New & NowVegetarian

Why I Don't Call Myself a Vegetarian Anymore

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After a little less than a year of solely plant-based eating, I slowly began to incorporate bone broth into my life, shirking dietary labels in favor of a more complex, less identifiable one.

Was I a vegetarian? Well, no. An omnivore? It was a little more complicated than that.

Photo by James Ransom

The transition started earlier this summer, when I found myself stumped by the tangle of herbs in my CSA box. I knew they had names—mint, thyme, rosemary, sage—but I couldn’t make the connections. These kinds of memory blanks were happening near daily since I had stopped eating meat and dairy. More and more, I was on a planet of my own, hurtling back to earth only when I realized I had left the stove on again or sent an important e-mail threaded with typos. It was hard for me to sleep and hard for me to stay awake.

Following a plant-based diet—one where I labeled myself and identified as “a vegetarian”—was many years in the making. My childhood love of the garden grew into a passion for sustainable agriculture, but it wasn’t until I started work at a farm-to-table restaurant that I stopped eating meat. Even though I knew how deeply our livestock crew respected their animals and strove to embody best practices, whenever I walked into the kitchen and saw a slaughtered pig, my heart sank. I loved the pigs at the barn and in those moments, my decision to abstain from meat was as much about personal connection as it was environmental impact.

When I first stopped eating meat, I was uncomfortable identifying as a vegetarian for fear that I’d be perceived as self-righteous or stifle the evolution of my own beliefs. But as time passed, it became easier to tell friends I was vegetarian. Explaining my complex matrix for choosing what to eat and why— I might eat meat if it was served to me as a guest at someone’s house, and I sought to volunteer at the farms I bought food from—was tedious for everyone at the table. Others saw me as a vegetarian and so I started to see myself as one, too. Having a firm definition gave me a sense of discipline and connection to a community.

I thrived during my first few months. When my Mom said she could never go without meat, it angered me. “You just don’t know how to do it right!” I shouted. Then, at six months in, something shifted. The thought of meat, which once made me nauseous, turned into intense cravings. I tried different diet combinations (piling my plate with protein-rich quinoa and black beans, digging into citrus-infused greens to maximize my iron uptake) and supplements (from cultured Vitamin B12 pills to magnesium syrups), but I was still perpetually tired and moody.

Photo by James Ransom

I felt shame too, like my body was betraying me. A close friend who had been vegan for more than seven years was a paragon of plant power: sharp-witted, energetic, dewy-skinned. Me? I’d gone without meat for a little less than a year and already I’d turned into an herbivorous Miss Havisham, wasting afternoons in my bed straining to summon the energy to go for a hike or fix myself lunch. This shame turned to anger—at my body, at my mind, at my struggle to live my values—and this anger turned into a gnawing resentment.

Over dinner with several friends, I confided how weak I had been lately. It felt like an admission of failure. How could I care about the environment and eat meat? Why couldn’t I just be good? I was comforted when my friend told me that she’d been struggling as well:“I feel like I am PMSing all the time.”

Enter bone broth. The suggestion came from a friend of ours who kept a freezer of pasture-raised meat on her back porch. The farmer she bought from had given her some wild elk that week. It was to us the purest source of meat we could think of, and as an advocate for closed-loop cooking, I liked the idea of making good use of the bones.

As I contemplated whether to drink bone broth—whether to “break” the “good” credit I had been building, whether to sacrifice my values for the sake of personal health—I was reminded of something my brother had done many years ago. When Sam was still in elementary school, he loved to learn about the indigenous customs of the Iroquois. Walking home one day, he encountered a run-over squirrel. He brought the squirrel home, tanned its hide in our backyard, and begged our Mom to let us make a stew from its meat (broth was a bridge too far). It was the Iroquois way of ensuring this animal’s life wasn’t wasted. If I could drink the bone broth in that same spirit of honoring, it would be okay.

Photo by James Ransom

After my first mug of bone broth, I was able to sleep through the night, and I woke the next morning energized enough for a hike before work. I was too happy to feel the shame that had coursed through me when I imagined what it would mean if I chose to eat (well, drink) meat. It took a week of drinking a glass each evening to restore my energy before I returned to eating mostly plants. Now, whenever I’m feeling low—lately that's every few weeks—I make myself a slow-cooked broth and feel almost instantly reinvigorated.

I don’t want eating meat to be part of my everyday diet. I don’t want bone broth to be a break from my values. What I want is to eat in a way that nourishes both my health and our environment. I drank—and drink—bone broth because, for me, it was healing.

My Week of Waste-Free Cooking (& How You Can Do It, Too)
My Week of Waste-Free Cooking (& How You Can Do It, Too)

Labels can help us to articulate our beliefs and determine what feels good to us and what doesn’t. But definitions can also trap us in a stagnant way of thinking. When we tether our sense of self to a term—be it vegetarian or vegan or paleo—we can create a hierarchy of “goodness.” These kinds of value judgments have the potential to erode meaningful conversation and the possibility of connection. For me, to argue that the killing and eating of meat is inherently unethical and environmentally unsound would be to discount cultures across the world. In Tanzania, eating meat is a sacred act, especially in a climate that’s inhospitable to plants. We have to create the space for other ways of being. There is no right or wrong way to eat.

I’m not sure what I am, vegetarian or otherwise. But I do know how I want to be: open to learning, loving toward the farmers who feed us, grateful for the life-giving soil underfoot.

Tags: Long Reads