Do Vegetarians Have a Choice?

“You, sir! What’s in that bag?” The security guard approached and eyed the take-out container in my hand.

“Just paneer and roti,” I shrugged, then held it out for inspection. Still, he couldn’t help but chastise the American visiting India for the first time.

“We are a vegetarian establishment, sir.”

“Yes, I remember.” I smiled and wished him a happy holiday.

Before visiting Mumbai, I knew the vast majority of Indians were vegetarian. But how much so was a bit of a mystery to me. I found out very quickly. Even bringing meat onto the property of our hotel was strictly forbidden. The night watchman wasted no opportunity to remind me of that.

I have no issue adhering to vegetarianism. I was vegan in my early thirties, and even now, most of my meals are meat-free. My wife, who was born in Mumbai (then Bombay), didn’t taste beef until she was a teenager, after she immigrated to the United States. Now as we visited her hometown for the holidays, we had no choice but to do as the locals do.

Eating meat-free in the United States is a chore. One must avoid the bombardment of advertisements, traditions, and get-togethers that celebrate meat-based diets. But in India, vegetarianism is an expected way of life. It’s in my observation, that in both countries, the choice of what one eats for dinner has already been made for them.

How do we define vegetarianism?

The simple answer is this: consume no meat. But, how we achieve that, can vary by some degree.

In the U.S., we commonly define vegetarianism as ‘substituting’, i.e. swapping meat burgers for processed veggie burgers, hotdogs for tofu dogs, pork sausage for vegan sausage. In our “eat-this-not-that” mentality, we are still consuming the ‘thing’ we love—the burger, the hotdog, the sausage—but we feel less guilty for it.

Or we follow an ‘abstinence’ policy. We ask the waiter to ‘hold the bacon’ on our house salad. We order pizza without pepperoni and pasta alfredo without chicken. And inevitably at cookouts, when we pass on the host’s barbequed ribs, we open ourselves up to ridicule, or at least a barrage of questions.

India follows neither of these definitions. Vegetarian means eating ‘closer to the earth,’ i.e. cooking with fresh vegetables, and getting protein from grains, dairy, and nuts. They aren’t substituting or abstaining from anything. Their meals are grown in the soil, harvested, chopped, spiced, and cooked.

“Then what do you order at McDonald’s?”

I recently told one of my students I was vegetarian. He cocked his head, squinted and blurted out, “Then what do you order at McDonald’s?” He believed his ‘normal’—eating at the Golden Arches—was Normal for everyone. Children, especially those who grow up consuming meat at every meal, find it strange to interact with a person who does not.

Put another way, he believes the following syllogistic reasoning:

Eating at McDonald’s is normal.
I eat at McDonald’s.
Therefore, I am normal.

Although his logic may be flawed, he has a point. McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, Arby’s, Five Guys, and Chick Fil-A serve a combined total of 144 different sandwiches in the United States, of which, only 4 are advertised to contain no meat or eggs (although a handful can be accommodated for meat-free customers). The outliers are Burger King and Five Guys, though both companies cannot guarantee there is no cross contamination with their beef products. BK sells the Impossible Whopper. Five Guys has the Veggie Sandwich, the Veggie Sandwich with Cheese, and a Grilled Cheese.

If vegetarianism is a choice, then the decision, more often than not, has already been made for us.

Those that say “vegetarians don’t eat fast food” may be confusing correlation and causation. Vegetarians in the U.S. may not eat fast food, but fast food in the U.S. does not cater to vegetarians. Also, that mantra doesn’t hold water in India. Fast food is everywhere. Mumbai is bursting with food carts, kiosks, pop-ups, and street vendors that serve a wide range of deep-fried quick meals, nearly all of which are vegetarian. Aloo tikki sandwiches. Masala paneer bao. And my favorite, the Frankie: a grilled burrito with vegetables, spices, and pickled onions.

If I have to eat another salad…

Busboys and Poets, a restaurant chain in the DC Metro area, offers diners an even split. Nearly half of their menu items—small plates, sandwiches, burgers, and entrees—are listed as vegan or vegetarian. But they are the exception, not the rule.

Vegetarian meals at restaurants—those commonly marked with a small green leaf—are almost exclusively salad. Ruby Tuesdays and TGI Fridays. Applebee’s and Texas Roadhouse. Non-meat entrees include pasta or lettuce. That’s it.

And it isn’t just restaurants. The same is true of public school food. Students receive a steady rotation of fried chicken and collard greens, pepperoni pizza with a cup of lettuce, a burger with a hint of romaine. Even as teenagers, we are conditioned to believe that if meat was removed from our plate, there would be nothing left except a few carbs and green leaves.

In all of the vegetarian meals I ate during my time in India, not a single one was a salad. And I was grateful every time.

A counterculture or a way of life?

While in Mumbai, I had to walk two kilometers in any direction of our hotel to find an eatery that served meat. When I did find one, I noticed a sign hanging above the front door that read ‘Non-Veg’. India has created a culture, a lifestyle, that embraces vegetarianism so much they must identify the outliers that don’t follow suit.

Of the ten restaurants where we ordered food in India, eight of them were strictly vegetarian. In the other two, the list of meat items—dishes with chicken, fish or mutton (eating pork and beef in India is taboo)—could fit on one page. The other five pages of the menu were strictly meat free.

In a country of 1.4 billion people, Indians only consume 6 chickens per person, per year. The U.S. consumes four times that amount— over 25 chickens per person, per year. That’s more than two whole chickens each month for every adult, teenager, and newborn baby. And that’s only chicken. When you have a minute, Google the amount of pigs, cows, turkeys, fish, and seafood consumed each year in the United States. The numbers defy logic.

Americans love meat, and those who abstain wear a scarlet letter.

Why is it so difficult to be a vegetarian?

While traveling the country, researching factory farms, author Jonathan Safran Foer would find himself eating a burger at the airport. This is a man who wrote the book on vegetarianism—Eating Animals—and yet he dined on the very thing he condemns. If this man, who witnessed animal cruelty first-hand and cross-contamination beyond measure, cannot resist a good steak, is there hope for any vegetarian?

Likewise, Eric Schlosser, the author of Fast Food Nation, still claims his favorite meal is “a cheeseburger, fries, and chocolate shake”, even after his New York Times Best Seller soured the appetites of a generation. Foer and Schlosser are not hypocrites. They are human. And both live in the United States, where there is a predisposition for eating meat, and where alternative options are so few.

As one who considers himself vegetarian, I still eat risotto that has been cooked with chicken broth and pancakes prepared with real eggs. Even my vegan friends, who abstain from all animal products, often put honey in their tea and don leather belts.

If the spectrum of vegetarianism is based on ethics, then we—the people within that spectrum—get to decide in what direction our own moral compass points.

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