What “Vegetarian” Means to Me

I won’t bore you with another oatmeal recipe this morning, but let’s just say this one’s a winner, special thanks to syrups we picked up at World Market last night after Grady’s class.

Pumpkin Spice and Salted Caramel

I used the sugar-free salted caramel to make salted-caramel banana oatmeal. Just bananas, flax, oats, almond milk, this syrup, and a sprinkle of raisins. It’s a winner, and I don’t even usually enjoy caramel. World Market’s selection of Torani sugar-free syrups is to die for. Cinnamon vanilla, french vanilla, chocolate, white chocolate, hazelnut, raspberry, almond, coconut, peppermint…and on and on. As long as you’re not opposed to Splenda [which I’m not, but I always ask before I bake for someone else] it’s a great way to flavor coffees, cereals, desserts, etc. without added calories.

What “Vegetarian” Means to Me:

I realized that I label almost all of my recipes on the blog as vegetarian or vegan, but never explained why I cook and eat the way I do. The word “vegetarian” encompasses a lot of different dietary habits. It’s a very individualized term, and here’s what it means to me.

What sparked it:

To be honest, I never really enjoyed meat. I’d eat it, and sometimes it was delicious, but I never missed it when it was gone. I’ve never been the type of person who “craves” a burger and fries or a steak, and I’m more likely to polish off the mashed potatoes at Thanksgiving rather than the leftover turkey.

Out of curiosity, I decided to consciously exclude all meat from my diet. I started slow, still eating fish because of my unfounded fear of “not getting enough protein,” but over the last year fish disappeared from my diet, too.

During this process, I started doing research. I learned where food comes from. I learned about the industrial farms, the factories, the subsidies, the unequal distribution of wealth, and the conditions animals are placed in. Over the years, I developed a sense for why I believe eating meat in this country is more often than not contributing to a terribly unethical system.

My justifications:

1. Eating Ethically. I think we’ve all seen footage of the turkeys that can no longer walk because they’ve been pumped so full of growth hormone that their legs snap trying to support their own weight. Or, footage of the living conditions of other animals in factory farms – chickens forced to stand on top of one another, etc. [and since I’m the one who wants to adopt a red-headed seal, no wonder I’m affected by this]. And I won’t preach to you about what happens to the meat once the animal dies, but suffice it to say – no wonder we’re sick. Disease spreads like wildfire among 100 chickens in a 3X3 pen. I don’t believe that this is the kind of behavior our government should be subsidizing. These giant factory farms are not only treating animals with zero dignity, they are also wiping out small, family-run or community farms that can’t compete without government funding.

2. Eating Healthy. This is also a very personal thing, but I find that I am much healthier as a vegetarian. This could also be a product of being more cognizant about what I buy and eat and doing my best to avoid processed foods, but I have more energy [even though I’m still a horrible sleeper] and strength than I did in the past. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a food crusader. There are certainly frozen foods in our freezer, and I’m nowhere near close to a “raw foods” or pure “whole foods” diet. But I do my best to pay attention to what I buy, and I’m happy with the results.

3. Eating Locally. Being a vegetarian has made me much more conscious of where, geographically, my food comes from. I’ve come to place value on supporting my local economy by purchasing foods at local stores, from local farms, and at the city market, where I can actually talk to the farmer who pulled the beet out of his garden with his hands. There’s something fulfilling about trading money [and stories!] directly with a farmer.

4. Eating Safely. Industrialized farms utilize a ton of chemicals – including pesticides and antibiotics – to make the meats and vegetables look big and healthy. To up the weight of a chicken breast so it sells for more at a grocery store, companies like Purdue inject water into the breast to bulk it up. The only problem? That water is filled with bacteria and fecal matter. I remember the first time I bought a turkey from a local farm – it weighed a ton, but it was so small compared to what I was used to seeing. I was confused, but soon realized it was because it was pure, dense, healthy meat: not slimy, not watery, and not loaded with antibiotics.

“But, where do you get your protein?”

The most common question, and for people who are serious about vegetarianism and veganism, the most laughable one. I remember my parents were terrified that I was malnourished and underfed when I first told them my decision. If you look at a graph of how much protein you get per serving, many of the vegetarian options: beans, legumes, grains, soy products – beat a normal-sized serving of meat. But, as a country we also don’t eat normal-sized servings, skewing our views on how much protein we really need.

Do I “cheat”?

Very rarely, but yes: as long as what I’m eating conforms to my beliefs. I’ve never ordered an entire meat appetizer or entree, though. For example, I bought my family a turkey from Polyface Farms last Thanksgiving [it wasn’t worth the expense for all of the “freebird” jokes I had to deal with] and had a bite of that [note: it was delicious, and everyone agreed, harassment aside]. I’ve also had a bite here and there of things like the “Local Burger” at The Local [who lists the farm on the menu].

So what is my “label”?

I call myself a vegetarian, although in recent months my eating habits have been almost purely vegan. Perhaps the proper term is “flexitarian,” but it’s much simpler in normal conversation to sum it up with the term vegetarian. I try to be accommodating to hosts and guests, so I rarely put a label on it unless outright asked, and I won’t throw a fit if someone puts a piece of fish from the frozen section of Giant on my plate. Maybe one day I’ll be fully vegan, or maybe one day I’ll start re-incorporating meat when I can join a CSA or take regular trips to the farm, but that’s a thought for another day.


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Categories: Food


Courtney grew up in Reading, PA, and has lived in New York City (where she earned a bachelor's degree at NYU), Prague, Philadelphia, and Charlottesville (where she received a J.D. from UVa Law). Courtney and her new husband will settle in Philadelphia following a six-week Euro-trip extravaganza in September of 2012. Courtney's interests include music, writing, criticism, fitness, travel, cooking, and sports. Please enjoy the blog. LinkedIn: http://www.linkedin.com/pub/courtney-marello/1a/375/b30 Tumblr: http://abarrelofoddsandends.tumblr.com/


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7 Comments on “What “Vegetarian” Means to Me”

  1. Laura
    September 23, 2011 at 11:46 am #

    This sums up my eating habits and thoughts on the food system in our country pretty perfectly. I became a vegetarian* first for environmental reasons after I read The Omnivore’s Dilemma. As I started learning more and reading more (especially Eating Animals, by my fave JSF) I became more convinced it was the right thing to do for ethical and health reasons, too. Thanks for posting this — and keep the oatmeal recipes coming (it’s one of my very favorite foods and I’m constantly experimenting).

    *Well, flexitarian, really, but, like you, I find it easier just to say vegetarian because it takes so long to explain that I’ll meat if it’s locally raised, hormone free, antibiotic free, free range, grass fed and humanely killed….

    • September 23, 2011 at 5:02 pm #

      Yes! Eating Animals! it’s one of the best books because its so simple and it really gives you perspective because he’s basically saying, “So you’re afraid about giving your children a tetanus vaccine? Well maybe you should look at what they eat, instead.” JSF is great. I always recommend that book. Omnivore’s Dilemma was a bit rough to read but I really enjoyed it once I got through it.
      Glad you like the oatmeal, too. I’m getting a sample of a new brand sometime this week, I’ll have a post about it!

  2. Lauren Bingham
    September 23, 2011 at 1:47 pm #

    Straight from my heart.

    For your entertainment: http://s2.hubimg.com/u/2743773_f520.jpg

  3. November 9, 2011 at 1:47 am #

    What a wonderful, heartfelt, simple but meaningful post. I was especially drawn to your last comments about “cheating” and “your label”. When becoming vegetarian (and mostly vegan now), I was very concerned about the controversy created WITHIN the vegetarian community. Some go so far as sending mean, almost hateful comments to those who have adopted a mostly vegetarian or vegan diet. They nitpick at their fellow comrades as not being true if they include fish or some sort of meat from time to time or if they claim to be vegan but do something such as wear leather. With all the recent media on government subsidiaries and the huge effect on farms, farmers and the environment, many want to make changes to lessen their impact on the environment and better their health. I think we should be sending kudos to anyone who makes even the smallest of changes even should that be cutting down on their meat intake or selecting more locally grown produce. Any changes made, however small they may seem, support the cause and better the earth. We need to stick together, not pick on one another for calling ourselves Vegetarian but not REALLY being one if we choose to eat meat here and there. I love your candor and I hope more and more of us can express this. That is what motivates others to make changes as well. Well done!

    • November 9, 2011 at 8:29 am #

      Thank you! And I agree. Often people overlook the big picture, and the big picture is where even the tiniest of lifestyle change starts to make a difference. Thanks for reading, and I’m looking forward to taking a look at your story on your blog!


  1. On Eating Meat at Thanksgiving Dinner | Ryes and 'Shine - November 16, 2011

    […] once attempted to explain what the word “vegetarian” means to me. In doing so, I mentioned the concept of “cheating.” I said that I sometimes do […]

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