Luckily, my job is not to cook the meat. I cook the sides. And while I am constrained to a rigorous list of acceptable holiday sides (read: cranberries, mashed potatoes, gravy, sweet potatoes, stuffing, and a green vegetable), I am given some leeway to make then as I see fit.
Now, I am in no way a vegetarian; however, I usually choose a non-meat choice. I just don't like meat on a regular basis all that much. That said, I don't think there is inherently anything unhealthy about a diet that includes meat. Nor do I think that there is anything inherently healthy about a diet that eliminates meat. Which leads me to my final rant:
Vegetarian and vegan eating labels are not automatically healthier than any other eating habit.
I have a lot of friends who are vegan or vegetarian, and while most of them are very laid back about this eating choice, some assume a healthier-than-thou attitude ("oh, you eat meat? [judging silence] Oh").
Give it up. The label you give to your eating habits does not make you a better person. Labels do not make you anything but a labeler.
As far as eating goes, it is way more healthy to be conscious about where you get what you put in your mouth (actually, that goes for a lot of things . . .) than what you are eliminating from your diet. This fact is one of my larger soapboxes. I once sat next to a crazy trolley lady who ignored my pointed attempts at avoiding a conversation (ipod in, Bible (yes, Bible) open) and told me I looked like a vegetarian.
I didn't know vegetarians had a look to them, but apparently, part of that look screams "please talk to me even though I am purposefully ignoring you." I tried the polite "oh, uh huh" attempt to minimize the conversation, but she just wouldn't stop. So finally, I pulled out my soapbox and let her have it. I was en fuego. I quoted Marian Nestle, Michael Pollan (read his recent In Defense of Food), Eric Schlosser. I railed about how we choose food--something we freaking put in our bodies--based on how cheap it is rather than the quality--we do this with virtually no other commodity by the way. I lamented the fact that people don't cook anymore and many children have no idea that food does not magically come prepackaged in 100 calorie bags.
Mouth agape, she listened for most of our trolley ride until she found a pause long enough to changed the subject to quasars and how we are being monitored via them by aliens. My stop arrived; I had no comment.
It does fascinate me that the eating labels do stir up such contention. I recently read a book that had an essay about a lapsed vegan then lapsed vegetarian (she eats fish). The author was so quick to defend her choices (albeit in a humorous way) that it bespoke of a deeper set of concerns than just the fact she decided she'd like to add cheese and fish to her diet. She admitted that vegetarians and omnivores alike often criticized her for "half-assing" her lifestyle.
How does eating mainly vegetables with some cheese and fish equal a half-assed lifestyle?
But this emotional response to vegan and vegetarian eating practices is not limited to that essay. At times I'll cut animal products out of my diet for . . . er . . . dieting purposes. It's a fast, easy way for me to cut calories without feeling deprived. Technically, I go vegan. But I avoid that label since whenever I mention it, I am greeted with shock (rather than awe). There's a lot of baggage associated with that label that I am unwilling to tote.
One of my friends in particular suddenly gets uberdefensive if I even so much as hint at the V-word. She immediately will launch into how healthy her omnivore diet is, how she rarely eats meat, how it's about quality. I completely agree and have a hard time understanding why she feels my eating choices are an attack on hers.
Perhaps I don't feel the same emotional response to vegan/vegetarian eating habit versus omnivore eating habits (I am purposefully avoiding the label "carnivore" since virtually no human being is an actual carnivore) because I lived so long in Northern California where we hunted (gasp), raised our own livestock for milk and meat (gasp gasp), and had a garden and orchard. I grew up close enough to the source of where food actually comes from that I don't harbor (usually false) romantic ideas about what it means to eat or not eat meat. I understand the issue is much deeper than that.
Or perhaps, I don't because I just like food. I. Like. Food. Plain and simple. I have two categories for eating habits: good and bad.
Good equals eating good food. Food that is quality, flavorful, and healthy.
Bad equals bad food. Food that is poor, bland, and unhealthy.
That's it. No labels. No anxiety. Just good eating.