’s going fine, which is in itself frustrating.

From a strictly dietary perspective, I’m doing pretty well.  I’ve tried many new recipes that might have otherwise lingered online without my ringing endorsements (travesty!).  I’ve felt happy and sated after each of my meals, and have not once gone to bed feeling underfed or undernourished.  I’ve only really craved meat once (and that was shortly after a six-mile run, which I’m sure had something to do with it).  And for the most part I haven’t felt overwhelmed by this challenge.  I am not bored with my diet and I’m not unreasonably out of my comfort zone without meat.  I am a bit concerned about my protein intake.  So this week’s recipes include more eggs and tofu than the first week’s menu.  But other than that, I’m slightly sorry to say that so far the effects of this transition have been relatively trivial.  (I’m not sure what that says about me.  Was I looking for drama?  Am I just highly adaptable?) 

From the bigger-ecological-picture perspective, I’m finding myself surprised and enlightened, but not yet enraged.  I’m about 175 pages into it, and with the exception of the early chapter entitled “Corn Sex” (no kidding) The Omnivore’s Dilemma is proving fascinating.  I have learned about the economic causes and effects of commoditizing crops (the Secretary of Agriculture under Nixon cut a deal to increase the price on corn exports to Russia that altered the entire incentive structure for corn farmers to value yield exclusively and indefinitely).  I now know that nitrogen is the single biggest component of fertilizer; that inert atmospheric nitrogen makes up something like 70% of the nitrogen on earth but is useless to crops; that a process invented by a Nazi called “fixing” said inert atmospheric nitrogen enabled both the invention of chemical fertilizer and the extermination of thousands of Jews.  (Do I sound like a complete nerd yet?  No?  Okay, I’ll keep going.)  I have learned that feeding corn to cattle on feedlots has changed the levels of acidity in their stomachs and rumens (I’ll spare you the explanation of a rumen) which has prompted the emergence of antibiotic-resistant “superbugs.”  And I have learned that if all cattle were exclusively grass fed they would rarely get sick and agricultural veterinarians would be out of work.  Okay.  I’m finished now… at least with the really nerdy stuff.  

I had some sense of the sins of large-scale agriculture (if you’ve never driven past a feed lot, count your blessings) before I started reading.  But I had no sense of the magnitude of the marketing ploy that buoys “industrial organic” (think Whole Foods) agriculture.  As it turns out, we consumers are gullible pawns, and if someone posts a glossy placard next to a wedge of cheese stating that it came from Farm X, and that the cows on Farm X drink Evian, play croquet, and have bridge clubs, then we will pay $18/pound for Farm X’s cheese.  I’m not altogether humiliated yet, but I am starting to feel a bit foolish.  I haven’t finished the book yet though, so I imagine that humiliation is forthcoming.

At this juncture in my journey I’m reluctantly playing a prediction game.  I’m attempting to foretell in what ways I will be changed by this month of vegetarianism.  And yet, I don’t want to jump to conclusions that will influence my experience as it unfolds.  I don’t believe that I could ever permanently exclude meat from my diet.  But I am finding the reach and influence of “big ag” to be pervasive and disturbing.  If I have any integrity at all, I will have to find some means of reconciling these facts.

And it is this conundrum of integrity – of reconciling my actions to my beliefs – that I suspect will be most troublesome for me.  The food industry is buttressed by decades of economic policy that has facilitated the creation of a dietary economy geared solely toward making my food purchases convenient and affordable.  To find food sources that defy the juggernaut food industry almost by definition requires that my purchasing habits become inconvenient and expensive.  (Intellectual curiosity is starting to sting a little bit.)  I hope that by the time the month ends my selected authors (Pollan and Foer) will not only have opened my eyes to these problems, but also offered some solutions.

In the meantime, bring on the tofu.

8 Responses to “Vegetarian Update: Enlightened, Not Enraged”

  1. JBS Says:

    For those who might be interested (and have TIVO), Michael Pollan is going to be on Oprah this week…Thursday, I believe. Re: Big Ag–it’s hideous and it gratifies me that more and more people are aware of that. It’s been ruining small towns in this country since the 50s and 60s. E.G.: If you have one square mile of farmland, and there are 4 families–one per each quarter-section of land. That’s, say, 16 people who shop in the nearest town, use the doctors, schools, stores, etc. Eliminate those four farms and put it under an absentee owner; what happens to that town?

  2. Anne Says:

    Good for you for tackling this subject. (Have you gotten to any of the stuff on Monsanto yet? Yikes!) Anyway, I think the “solution” part of the equation is tough. And unfortunately, with the exception of CSA programs, I’m finding that there is not way to avoid paying more $$ for the good stuff. I wince sometimes at the prices, but in the end? I feel I’m making a statement. I used to think it was magical how I could buy a whole chicken for $3.50. I’m starting to find it disturbing, especially when you consider farm-raised chickens cost more like $12. Weird.

  3. Kristen @ Motherese Says:

    I’m with Anne: I try to vote with my wallet at the grocery store and farmers’ market, buying local and organic whenever possible, but I recognize the luxury I have in being able to do so – and the problems in the system that cause a Twinkie to cost less than an apple. (Then again, as you’ll read about in an upcoming chapter from Michael Pollan, “big organic” is not all that much better than “big ag.” Sigh.)

    The irony of it is that I live in a rural farming town where you’d think we’d be able to get a wonderful variety of farm produce, but actually almost all of the farms grow soybeans, the owners needing to focus on the cash crops in order to stay at least partially afloat.

  4. Emily Says:

    I feel completely in the dark on this issue — although I appreciate the sliver of light you have offered me here. Sadly I am one of the reasons why big ag does so well – I feel like I dont have the time, money or energy to make the effort on better food choices. Im proud when my boys eat a vegetable at dinner – I don’t focus on whether it is organic or not. Im feeling a little ashamed. Guess I should get smarter.

  5. Nicki Says:

    I don’t find myself craving protein after long runs – more than 7 miles. I do live by the rule that I have my post run meal within 30 minutes. When I know that it is going to take longer to make my meal, I have an 8 ounce glass of Silk Chocolate Soy Milk (yup, big ag but I like it) as it helps ease the hunger pains.

    You can check a great after run meal at http://nickisnook.net/2009/11/09/breakfast-of/ on my blog.

  6. Aidan Donnelley Rowley @ Ivy League Insecurities Says:

    I love that you are letting us in on this adventure and I look forward to future updates! For what it’s worth – I love tofu!

  7. Jane Says:

    A braver woman than I. I’m fascinated with your adventure. I truly am. But I’m too afraid to give up meat. I crave it much too often.

  8. Celeste Says:

    I have been wanting to read The Omnivore’s Dillema for ages. But I know that, once I do, I probably won’t be able to continue my life as is. But maybe this is exactly what I need to get myself eating like my one-year-old (Buckwheat Carrot Pancakes really are awesome)!

    I loved your last paragraph. It is so true that the low cost and high convenience make it so hard to reconcile our actions with our beliefs. I’m still contemplating this and have yet to take action.