In the 7th grade, Lauren came home from the mall wearing a button saying “Meat is Murder.” It was her way of telling her parents that she was giving up red meat. Having identified with a vegetarian lifestyle from that young age, Lauren’s diet has been continually evolving. Today, she considers herself to be a pescatarian (a self-described vegetarian who occasionally eats wild-caught fish). Here, she talks about growing up as the only person who identified with vegetarianism in her New Hampshire-based family, cooking veg for her non-veg husband, and not being restricted by labels.
What are you eating today?
Trader Joe’s sells these awesome vegan enchiladas that I buy by the case - literally. I eat them all the time, with some fresh cut avocado, for lunch – which is usually a working lunch for me. For dinner tonight…the weather’s starting to get nicer, so we’ll probably do something on the grill - veggie burgers, with sweet potato fries and corn on the cob.
You grew up in small-town New Hampshire, among family and friends that all ate meat. How did you make the decision to stop?
As a kid, I always loved animals. We always had pets. Once I found out about slaughterhouses, factory farming, and where my meat came from, I was horrified. I just couldn’t put that aside. My answer was to immediately stop eating red meat.
For me, it was a very simple equation that the animal on my plate was no different than the one sitting in my lap.
You were 12. What was that like for your parents?
I think my parents initially rolled their eyes at me and really thought it was going to be a phase. They were ultimately supportive, but they were definitely surprised, and wondering “Where did she get this?” No one else in my family is even partially vegetarian or anything.
How did you make that work at home?
I did eat chicken while I was living at home. It made things a little easier - my family felt like there was something that they could feed me.
Thinking back to that time – that was fifteen years ago - I think a veggie burger was the only thing you could order on a menu or even get in our local grocery store. I don’t even remember knowing what soy milk was until college.
Do you remember any particularly difficult moments as a veg-friendly teenager?
I did get teased a bit in junior high. I remember having pizza once in class, and some boys trying to sneak pepperoni onto my piece of pizza.
How did you deal with that?
Oh, I just ignored it. I don’t think they were trying to be malicious, they just didn’t get it. In some ways, it solidified my resolve, that I wasn’t going to change what I wanted to do, based on what other people thought.
But, putting an adult lens on it, it’s really interesting how your own personal choices can make other people feel threatened.
If asked, I’m an advocate for vegetarianism, but I don’t necessarily feel a calling to convert others. I think one’s diet is a personal choice, and if someone is going to transition to a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle, they have to come to it on their own, for their own unique reason.
So, I’ve always been puzzled at how something that I’m doing, and that I’m not particularly loud about, can bother other people so much.
You continued to eat chicken while you were in high school and living at home with your parents. What happened when you went to college?
Once I got to college, it felt like the natural next step was to stop eating chicken as well. I didn’t have my parents feeding me to worry about, and having identified with vegetarianism, I was just ready.
Being in a major city for the first time, I felt like I had so many new options, and I didn’t need to worry about things like where I was going to get my protein. I had never had tofu until I went to college. I don’t know if it really wasn’t available where I grew up, or I just didn’t know about it, but it was like a whole new world for me! It seems so funny now, but it’s true.
Was it difficult to stay the course?
Giving up chicken was definitely a little more challenging for me at first than cutting out red meat. But it was just something that was important to me. Having met other people in college that were vegetarian and vegan, it just challenged me to step up my game, and learn about other things I could cook for myself. It helped to have friends to cook a big vegetarian meal with.
Being in a city also helped. I found a lot more options, especially with access to more international foods – Thai, Indian, Middle Eastern - which have these incredible vegetarian dishes that never make you feel that you are “missing” anything.
Have you ever been tempted to slip up?
Not really, actually. It’s really not something that I crave anymore, probably because it hasn’t been a part of my diet in so long.
People ask me – would you want to go fully vegan? And, part of me says yes. But then, part of me would rather just continue on this trajectory where I am now, where as I feel the need, I can become more restrictive.
I’m happy. I like cooking, and I like what I eat. I think that’s the biggest misconception around – that people think there are so few options, and, as a vegetarian, you must be unhappy with what’s on your plate. I really think that might have been true 15 – 20 years ago, but now I feel completely fulfilled with the food I eat.
You’re married to a non-vegetarian. What’s that like?
Being married to a non-veg is probably my biggest challenge. But, I don’t cook meat. So, if I cook dinner, unless my husband is going to cook a separate dinner for himself, then it’s going to be a vegetarian dinner.
It can be a point of frustration. But, even in my closest relationship, I still feel that nothing is going to be gained by me forcing him to do anything. Ultimately, what he chooses to do about his habits or his diet is really his decision to make.
Just like, when I was in junior high school, if my parents had said, “No, we absolutely forbid you from being a vegetarian,” – it’s kind of the same thing. I just can’t imagine someone else dictating that to me, so I wouldn’t dictate to someone else what they have to do. It’s a very personal choice.
How does your husband respond to your vegetarian diet?
He’s very supportive. But we’ve also had a long time to practice. From being with me and being friends with other people who are vegetarian, and from just getting older and being more cognizant of general healthy eating, I think it’s made him very open.
I also try to make things that he likes that are vegetarian. He likes to order General Tsao’s chicken at Chinese restaurants, and so over the years, I’ve perfected my General Tsao’s tofu recipe, which he loves.
It’s a good challenge for me to find things I can cook for us both, so that he doesn’t feel like he’s missing out. I personally never feel like I’m missing out, like, “Oh, I wish I could go eat a hamburger.” So, I don’t want him to feel that way, either.
You’ve found a balance that works within your own home. What do you do when you go to larger family gatherings, when you’re the only one?
That can be really hard, especially with big family gatherings like Thanksgiving or Easter where the holiday is really connected to certain traditional foods like turkey or ham.
We hosted our last Thanksgiving. I did not want to prepare a turkey. But, I prepared all of the sides, and lots of other dishes, and had this enormous spread. I kept hoping that people would say, why would we need a turkey with all of this other great food! So it’s a little disappointing when that doesn’t happen.
What do you say to people who are considering adopting a vegetarian or vegan diet?
Don’t be fearful of labels, thinking, “Well, I could never be vegetarian.”
If it’s something you’re thinking about, cut out or substitute one thing. Don’t punish yourself because you don’t fit into this one certain mold. A lot can be achieved personally, and on a greater scale, if people just start cutting back.
That’s not to say that people shouldn’t be vegetarian or vegan. Just don’t be so hard on yourself in the early
days. You can start small. You can slip up. You can still come back to it.
What do you see as the greatest benefit?
Well, I certainly have my times when I sit down and eat an entire bag of potato chips… having a vegetarian diet doesn’t necessarily mean you’re eating healthily all the time!
But, by and large, I am pretty happy with how I eat, what I eat, and how I think about food in general. I think vegetarianism has made me a more thoughtful person - more cognizant of the issues surrounding what we eat, how we deal with our environment, how we treat animals, what we put into our bodies. And, I think that awareness is just a wonderful gift.
Stay tuned for Lauren’s recipe for General Tsao’s Tofu - coming tomorrow!