Culture Food

Food fairness, or the validity of vegetarianism

At my old work, several times a year there would be barbecues and potlucks — but no one bothered to provide vegetarian food until a vegetarian Hindu woman joined the org. Her religious foundation for her dietary restrictions was treated more seriously than my personally chosen vegetarianism.

I saw a thread on where someone called out a similar example — that a meat-only barbecue isn’t an inclusive event just because the vegetarians were invited if there’s nothing for them to eat. Someone countered that most vegetarians wouldn’t bother to make meat dishes available at their events.

Am I wrong to believe this isn’t equivalent?

Am I wrong in thinking that providing all vegetarian food means everyone can eat the food, whereas serving only meat dishes excludes the vegetarians?

That my choice to not eat meat is a higher order of preference than liking food to have meat in it?

That it’s not ok to say, well vegetarians are physically capable of eating the beef burgers at my barbecue, they just choose not to? And that that’s a different thing than me, as a vegetarian host, serving only vegetarian food to a mixed diet crowd even though the meat-eaters might prefer meat?

To me it feels disrespectful of vegetarianism to conflate these. Like it treats my choice not to eat meat as equivalent with my dislike of marzipan.

I also feel like this attitude is dismissive of vegetarian food; sure, there are veg events that are all kale salads and nutritional yeast casseroles and other dishes that are boring and bland. But serving my guests a broccoli cheddar quiche rather than a broccoli cheddar bacon quiche hardly seems like deprivation or inconsideration. There are many flavorful cuisines with vegetarian dishes, they just aren’t the same form of meal as “meat plus side.” There are plenty of popular dishes that can easily be made vegetarian yet still delicious, like potato cheese pierogi or three bean chili or mushroom stroganoff.

Personally, I find that equivalency pretty obnoxious given the number of times in my life I’ve been invited to events where there was nothing I could eat. How many times has that happened to omnivores? Have they smiled through a Thanksgiving dinner where the dinner roll was literally the only food they could eat? Have they been to a wedding where they loaded their plate with potato chips because even the green salad had bacon mixed in rather than on the side for people to add?

I would treat the preference more seriously if they were, say, Paleo or keto, but even then there are vegetarian dishes that could fulfill those dietary needs, which I would make if I was serving someone with those dietary needs so I could make one dish everyone could eat. But if they just want / need a lot of protein? Eggs or beans will also deliver.

I did eventually start eating fish because society and the people in my life couldn’t handle vegetarian food. (Also basically every restaurant offering one boring kale and quinoa salad as their veggie option. FFS can you at least carry a veggie burger?) I still don’t eat meat, but fish was my compromise to be able to eat outside of my home. I eat fish probably three or four times a month these days, mostly tuna salad as an easy lunch for me and my omnivorous husband.

Does that shift, after more than five years eating only vegetarian, mean that my pescetarianism is just a form of picky eating that doesn’t deserve respect? Do the, like, five times I’ve eaten meat over the last eighteen years invalidate my assertation that there’s nothing I can eat at a meat-only event? (The last time was probably nine years ago.) Because my philosophy is personally chosen rather than religiously defined, is it merely a preference that need not be honored like other dietary restrictions?

And the other way: should I treat the choice to eat meat as a dietary restriction equivalent to my own? Is it rude to serve vegetarian food to someone who eats meat? (Let’s assume I’d be capable of cooking meat that would taste good 😂) I don’t think they’re the same, but maybe my dietary history gives me a blind spot here.

By Tracy Durnell

Writer and designer in the Seattle area. Freelance sustainability consultant. Reach me at She/her.

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