“Where does female meaning go in a patriarchal culture? If meanings have nowhere to go in terms of the verbal word, where do they go? Perhaps women’s meaning is spoken in a different way at that point when they find themselves muted. Is it possible that food becomes the spoken language of dissent? Since women are the main preparers of food in western culture and meat is defined as men’s food, vegetarianism may carry meaning within a female language which seeks to escape its own muteness” (213)
“An integral part of autonomous female identity may be vegetarianism: it is a rebellion against dominant culture whether or not it is stated to be a rebellion against male structures.it resists the structure of the absent referent, which renders both women and animals as objects” (217)
The above quotes I believe represent unknown motivators of my conversion to vegetarianism. I was not exposed to feminism until I was in university and it took a while for it to fully sink in (and when it finally did I was so angry I had trouble expressing that anger) I never grew up thinking of myself as inferior in intellect or talent to male peers so perhaps that’s why I was so angry to find out that things, regardless of how they were supposed to be, they were “fucking rigged man!” (My 20 something self was speaking just there). My mother was a strong woman, a landscaper, horticulturalist, and landscape designer. She could hold her own on the work crew and figured out how to become a respected expert in a field dominated by men and misogynist attitudes. She worked many jobs, late hours, and did it all as a single mother raising two kids. I did not see this then as being strong or feminist, it was my normal. However, I did perceive my limitations and disadvantages in some other ways.
We were poor, and because my mom was always working I had more responsibility to household tasks than my brother (because I was older I thought at the time?) Some disadvantages were told to me by others. Some members of my family on both sides told us (and pitied us) because my brother and I were dysfunctional and broken due to the divorce of my parents. One my father’s side to some it was the fault of my ‘bitch mother’. Every issue/problem we had after that or any perceived deviance from their expectations was blamed on my mother for breaking up the family. My brother was praised and singled out my brother for his intelligence, and literally for his maleness (to carry on the family name) on that side of the family, I was often praised only for my physical attributes or good behavior. (Of course, they didn’t know at the time that my brother is gay which to this day they probably still deny). It is cathartic to write this even though my blood is boiling!
When I finally started to develop an awareness of an independence of self, I identified with culture and politics that went against the grain of the dominant society, unintentionally yet certainly ones shared by some family member’s conservative (some might say toxic) values. Converting to vegetarianism at the age of fourteen shook things up at family meals and events on both sides of the family, especially in combination with my carefully curated appearance of vintage thrift store scores they considered weird, and not pretty. The scene in My Big Fat Greek Wedding where Angela Martin’s character responds to the news of her niece’s new boyfriend is a vegetarian “ok, I’ll make lamb” hilariously shadows my own family’s thinking. In my home mother and brother didn’t just accept the vegetarianism, they joined in too, perhaps as did I in an unconscious subversion of the status-quo.
I was aware of some of my reasons for choosing vegetarianism. I had long understood what Carol J Adams calls the ‘nothingness of meat’ (227) even as a little kid. I remember the awakening where my brother and I realized the lamb on our plates was like our favorite stuffed animal Lambon, and that Lambon was like a real lamb! Shortly before my vegetarianism kicked in I remember a fishing excursion with my father shortly after my parent’s divorce. My grandparents on my mom’s side lent him their cottage on Pelee Island gracefully for the weekend so we could have a vacation. My brother and I caught many smallmouth Bass that day and as we had too much to eat for one dinner the rest went into the freezer. That night there was one of the craziest thunderstorms I have ever experienced, green/black sky, howling wind, thunder, and lightning. All the power went out and everything in the fridge spoiled. I cried so hard, realizing that my actions caused the death, and then the waste of life of all the fish.
It was also my first year of high school, grade nine. I took on the body image issues so common to girls of teenage age, and being fat meant I assumed I was unattractive and therefore unlovable so I desperately wanted to lose weight. Many girls spoke about how vegetarian diets can help with weight loss so shortly after both incidents I became a vegetarian. (I am still fat, lol) I soon after I began to build on and understand the ethics behind my choice. That ethical framework has continued to evolve and develop throughout my life as I still choose a predominantly vegetarian diet, though I am a pescatarian as I consume fish on a very occasional basis (based on my experiences living in south korea which I’ve detailed in another blog) As I continue to examine and build on the ethical framework and philosophy of vegetarianism, and as the realization of and embrace of feminism happened to me gradually in my twenties I began to see links that capitalism created between the systems of meat production and the lived experience of inequality for Women. In The Sexual Politics of Meat- a Feminist Critical Vegetarian Theory by Carol J Adams many of those links are made apparent.
“The story ends when the prince finds his princess. Our story ends when the male-defined consumer eats the female-defined body. The animal’s role in meat-eating is parallel to the women’s role in narrative: we would have neither meat nor story without them. They are objects to others who act as subjects. Vegetarians see themselves as providing an alternative ending, veggie burgers instead of hamburgers, but they are actually eviscerating the entire narrative from the dominant perspective, vegetarianism is not only about something that is inconsequential, which lacks “meat”, and which fails to find closure through meat, but it is a story about the acceptance of passivity, that of which has no meaning, of “endorsing” a vegetable way of living. In this it appears to be a feminist story that goes nowhere and accepts nothing.”- pg 130-131
I felt the above passage to be relevant to include as what I’ve ended up doing in my blogging is using personal narrative to talk about food and experience. I have been finding that in order to tell the story of food so much else of your life, memories, experiences, and feelings are completely mixed up with food, it is hard to separate them from each other. Because of this I perceive a difficulty with a vegetarian story for so many to accept because as she states “it goes nowhere” (131) as it is may not contain or recognize the cultural and identity building connections with food and cooking, some of which are arguably the deepest ones to ancestral memory related to cooking animal foods over a fire.[i] Looking back at the threads connecting my previous blog posts together, and what drives me to passion and exploration in cooking I have for a long time been reimagining dishes to be vegetarian that retain the essence of, and depth of flavours of their meat counterparts. I started doing it because I missed the taste of certain foods but I think now that I have continued doing this to retain a both a part of my identity as connected to foods from my family traditions and as creative exploration, experimentation, and self-expression. In that sense I am also ‘fluxing’ the tradition, reinventing tradition imbued with new feminist connotations and intentions.
I have found a way around this but restricting people’s cultural foods can present a large barrier to getting people to accept or entertain a vegetarian diet. Even looking at cultural stigmas surrounding ‘poor food’ and ‘rich food’, almost everywhere ‘rich food’ is meat laden, poor food is grain based with a little vegetable. In the book, while recognizing the cultural significance of food to people, she brings up an interesting situation with a friend who views vegetarianism as a form of racialized oppression as it advocates for her to stop eating the foods of her ancestors. “For Parker meat represents her ancestor’s food and provides a sense of continuity. She argues against this by claiming “Parkers support of meat is not the same meat that was consumed by her ancestors, thought they are classified as such. The meat that she is eating comes from a commodity capitalist world in which the fourth stage of meat eating prevails. Contemporary meat-production methods that imprison animals and over-medicate them create an extreme difference between the dead animals, which parkers ancestors would have eaten, and Parker’s meal”(200)
“Vegetarians recognize the cultural aspects of meat eating, what I have been calling he texts of meat. Since meat is not eaten in its natural state-raw, off the corpse but instead is transformed through cultural intervention, vegetarians have directed their attention to analyzing the specifics of this cultural intervention. “-198
This particular argument for vegetarianism, that because humans need tools and cooking to eat animals that it is not a natural process doesn’t gel with me well as it vilifies creativity and invention. My opinion of cooking, creativity, and culture is that it is something that makes us distinctly human. The issue is not with the use of tools or the exercise of creativity, nor do I think meat eating as an outcome of using those tools is unnatural. However, we are not a part of the normal food web if we dominate and decision make for the state of animals and the environment. Our relationship dynamics of power and our ability for reasoning comes into play. I have personally used creativity in cooking for the opposite purpose, to make traditional dishes vegetarian. Also, if we were killing animals, linking their deaths to our food, and not causing such ecological damage as a result as a part of the food chain by using tools and cooking I think the ethical situation becomes more acceptable, but that isn’t what we are currently doing as Adams pointed out previously in reference to her friend Parker’s argument. The act of killing and flesh of the animal becomes separated from each other, from cow to beef. My biggest ethical quam is the factory production of animals which calls the ethics of the manner of killing and eating animals, and the subsequent environmental devastation into question.
“The creation of vegetarian rituals that celebrate the grace of eating plants will contribute to destabilizing patriarchal consumption. In place of the fatted calf for the return of the prodigal son, the celebration of the return of the daughter would be vegetarian”. (245)
So, what is the way forward? I have to agree that creating new rituals around food, new traditions and new ways of modifying traditional dishes to retain a part of the old but without flesh is a good solution. Even simply reducing meat consumption would help, removing barbaric factory farm practices would be a step in the right direction. There is research with ‘lab grown meat’ which could have its own ethical issues I suppose but in terms of sustainability perhaps it is a way for people to continue eating traditional foods without killing or engaging in environmentally destructive practices? All I know is that I love food, and the food I make is known to be damn good by my family, friends, and guests at events I’ve help cater most of who eat meat regularity and they have no problem enjoying the delicious food that I cook, even though it’s vegetarian.
[i] (Pollan, Micheal)
Adams, Carol J. The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory. 20th anniversary ed, Continuum, 2010.
Pollan, Michael. Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation. The Penguin Press, 2013.