Sunday, January 24, 2016

The vegetarian's plight

It has been over 14 years since I stopped eating meat. You'd think by now, I'd have figured out a suitably concise way to describe my eating habits to others, but no. After all this time, I still struggle to find the correct word for me when it comes to what I eat.

Usually I just call myself a vegetarian, but that term has so many meanings for different people that it really doesn't explain anything at all. When I introduce myself as a vegetarian, it inevitably launches a game of 20 Questions. "Do you eat fish?" No. "Do you eat eggs?" Yes. "Do you drink milk?" No, but that's a personal preference, and I do eat foods that contain dairy products. And for some reason, because being vegetarian apparently implies a whole lifestyle of rigorous healthy choices, I almost always get asked "Do you eat gluten?" The answer is yes. You can pry my gluten from my cold dead hands.

But back to the point. It has always bothered me a little to say I'm vegetarian when my diet, in fact, includes some items that are not strictly vegetative. Ovo-lacto-vegetarian is the most technically correct term for someone of my dietary persuasion...but just try using that word in a crowd of loutish meat-eaters and see how far you get.

I have tried sometimes, instead of trying to find a word that describes everything I do eat, to simply describe what I don't eat: meat. But then inevitably someone will assume that fish isn't meat. I blame Catholic Lenten practices for this ludicrous distinction. According to Webster, meat is "The flesh of an animal used as food" – clearly including fish – but nonetheless, to many people, being vegetarian is synonymous with being pescatarian. 

So sometimes, in an attempt to take into account this non-standard but common definition of meat, I say, "I don't eat animals." I'd think that would be pretty cut-and-dried, but, believe it or not, one time I told this to a woman in the seafood line at the state fair, and she exclaimed (with equal parts revulsion and bafflement, in the manner of someone who thinks you're a complete idiot), "Fish aren't animals!"

Allow me to be a tad condescending while I remark that that the state fair is probably not the best place to go looking for a highly evolved stance on interspecies justice, but one could at least expect a rudimentary knowledge of taxonomy.

Although I am sure that none of my enlightened regular readers need this lesson, for the sake of this self-righteous nincompoop, to whom the following paragraph is addressed, allow me to set the record straight.

All living things can be divided into categories. There have been many different classification systems over the ages, but never, in any of them, have fish been classified outside of the Animals group. Here's a chart that pretty much lays it out for you. If you are unable to read a flowchart, then you really are a hopeless case.

Phew, that feels good! By the way, this exchange at the state fair happened over a year ago, in August of 2014. I had to walk away because I didn't have time to school the woman in question on phylogeny, nor did I think she would listen. But it's been weighing on me ever since. I am glad I posted this, so the next time someone dares to tell me a fish isn't an animal, I'll give 'em a piece of my taxonomic tree!

Also, by venting all my frustrations into this (yet another excessively long) blog post, I've learned something valuable: No matter how clearly you express something, your efforts are wasted if your audience has the education of a toddler ... a different frame of reference. In other words, you can't please everyone.

But you can please yourself! And for me, after considering all the alternatives, I realize that the simplest and most accurate way to describe my eating habits is to say I'm an ovo-lacto-vegetarian. Sure, it will probably confuse 80% of the people who hear it, but at least it can be explained without getting into arguments that can only be resolved with a dictionary or a flowchart. Bring on the loutish meat-eaters!


Hữu Tú Trương said...
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