If I’d known the word vegetarian when I was a kid, I wonder if the shift would have happened sooner. Back then, there was no Lisa Simpson giving pop culture credence, no easily available information, and no role models in my social circle.

I was an unusual tyke in that I liked almost every fruit or vegetable I tried. Steamed artichokes, smooth avocadoes, fresh cherries with pit and stem, even maligned Brussels sprouts.

However, I did like meat. It’s what was for dinner, after all. My mom made a well-seasoned skillet-fried hamburger, which I’d amply top with standard accoutrements, except for cheese. Summer Sundays featured my grandfather’s barbequed chicken, covered in a sweet sauce he mopped on in layers. When the mood struck him, my dad stood for a good hour poking garlic slivers into a roast he’d cook with potatoes and carrots. My grandmother made braciolone (brucelloni, colloquially), a recipe from my Sicilian great-grandmother–a thin round steak filled with chopped boiled eggs, parsley, celery, and seasoned bread crumbs, tied with string, seared on all sides, then simmered in thick tomato sauce. Cue gurgles of gastronomic glee.

When I began to prepare meals for myself and Todd, my partner, I turned to that culinary legacy. My people could cook, I assure you.

So what happened? I can’t pinpoint WHY my transition began, but I can identify when.

Red meat disappeared off my menu first. On New Year’s Eve, 2000, I cooked a sumptuous dinner that involved a superb steak and a rich buttery sauce. That night, all was well and easily digested. The next day, I recreated the dish exactly, but that time, I stared into the bloody center as I slipped a morsel into my mouth. Todd masticated with content while I forced down the bite against a mighty gag. No easy feat. From then on, portions of homecooked roast beef became smaller until I only ate the carrots and potatoes. Hamburgers became dysmorphic with gristle. Chicken smelled funny.

My waning taste for meat seemed to coincide with my practice of yoga. The more classes I attended, the more I wanted to feel better in other ways. After about a year, I decided to stop eating meat altogether to see what that would do. There was no question that I did feel physically healthier with meat out of my diet. I would later learn that it’s not unusual for those practicing yoga to lose interest in foods and drinks that once had been enjoyable. Whether that was the case for me, I’m not sure.

I do know that as I pondered my meat-free choice, it really wasn’t so simplistic. My feel-better-physically reason was a socially acceptable one people didn’t question or challenge. It was useful for a while. I’d seen other vegetarians–in person and in the media–face dismissive, sometimes hostile, comments because of their choices. My half-truth was convenient, protective.

The truth is, deep down, I’d begun to ponder my relationship with animals. As a child, I’d considered becoming a veterinarian. All my life, I’d felt deep affinity for animals of all shapes and kinds. I began to wonder about the categorizations I’d learned, such as cat/not food; cow/is food. I started to become aware of the living conditions of animals raised to be food and to provide it. What most of them were fed and administered, such as antibiotics, surprised me. I was concerned how the land and water were affected. With this knowledge, I had to engage with my own conscience.

That said, I didn’t eat meat any longer, but I still cooked it for Todd. Over time, unpleasant physical reactions became stronger when I did. I was far less able to tolerate smells and mouth-breathed my way through many a dish.

In October 2005, I had a reckoning, my chicken freak-out. I was home after being on a book tour for several weeks. Ah, to be back to domestic normalcy. After a morning of grocery shopping, I settled into the kitchen to rustle vittles, including a batch of chicken fricassee. I cut open the packet of chicken breasts, washed them, put them on a plate. Then I set to work on taking the meat from the bone. I touched the flesh and fully understood–IT WAS FLESH. This was muscle from the body of a creature. Those were its ribs, the joint of a wing. There was little word-thought, mostly feeling, an experience that was emotional, spiritual. I physically shook. Shocked by my reaction, I finished cooking. Later, when we ate dinner, I told Todd what had occurred. I said that I didn’t care if he cooked meat for himself, but something profound had happened and I could no longer cook it for him or anyone else. To my surprise, he glanced at me and said, “Okay.” Yep, it was as quiet as that.

Yet the changes were hardly over for me. More years passed, more reflection. I’d had my first hit of sushi in the mid-1990s and got a fix every few weeks since then. (After a rough work week, I’d sometimes announce that I wanted “happy food” for dinner.) I grew up in a part of the country where seafood is common. Although I wasn’t surprised that I began to think about the fish and its companions, I was unsettled. Like with meat, I considered what chemicals and practices affected not only the animals but also the earth, the waters, and human health. I rationalized that I would, really, find it easier to kill a fish than a mammal or bird if I had to, so if that’s the case then…sushi and seafood dinners with a quieted conscience.

No such luck. There came the fish freak-out. A year ago, I took a walk with a friend around lakes where people like to exercise, walk their dogs, and fish. We were only yards from the end of our four-mile route when I saw a man holding a fish near his shoulder. The sight of it gasping and gaping made me clutch my stomach. “No, not this, too, not this, too,” I muttered. But it was done. I’d felt an undeniable compassion for that little creature with the hook still in its mouth. My happy food was no longer so happy. Dammit.

Weeks after that, I read an article reiterating what I already knew about the lives of dairy cows. Yet that time, I felt the facts in my body instead of only in my mind. I thought about the reality that I never liked milk when I was a child and only drank it, with my sinuses closed off to the taste, because I was told it was good for me. But I cooked regularly with milk, butter, and cheese. Another adjustment on the way.

This isn’t easy. I appreciate that my circumstances allow me choices–survival isn’t an issue– but I’m not as consistent as I wish myself to be. I live with conscious tension that I don’t have to eat animals or purchase products that have used them, but sometimes I do. There have been a few occasions in the last year in which my body craved seafood, so I ate sushi. A meal or dessert now and then will include milk, butter, or cheese, although I avoid it more often than not. I will eat eggs and honey, which isn’t vegan. I will gratefully eat meals with seafood or dairy prepared by friends or family. I dread the inevitable search for a vegan shoe that’s business appropriate.

I don’t miss eating meat, though. I haven’t craved it all. Who knows why. The taste holds no temptation, but emotional memory still lingers. I love the smell of chicken on a barbeque pit and the thought of my grandmother in her tiny kitchen cooking a huge meal. To those who fed me well, I thank them. To the animals who gave their lives, I thank them, too. To future big salads and exotic stews, I look forward.

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RONLYN DOMINGUE (pronounced ron-lin doh-mang, equal emphasis on all syllables) is the author of The Mapmaker's War and The Chronicle of Secret Riven, Books 1 and 2 of the Keeper of Tales Trilogy. The third book is forthcoming in 2017. Her critically acclaimed debut novel, The Mercy of Thin Air, was published in ten languages. Her writing has appeared in The Beautiful Anthology (TNB Books), New England Review, Clackamas Literary Review, New Delta Review, The Independent UK, Border Crossing, and Shambhala Sun, as well as on mindful.org, The Nervous Breakdown, and Salon.com. She holds a MFA degree in creative writing from Louisiana State University. Born and raised in the Deep South, she lives there still.

Connect online at ronlyndomingue.com, Facebook, and Twitter.

One response to “Fowl Freak-Out: A Vegetarian’s Tale”

  1. Ronlyn Domingue says:

    Comment by Simon Smithson
    2009-09-01 04:31:44
    Ronlyn, welcome to TNB. I seem to be saying that a lot recently, our ranks have swelled.

    Great opening post. More and more, I’m getting the idea that I should be abandoning meat (sorry Jim), I’m just not really sure how to go about it.

    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Ronlyn
    2009-09-01 06:57:36
    Thanks, Simon. Well, you could quit cold turkey (*groan*) or transition by having fewer meals with meat each week. Some friends have done the latter with success. You’ll figure out what’s best for you, if a no-meat diet is meant to be.

    Reply to this comment

    Comment by James D. Irwin
    2009-09-02 01:26:26
    Simon, you’ll have to talk with me and Greg.

    I have a flip chart and Greg has already brought one vegetarian back from brink…

    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Michael Domingue
    2009-09-01 05:06:23
    An honest account of how small, planned (and unplanned) incremental changes in one’s life, bring forth a new life. Thank you for describing the essence of living with change.

    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Ronlyn
    2009-09-01 06:58:30
    Living, coping, struggling. Thanks. (Homage to the giant pit…)

    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Brad Listi
    2009-09-01 06:35:10
    Heh. Weird. This describes my situation almost exactly. I gave up eating meat when I was twenty-one. (Christ, am I really that old?) I suppose I just started thinking about animals and how they got to my plate and it then just got to the point where I couldn’t do it. (And then I read John Robbins’ Diet for a New America, and the deal was sealed.) I’m not perfect about it, but I probably eat a meatless diet about 95 percent of the time. If I’m at someone’s house, and they serve me steak, I eat it. Occasionally I’ll have some sushi. I still wear leather underwear. (Some things are hard to give up.)

    As Bill Maher likes to say: I wouldn’t eat a hot dog if you put a condom on it.

    Natalie Portman started a vegan shoe company out of a similar sense of dread. Google it.

    So yeah. Food ethics. It’s a complicated subject, and it always engenders debate. To this day, practically every single time I go out to eat with a group and don’t order meat, someone at the table will either query me about my meatless eating habits, or else they’ll spontaneously start defending the fact that they’ve decided to order a steak.

    I’m not comfortable as a proselytizer on the matter. I usually just say: “It makes me feel better, and I’m an animal person.”

    My wife became a vegetarian at age nine. Saw a video on agribusiness and factory farming and it scared the hell out of her. We’re both really big animal lovers and have strong emotional reactions to the suffering of cows and pigs and whatnot.

    This might sound trite at this point, especially in lit circles, but the best and most balanced thing I’ve probably ever read on the subject is the famous David Foster Wallace essay called “Consider the Lobster,” which was first published in Gourmet in 2004. It’s not a preachy, save-the-animals-and-go-vegan essay—at all. Wallace was a meat-eater, or was at the time of authorship. What it is is a really honest and often hilarious sort of travelogue and meditation about a lobster festival in Maine that then winds up delving into the issues of food choice and animal ethics and whatnot in a way that’s evenhanded and insightful, and, um, well-considered, and, in the end it’s just sort of brilliant, and it makes you think. As much as anything I’ve ever read, it sort of defines the situation beautifully without getting preachy one way or the other. (You can read the entire thing right here. Totally worth the time if you haven’t already done so.)

    Anyway. Lovely piece, Ronlyn. And welcome aboard!

    (And just so you know: In order to get your photo to show up next to your comments, you need to go to http://www.gravatar.com, sign up for a free account, and upload your picture. Just be sure to use the same email address at gravatar that you use here at TNB.)

    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Ronlyn
    2009-09-01 07:10:43
    I appreciate your comments, Brad. I agree–no preaching. Each person has to decide for him/herself. I’ll check out the lobster essay.

    Wonder how the beast who gave its life for your underwear feels about that….

    Reply to this comment

    Comment by PJ Roths
    2009-09-01 07:16:27
    Ronlyn, Brilliant! It’s good to read your work again. ‘Looking forward to more.
    I guess this means you won’t be coming deer hunting with me, or dropping by for venison roast.

    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Ronlyn
    2009-09-01 08:15:17
    Alas, no. Enjoy the quiet of the woods.

    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Mj Schambach
    2009-09-01 07:41:38
    I came out of the “vegetarian closet” two years ago when my husband was diagnosed with gout. His physician advised him to become a vegetarian to prevent the disease from progressing. After reading about the side effects resulting from gout medications, he decided that day to become a vegetarian. We’re not vegans, we still eat cheese and use some dairy products (organic). Ostensibly, organic dairy farmers treat their cows better than huge factory farms where they’re pumped full of hormones.
    As a child, I often pictured the animal in my mind as I was eating, and it caused me distress. I ate as little meat as possible, the only exception being bacon on Sundays. I’m still guilty of having a couple pieces if we go out for breakfast. I once read bacon is the downfall of vegetarians, and that may be true. After once seeing how truly nasty and dangerous pigs are, it bothers me less to eat bacon than the flesh of a sweet, docile cow. At one point we had thirty eight beef cows (late 80’s) and I often fed them. It bothered me that while I was engendering their trust and affection (yes, you can really love a cow) I was setting them up for slaughter. How do you eat a friend? Meateaters probably find this childish, but those of us who are sensitive to it understand. I never harp at anyone who eats meat, it is the way of much of the world.
    As hard as it is to allow people on our land to deer hunt, we do. Whenever I hear a shot I say a small prayer that the hunter missed, but I know he probably didn’t. The argument is always that the deer will starve to death anyway, and shooting them is more merciful. That argument is true, but it’s horrifying to come upon an intact deer carcass with only the head taken for a trophy. Hunters who never bothered to ask for hunting rights do it every year.
    Ronlyn, thanks for sending this site to your readers. Any visiting vegetarians, take note: her first book is a gem, endeavor to get a copy. Buy it, because you’ll want to keep it!
    And Ronlyn, maybe you could work in a vegetarian character who speaks on behalf of the animal world!

    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Ronlyn
    2009-09-01 08:21:46
    What an interesting turn of events for you both. I hope your husband’s condition is much improved, if not cured. There must be some strange genetic memory connected to the smell of bacon–even I lift my head to the scent. Thanks for your supportive words for MERCY. Who knows what characters will show up in my future novels. (must.finish.the.second.first.)

    Reply to this comment

    Comment by mary guterson
    2009-09-01 10:00:45
    hey ronlyn! Great piece. Thanks for posting it. i do a weird eating thing that i got from mark bittman, the ny times food writer. I’m vegan every day until six p.m. I know how weirdly stupid that sounds, but you know, if it works…. For dinner, i try to go vegan, but with husband, kids, friends, it’s not so easy. Chicken, fish, cheese–they work their way in there. It’s okay, i’m not fundamental about most anything.
    We raised our kids without red meat. Once, we were at a mcdonald’s and my daughter–about six years old–wanted a burger. So we bought her one. She took a bite, opened up the bun, looked inside and said: “What is this gray stuff? I love it!” Of course, now she’s an uber-vegetarian, but she’s 19 and what 19 year old isn’t an uber-vegetarian?
    love ya, ronlyn! hope to bump into you one of these days.

    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Ronlyn
    2009-09-01 11:31:15
    What happens to you after the stroke of midnight?
    Love that story about your tender-aged daughter and the hamburger.
    Yes, our orbits must loop again. Somebody needs a big old book tour or time machine.

    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Mj Schambach
    2009-09-01 11:22:27
    re gout: yes, thanks, he hasn’t had an episode since becoming a non meat eater. Gout sufferers, take note!

    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Kathryn van Rooyen
    2009-09-07 11:40:35
    I am pleased to learn that going vegan eliminates gout! My daughter, who was only 24 when diagnosed and is now 27, has terrible gouty arthritis. I intend to let her know this good news.

    I’d like to go vegan but I actually do crave meat, sadly. And I am a real animal lover. It is something I think about a lot, and wish that an epiphany would happen for me like it did you, Ronlyn.

    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Kenn Allen
    2009-09-01 13:28:20
    If you ever hand to slaughter a hog or, wring a chicken’s neck, scald, pluck one, gut and butcher them, you would quickly lose interest in eating meat. It takes a strong carnivore streak to eat what you kill and clean. Or else desperate hunger. I still enjoy meat but in moderation nowadays.
    Kenn

    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Ronlyn Domingue
    2009-09-02 05:24:36
    My guess is that if I had to to survive, I could do any of that. Fingers crossed I don’t ever have to find out.

    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Zara Potts
    2009-09-01 15:01:15
    In my mind, I am a vegetarian.
    In my mind, I do not eat any animal.
    Unfortunately it’s all in my mind.
    Giving more money than I can afford to animal charities helps me salve my conscience.

    But hey, here’s something that really shocked me: The Dalai Lama eats meat.

    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Ronlyn Domingue
    2009-09-02 05:25:46
    Zara, somehow there’s a balance in the end. Didn’t know that about the Dalai Lama!

    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Thomas Scott
    2009-09-01 20:11:33
    Whoa, that’s an intense story. Not the first time I’ve heard of someone losing their appetite meat while they were getting into yoga, though. Interesting. Thanks for the post!

    -Thomas

    ps keep doing your best! You’re doing great

    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Ronlyn Domingue
    2009-09-02 05:26:34
    Thanks, Thomas. I’m trying…

    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Diane Pecnik
    2009-09-02 04:56:04
    Hey Ronlyn,
    It was so good to read your words again. They resonate with this lover of vegetable greens, yellows, reds, and the juicy exotic colors of all fruits.

    Diane

    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Ronlyn Domingue
    2009-09-02 05:30:52
    I go weak in the knees for the various stem hues of Swiss chard. Our local farmer’s market is a frolic for the eyes. Then tongue.

    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Marni Grossman
    2009-09-02 07:03:54
    Because I keep kosher, I spend a lot of time not eating meat. But I’ve never gone full-on vegetarian because the convictions just aren’t there. I love animals as much as the next girl, but I can’t help but have a kind of speciest “people first” attitude about the whole thing. Which is neither smart nor consistent, but still.

    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Ronlyn Domingue
    2009-09-02 10:59:39
    Keeping kosher seems like a mindful tradition–something meaningful in a fast food world.
    I, too, once felt the same about people first. My thoughts have swirled a lot over this during the past few years.

    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Jessica Anya Blau
    2009-09-02 09:48:41
    Hey Ronlyn,
    I really enjoyed this–find your reactions to meat and then fish interesting. I’ve never eaten meat or fish. I hated the taste of both as a kid. Forever. Since I was old enough to feed myself. If forced to eat meat or fish, which I often was as a kid, I’d swallow whole bites so that I wouldn’t have to chew and taste. I still don’t eat them and I’ve never prepared a piece a meat, although I have cooked chicken, years ago. I do find the sight of raw meat repulsive–the blood . . . I mean BLOOD . . . who ever came up with the idea to eat it in the first place? I do, however, love yogurt, cheese, milk and butter, and would probably be pathetically undernourished without them!

    Where, pray tell, is 91 degrees longitude? Is this one of those things that everyone but me knows?

    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Ronlyn Domingue
    2009-09-02 11:07:21
    Wow, your little body was insistent about what it wanted and what it didn’t! I did once like the taste of meat, but I don’t think I could tolerate it now, certainly not after so many years without it.
    91 degrees longitude. It’s a hint as to where in the world I live without actually saying it. If you find a globe and follow that line, you’ll get some idea. (It’s not in the ocean.)

    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Autumn Kindelspire
    2009-09-02 12:15:59
    Welcome to TNB, Ronlyn! Great first post!

    I was raised mostly meat-free until my dad’s hair started to fall out from lack of protein (tofu family we ain’t). But we always ate fish.

    Even now I only eat meat once or twice a week. Just never really got into the taste of it. And raw chicken is skeevy.

    I think it’s true about catching it and your own food: To this day I have no problem eating fish, because I have no problem catching them. I actually long for a vacation where I can afford some deep-sea fishing. But not for trophies–I want to EAT the swordfish, marlin, or grouper I catch.

    Fishing with my uncle, or picking scallops in the bay, are some of my favorite childhood memories.

    But I shudder at my friends who go hunting. Go figure.

    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Ronlyn Domingue
    2009-09-03 03:47:57
    Thanks, Autumn.
    What a great vacation that would be on many levels. Fingers crossed you get to do it soon. Fresh fish is so much more delectable than what comes through the market.
    (You have one of the best last names I’ve ever seen. Lyrical.)

    Reply to this comment
    Comment by judy kahn
    2009-09-03 09:12:37
    Okay Ronlyn. I’ll try to do better when you come over and remember that thing about butter and milk. You’ve always been so gracious about eating whatever’s served, but now I know the real truth and will stick with lettuce and beets. By the way, it’s a great post and I can’t wait for the next one. Loved “chicken smelled funny.”
    (Comments wont nest below this level)
    Comment by Ronlyn Domingue
    2009-09-03 11:52:34
    You make the BEST big salads ever. And your company is sustaining as well. XOXO

    Reply here

    Comment by Erika Rae
    2009-09-05 12:44:44
    Hey Ronlyn – I really love how you use words. Also, I love your name! (My sister’s name is Ronlyn – I haven’t met too many of you!) Also, I was a vegetarian for a couple of years, and then went back once I became pregnant. I just wanted RED MEAT. It was crazy. And still, the experience made me so much more mindful and appreciative of the role of animals in my food source.

    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Ronlyn Domingue
    2009-09-05 13:21:00
    Thanks for the note, Erika. I hope your sister hasn’t minded going through life with an unusual name. Essay fodder… I don’t know anything about purebred cats but apparently there’s a lineage (?) of them with “our” name. Google persian ronlyn.
    Some friends told me about their red meat NEED while pregnant. Must be something you all had to have in your systems for the babies.

    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Irene Zion
    2009-09-06 04:13:07
    Ronlyn,

    Even BACON?

    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Ronlyn Domingue
    2009-09-06 12:49:45
    I inhale but do not eat. Ah, will power.

    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Kathryn van Rooyen
    2009-09-07 11:46:27
    Thanks for directing me here to your blog. I have missed reading your words, since I read MERCY so long ago (and absolutely devoured it, twice). This is a great sustainer until your #2 is finished and published.

    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Ronlyn Domingue
    2009-09-08 04:03:20
    You’re welcome, Kathryn. Many good wishes to you–and your daughter.

    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Mary McMyne
    2009-09-14 06:38:35
    Great post, Ronlyn. I too second Brad’s recommendation of “Consider the Lobster.” It’s one of my favorite essays. DFW wrote such excellent nonfiction.

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