Wednesday, November 23, 2011

the vegetarian path

morning walk - Barro Colorado Island - Panama
I've been thinking about my winding vegetarian path (15 years now), sparked by excellent blog posts from Nobel and Grimmly, and recent conversations I've had with people down here. Still in Panama, I indulged in eating ceviche this week...

I grew up in a meat and potatoes sort of family in the rural Upper Midwest. My father and brothers hunted and fished and I remember watching them gut animals in disgust. I wanted nothing to do with consuming an animal whose viscera I saw removed and then casually piled in the backyard. It began as a childhood aversion to bones and veins and my poor mother hoped it was a phase. Thinking a diet without meat couldn't be healthy, she would try sneaking meat into "vegetarian" lasagna for me. I finally declared myself an official vegetarian at the age of 15, with all of the associated adolescent drama and posturing. Looking back on it, I also suspect it was cultivated as part of an alternative or counter-culture identity in the process of trying to separate myself from those that I went to high school with. At any rate, I managed to stick with this diet throughout college, and fortified my initial reasons with ideas about sustainability, animal rights, ideas about the industrial food system, health benefits. I think at one point I identified myself as a "pseudo vegan on a packaging-free diet". Yeah, I got on a high horse about it and I'm sure I was really annoying, but perhaps sweet idealism of the early 20s can be forgiven. 

My first major deviation from this was doing field work in Brazil. I did not have enough of a handle on Portuguese to explain my frivolous dietary preferences, nor did I want to be a pain-in-the-ass American. I gratefully accepted food and initially became sick as a result. I don't know if it was the meat, or the shift towards starchy things, etc, but I would feel full immediately, had loss of appetite, felt nauseated, and will not elaborate on the rest. My weight dropped to an unhealthy level and I appeared gaunt. These were the early days of my Ashtanga practice, and I remember how weak I felt as I tried to do sun salutations. But I began to adjust, my appetite returned... and then something curious happened... I began enjoying meat, like... really enjoying it. I developed cravings for feijoada and fried coxinha. I ate and ate and ate, and continued trying new things.... so much so, that I returned to the states to discover that I had gained 20 pounds since that initial weight loss. Practices were sluggish and I was self conscious of the "extra" in the way of my forward folds. 

lunch stop on the way to Urubamba, Peru. 
Fast forward to the present, I'm still alright with experimenting with meat while traveling in other countries. I tried the famous seafood dishes of Peru, and steadily ate chicken and potatoes while collecting in the highlands. My digestive system is still sensitive to these switches, but I feel that it would be missing out on important cultural experiences to remain a strict vegetarian (though I did not have the nerve to try the guinea pig). However, I haven't returned to the excess that was my Brazil days and my palate is still very much a vegetarian one. The weight has slowly come off and I am at a happy medium. I also can no longer cling to the label of "vegetarian" so dearly as I once had, and I am okay with that.

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