How a bacon lover became a vegetarian

I’ve decided to become a vegetarian. I know what you’re thinking.

“Didn’t this guy bacon wrap a turkey?”

Everything tastes better with bacon.

“Isn’t he obsessed with pork?”

Fried pork skin - those in the know, know it's the best part.

“Hasn’t he suggested leaving bacon grease in a mug in the freezer and using it as an additive to make dishes taste better?”

It's nature's MSG.

“Didn’t he eat that ‘fried chicken breasts as bread’ sandwich from KFC?”

Sure did.

I’ve eaten quite a bit of meat. Growing up Filipino, I went to a lot of parties and ate plates of food that looked like this:

You gotta be pretty carnivorous to eat hot dog-stuffed meatloaf.

I think as a baby I was served chicken wings.

"GRRRR!!! CHICKEN WINGS!!!"

So after 27 years of eating meat, why did I decide to stop now? Some have implied that I’m doing this to impress a girl. Umm, no. When some people have asked me why I became a vegetarian, I’ve said that I was, “Brainwashed by Hare Krishnas,” but such a conclusion would mean that I was brainwashed and became a Hare Krishna. I take back that answer now. Although my time at the farm in Puna was the impetus to adopt this diet, I have been moving in this direction for some time. Also, I think it was an easy one-off sentence to appease curious minds without going too deep on the subject. There is no simple answer. So here are my reasons, ranked by what apparently seems to be the most socially acceptable.

Reason No. 1: My Health

Vegetarians have a lower incidence of heart disease, cancer, diabetes and all sorts of other diseases. My primary concern, however, is gout.

If you don’t know what it is, it’s basically kidney stones that manifest as arthritis. The typical gout attack strikes the joint of the large toe, but it can attack any joint in the body. Not only is the joint stiff, but it’s painful to the touch. How painful? If you had a gout attack on the joint of your big toe, a blanket passing over your toe would be excruciating. Because it has a stigma of only afflicting people who overindulge in rich foods, people think it’s funny. However, a Google Image search for “gout” will show it’s way too painful to be funny.

Gout is caused by a high uric acid level in your blood. Genetics has a lot to do with it, but so does diet. Foods highest in purines are shellfish and intestinal foods like liver and tripe, but purines are found in all meat. The only plant food I’ve seen with a high purine count is spinach. Alcohol – especially beer – also contributes, and dehydration can cause an attack.

I’ve had the gout attacks since before I knew I was having them. While in college, I casually mentioned my arthritic toe to some restaurant coworkers. They said, “You better be careful! You might have gout!” I had already established myself as a human garbage disposal and showed general disregard for my stomach, so it wasn’t a far-fetched idea. (The chefs once served me a pork chop stuffed with smoked ahi, ribeye steak, chorizo and cheese. There were no leftovers.)

I went to the doctor, took a blood test and found the uric acid level in my blood was twice the level it should be. He said he could give me daily medicine, but I was too young to be taking medicine every day. He suggested I lose some weight, and showed me the list of high purine foods. “You’ll pretty much have to be a vegetarian,” he said.

That was five years ago, and I didn’t immediately become a vegetarian, nor did I lose weight. I did have a few attacks after, and I would just go to him and get an “as-needed” drug to combat flare ups.

Last year, I participated in a gout drug study for an easy $400. The lead researcher asked me how often I got gout attacks and what medication I was taking. I told him two to five attacks a year, depending on how gluttonous I was treating myself. He told me the as-needed medication was pretty strong and should be taken only if I had one attack a year. He had a point – the medicine packs a punch, makes me dizzy and nauseous, and irritates the hell out of my bowels. He said I should be on regular medication.

So the question became: Do I change my diet, quit drinking, start taking pills everyday, or all three?

I was leaning towards the magic pills, but during my stay on the farm a few months later I read a lot of vegetarian propaganda/literature. A chapter on gout and uric acid caught my eye. It argued it only affected meat eaters. Could I really relieve my gout attacks if I stopped eating meat? It was worth a try. Giving up beer was not an option.

Reason # 2: Dismay at the current food production system and environmental considerations

If you piece together where your food is coming from – and caring about what you find out – vegetarianism seems like the inevitable conclusion. Growing up, I only thought of food in terms of taste, but once I became conscious of its origins, purchasing food became, as some would say, a political act.

Many have written on the topic in a much more detailed and eloquent manner, so I leave it up to you to read up on it. However, these three books made me reconsider where our food was coming from, where it was going, and how it was getting there. I leave you with some superficial summaries, but check them out at your local library.

- Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser. We all know fast food isn’t health food. Clearly, you wouldn’t consider it part of a healthy diet. But that’s not what pissed me off the most about the book. It’s the social ramifications – labor exploitation, unsafe animal environments, suburban sprawl, globalization of food products and monopolizing of the food system from farm to table. And if you haven’t read the book or seen the movie, there’s shit in the meat.

- The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan. (Food, Inc. is a good documentary if you’re not the reading type.) In summary: everything processed has corn and soy in it. So does the meat. The federal government subsidizes it, creating an uneven playing field. This means a few companies have the power, farmers are forced to grow corn and soy or go under, and monocropping is destroying our soil.

- Diet for a Small Planet by Francis Moore Lappe. Although it was written 30 years ago, the same problems exist today. The situation might even be worse. Lappe set out to find out why there was world hunger and how to fix it. Common thought says, to feed a growing population, we need to increase production. However, it’s not a production problem, it’s a distribution problem. There is enough grain to feed everyone on the planet, but much of our grain feeds livestock.

The cover story of this month’s National Geographic is on the world’s population reaching 7 billion. In it, it suggests if everyone went on a vegetarian diet, there would be enough food for everyone. However, with more and more countries adopting an American, meat-centric diet, there won’t be enough to go around.

When people talk about saving energy and the environment, driving a smaller car, limiting the use of plastic and switching to CFL lightbulbs are common actions. The single most effective way to reduce carbon emissions, however, is to stop eating meat.

Another food and energy saving trend is eating local. The locavore campaign has gained traction globally, and it is especially important in Hawaii. For the past five years, I’ve heard estimates of 80 to 90 percent of our food being imported. That hasn’t seemed to change. (Renewable energy, driven by unstable and expensive fossil fuel costs, is moving closer towards its sustainable goal.) A lot of it is an emotional plea. “Save jobs! Save farmland!” Many argue that local produce is more expensive than imported produce and they’d buy it if it was cheaper. How did it get this way? Pre-Western-contact Hawaiians, estimated at 1 million people, produced and sustainably managed their food system. Somehow, today’s residents can’t even get past 10 percent. I’ve been told if there’s a catastrophic event like a hurricane or tsunami, there’s enough food stored in warehouses for three to five weeks. But of what? And for whom?

What kills me is that I’ve seen imported pineapples, mangoes, avocados, even apple bananas. Something is definitely wrong with the system when these fruits, which grow abundantly in Hawaii, are being shipped in for sale. I understand the price is cheaper because of land value, cost of labor and cost of fuel, among other things, but seriously? Producing 100 percent of our own food is probably unattainable and not feasible for trade and commerce considerations, but wouldn’t some benchmarks like 20 percent by 2020, 30 percent by 2030, be reasonable? Increasing local food production will keep agricultural land in agriculture, decrease food’s carbon footprint (a.k.a. travel distance), and lessen food security vulnerability. Theoretically, prices would decrease when supply increases.

Reason #3: Well being of the animals

I didn’t “just realize” that food came from live animals. Far from it. When I was five-years-old, in a moment I think was educational while others might see as traumatizing, I witnessed my first animal slaughter. A friend of the family had gotten a live goat and brought it back to their garage, transporting it in the back of a pickup truck with a camper. He pulled the car in the garage, where all the men and some kids were gathered to watch. This wasn’t being done in the backyard because it’s probably illegal, and it’s hard to keep a dying goat quiet. From what I can recall, someone slit the goat’s throat with a knife. I was told not to stand behind the goat, because it kicked. It took a few minutes to die. Afterwards, they burned the goat’s hair with a torch. From that day on, I rarely ate calding (goat stew). Some people say goat tastes “gamey.” I think it tastes like burnt hair and shit.

A few years later, when I was about 10 years old, we were raising chickens in the backyard. One night, we ate one for dinner. My grandmother, dad, brother and I stood around the kitchen table with a chicken in the middle. My dad and my brother held the chicken, firmly grasping its wings and legs. My grandmother told me to hold a bowl under the chicken’s neck. I had used the bowl before; I had eaten cereal out of it. My grandmother sharpened the knife and asked if everyone was ready. With the blade in her right hand, she smoothly sliced the chicken’s neck from left to right. I held the bowl, trying to catch all the blood from the wriggling fowl. “Hold it higher!” my grandmother said. The bowl was too low and blood dripped all over the table. I held the bowl under the chicken for a few minutes as it lived out its last moments. Three hours later, we ate chicken stew.

In 2009, while in India, the group I was with wanted to see the chickens get slaughtered. There were six in all. The village cook was Christian, but our driver was Muslim. He wanted to eat, too, so he asked the cook if he could slaughter it halal. He wore a handkerchief to cover his head. The cook held the chicken upside down by the legs. The driver closed the chicken’s beaks with his left hand then sliced the chicken’s neck with a knife. The blood dripped into a bucket. (The blood is not supposed to hit the ground.) Once the convulsions had slowed, he dropped the whole body into the bucket and covered it with a lid. He repeated this six times, laying each dying bird on top of the next, all inside the bucket.

The group gasped, and almost everyone left after the first bird died. I stayed for the entire slaughter, cognizant of where my dinner was coming from that night.

None of that, however, really affected me. But what does? CAFOs. We’ve industrialized meat. Sure, we can argue for days about the morality of eating meat, arguing that our ancestors were hunter gatherers and fishermen. (I can argue about our molars and long intestinal track being ill-suited for meat, but most people aren’t buying it.) However, is it necessary to breed cattle, hogs, chickens and other animals, pack them into warehouses, inject them with growth hormones and package them for our food? I hope most would agree that it’s inhumane and immoral, but the current demand creates this type of production. These aren’t cars or iPods we’re dealing with here. These are live animals.

I don’t understand why people make distinctions between animals grown for food and animals used as pets. Is there a difference? Pigs are just as intelligent, if not smarter, than a dog. Just because one was chosen to be companion doesn’t make that animal any more or less alive and conscious than another.

I believe every animal has a right to eke out an existence. Human development has already kicked them out of their natural habitats. Do we really need to sequester them in mass quantities? What other animal does that to another animal?

Lately, I’ve been asking myself: Is this necessary? From the vegetarians and vegans who have come before me and are alive today, clearly, it is not.

I have one request for meat eaters: watch your meat get slaughtered. At least see, know and realize what your lunch or dinner has to go through. If you can, hunt or fish for your food. You’ll either be satisfied with the kill and savor the meal, or become distraught. Your feelings are yours, but at least you’ll know.

At the very least, watch Earthlings.

FAQ

Q. So, how’s that working out for ya?

A. Quite well. Since October, I had some meat on my trip to Arizona, I ate a bite of turkey on Thanksgiving, and I had a little bit of char siu and fish cake in some saimin. Other than that, all clear. I’ve been feeling pretty good, but I felt crappy during the holiday season bake-a-thon. I’ve been weaning myself off  sugar and it’s starting to feel good. The joints are no longer stiff, and the last time I had a gout attack was when I ate meat in Arizona. I haven’t been weighing myself, but I’ve been told I look slimmer. I haven’t bought new clothes yet, so the weight difference is, at the moment, negligible.

Q. What do you eat?

A. Anything that isn’t meat or eggs. I’ve gotten pretty good at making stir fry with tofu, pasta with veggies instead of sausage, black bean/boca burgers, yogurt and granola, salads, hummus, pesto, baba ghanoush, bean and cheese burritos. I eat pizza and french fries when I need something fatty. I learned you can pretty much substitute tofu for any meat product. I am, however, running out of ideas and I understand there’s a world of grains and weird stuff I’ve never tried before (like bulghur and millet), so I’ve enrolled in a macrobiotic class.

Q. Do you ever get cravings for meat?

A. Sometimes, but not nearly as frequent as I thought, and it usually goes away. I had a craving for a Counter Burger, but I got over it. I think it’s like how I feel about In ‘N Out and chicharrones from Los Reyes: I don’t really get the craving anymore, but I know it tastes really good. I get hungry when I see pictures of food or if a plate goes by in a restaurant. I also noticed social media folks really love food.

Q. Will you ever eat meat again?

A. Yes. The situation hasn’t come up yet, but one day I’ll be a guest at someone’s home and they will serve meat. Would I rather be a rude guest and self-righteous animal ambassador, or a grateful and polite guest? I’ll take grateful and pleasant. I’m also planning on traveling to foreign countries, and I don’t think they’ll appreciate someone imposing their views on them. The amount of meat I eat, though, will be minimal. I’d probably get sick at this point.

I am also a foodie at heart. I’ve tried lots of different animals and meat cuts. (The most outlandish being alligator, chicken feet and Rocky Mountain oysters – in fritter form.) There’s not really much for me to explore, except maybe the amphibian and reptile animals, and I’m not all that interested in eating that anyways. I will eat, however, Nene goose pate and manatee.

I do, however, expect to go through all of 2011 abstaining from meat, just to spite the haters. For my lifetime, I thought my meals would split 80 percent vegetarian and 20 percent meat. I think lifetime it’s going to be closer to 99 percent veg and 1 percent meat. Considering it’s been like that over the last 3 months, I don’t think it’s impossible or far-fetched.

I also won’t be picking out ham out of an omelette or pepperoni off a pizza. I’m not going to act like meat is a poison that’s going to kill me. The point is not ordering it and cooking it in the first place.

Q. Isn’t being a vegetarian hard?

A. Yes and no. We  have a lot of choice when it comes to eating. On a restaurant menu, 90 percent of the items will have meat in it. That leaves 10 percent without meat. It’s definitely not impossible.

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