Finding a Social Life with a Vegetarian Palate
Behold, the cupboard doors swing open as the mighty huntress forages for her next meal. Nothing edible escapes her sharp gaze, not even the last package of ramen noodles crushed into the back corner behind the gleaming cans of lentil soup. Dissatisfied with these dry humble offerings, she hones in on the refrigerator and moves toward it. The freezer releases icy breath as rummaging fingers disturb layers of frosted boxes. Finally, the hand withdraws clutching a small plastic container. Inside of it is a left-over mushroom burger.
“I’ll never understand why you vegetarians eat non-meat products that imitate the color, shape and texture of meat,” remarks a wry voice from behind.
I, the fungi-huntress, swivel around to look at the other young woman who shares the apartment. My anticipation for the meal ebbs away as her words interfere. I have been a vegetarian for three years and rarely consider the possibility of eating meat again. It is true that there are a number of vegetarian options that are made to resemble traditional meat products, but these reflect the fact that many vegetarians wish to eat “normal” food but without meat. Food is important to our social lives, and it can be difficult when dietary choices separate individuals from the rest of the group. Without other like-minded eaters to give support, the dining existence of a college-age vegetarian can be quite isolated.
My roommate’s accusation that vegetarians are simply “meat-lovers in denial” bothers me, but I shrug my shoulders in response, and she wanders back into the living room to watch television. The theme song for The Simpsons comes on, and I am reminded of an episode called “Lisa the Vegetarian,” where the youngest Simpson child must struggle to convince her family and community that vegetarianism is a viable dietary option. When Lisa tries to get Homer to use alternatives to meat at his barbecue, her father asserts, “All normal people love meat. If I went to a barbeque and there was no meat, I would say, ‘Yo Goober! Where’s the meat?’ I’m trying to impress people here, Lisa. You don’t win friends with salad.”
Sometimes, while in the midst of one of my kitchen scroungings, I pause and wonder to myself, “Where are the other vegetarians on campus? And what are they tracking down for dinner tonight?” They are out there, somewhere, tucking into a meatless meal of some variety. Depending on how refined their palates are, they could be devouring anything from a simple hummus sandwich to a full-blown feast of sweet carrot soufflé and fresh tossed salad. Personally, I’m not picky about what is on the menu—mostly because my budget won’t allow it. I recently read in the 2008 “Vegetarianism in America” study published by Vegetarian Times that 7.3 million Americans (3.2 percent of the population) follow a vegetarian diet. On the Gustavus campus, however, it becomes difficult to track down the elusive vegetarian population within the student body. There is no current vegetarian student organization on campus to act as a social network for keeping people in touch. The last official vegetarian event recorded on the Gustavus calendar was on January 23, 2002, when Travis Nygard’s VEGE-Table held a meatless potluck and party in the Dive.
To gain a broader perspective of the social aspects of vegetarianism on campus, I sought out the advice of Dining Services Director, Steve Kjellgren. He invited me to be a guest at the Kitchen Cabinet breakfast meeting on Tuesday, December 8, 2009 at 7:30 a.m. Somewhat daunted by the early hour of the meeting, I was nonetheless appreciative of the opportunity to speak to people who are passionate about food and dining. When I arrived at the banquet room that morning, the members came in slowly and made their way to the breakfast bar. The menu included eggs and potatoes, an optional side of ham and fresh fruit. Far better fare than I could have cooked up back in my apartment. After appreciating the food before us, and observing that the blackberries probably weren’t local, the Chairperson of the Kitchen Cabinet, Professor Lisa Heldke, opened the meeting by asking me to present my research topic and queries to the committee. Once I expressed my interest in the social experiences of vegetarians on campus, a lengthy discussion ensued amongst the faculty and staff around the table.
“From our [the Dining Service] perspective, we have not seen any recent organized efforts from vegetarian students,” Kjellgren said, “Before the Market opened in 1999, there was a more vocal community. But now we are meeting their needs, so there aren’t as many complaints.”
From my own experiences, I can agree that the Market Place has addressed the needs of a large variety of student diets. If one doesn’t feel like being creative with finding a meatless meal, there’s always the Vari Veggie menu. It’s hard to know exactly how many vegetarians eat from the Vari Veggie because many people who are not vegetarian still eat from this menu. Chef Jake estimates that they go through about 200 to 300 entrees per day depending on what is being served. The vegetarian students of Gustavus seem to have gone their separate ways after the Market Place offered new options, but where are they channeling their efforts now?
Heldke leans back in her chair and says, “There’s no formal social networking for vegetarians [at Gustavus] anymore … and this is probably because those students have joined student organizations like Greens and Habitat for Humanity to find others with common interests.”
Across the table, Jim Dontje, director of the Johnson Center for Environmental Innovation, voices his thoughts on the apparent absence of vegetarian leaders: “It seems that the students who are really thinking about this, the ones who would be activists, are living in houses where they can cook their own food and control their diets. The college has provided living arrangements that allow these students to go off in their own little corners of the campus.”
I, for one, am a student who has moved to my own space where I am responsible for finding my own nutrition, but I often miss the Market Place where I could socialize with many different people and not have to worry about how our food choices might separate us. Many vegetarians I have spoken to have expressed regret for the fact that they do not get invited to dinner very often—most likely because people think it’s a burden to take a vegetarian diet into consideration for meal-planning. I can think of one memorable instance when I was having dinner with a farm family in Iowa, and as soon as the grandfather heard that I was vegetarian, he exclaimed, “Well, how about you go out in the backyard and eat grass with the cows if you aren’t going to eat meat like a proper human!”
Remarkably, I wasn’t all that offended by his statement or even surprised. After all, I was a guest in their home, and I knew it was my social duty to accept whatever they had to offer to me. In response to such situations, I usually chomp down on my tongue and whatever side-vegetables are available. Without any other like-minded individuals at the table to back me up, I knew that I appeared to be a recalcitrant young woman imposing on her hosts. It was never my intention to become a burden to others when I stopped eating meat.
Despite the loss of formal vegetarian social groups on campus, Kjellgren can attest to the fact that individuals still continue to ask for more variety in the menus. In a recent nationwide survey conducted by the major food service provider ARAMARK, about 24 percent of college students expressed a desire to have more vegan options available on college menus. When students request more vegetarian options, however, they often do not take into account how college food service works. The Dining Service has to consider many special diet requests as well as profitability and limitations in delivery process. Kjellgren argues, “What can I do with left-over chickpea burgers? Not much. Whereas with left-over chicken breast I can put it into a soup for the next day.” Even though some of the requests students make are not feasible, Kjellgren still encourages students to communicate with the Dining Service: “My staff would say, ‘Let the customers tell us what they want,’ because when we end up with a lot of uneaten food that must be thrown away at the end of the day, it’s hard on all of us. That’s why it’s okay for students to make requests as long as they are respectful about it.”
Another reason it is sometimes hard to unite vegetarians is because we all have different motives for why we eat this way. I often become nervous when asked why I became a vegetarian because there seems to be a lot weighing on the answer.
Justify yourself, people seem to demand. And yet, they also want a simple concise answer. “Oh, you know, moral reasons, environmental reasons, health reasons.” I have noticed that quite a few people stop listening after I start going into details about the meat industry or begin recommending certain books and documentaries.
Most of the vegetarians that I know are very passionate about the moral values that shape their lifestyles, but they are also flexible and accommodating to social situations involving food. Personally, I usually don’t mention to people that I’m vegetarian unless the situation directly calls for it, and even then, if I sense that people may be offended or close-minded about this information I follow social protocol and keep silent. The situation mentioned earlier about the meal in Iowa is a prime example of why it is sometimes best to just blend in with the other diners.
Purposefully calling attention to oneself as a vegetarian is a sure way to win some grudges. Even if you don’t intentionally place yourself on a pedestal, most likely there will be someone at the table who will perceive an implied insult to his/her own food choices. In general, this is not a good way to win people over to your cause.
Among first-year students, who have just left the kitchens of their parents, the freedom to choose one’s own meals and lifestyle lends new opportunities for developing an identity. For First-year Gustavus student Charlie Brace, the possible health benefits of a vegetarian diet appeal to him along with the moral reasons: “The longer life span is a plus, and the overall less fattening foods is cool too, although these only happen if you have the right eating style. Protein and iron are the main concerns for myself as a vegetarian, but I look for foods every day that have iron in them, such as V-8 and Odwalla and broccoli and such.”
In the “Vegetarianism in America” study, 59 percent of the vegetarians surveyed were female and 41 percent male. It can be quite alienating for males to become vegetarians because society has surrounded them with advertisements telling them to eat lots of meat in order to be masculine. My older brother Andrew Twiton (a Gustavus ’08 alum and Philosophy major) says, “I find the connection between meat and masculinity to be kind of funny. I feel like every sports bar has some kind of opportunity for men to prove themselves by eating meat.” After college, the social pressures still pervade and test the determination of the few who refuse to partake in meat-eating traditions.
The question inevitably comes up about whether college-age vegetarians are actually serious about committing to this lifestyle or whether it is just an experimenting phase that will end sometime after graduation. The notion of college identity phases leads to the creation of such terms as VUG (Vegetarian until Graduation).
For those vegetarians who are not doing it for attention and have put serious thought into eating with intention, college is the perfect time to begin living life the way one thinks it should be lived. The members of the Gustavus Kitchen Cabinet are aware of the many issues surrounding food in college because one of the primary purposes of the Kitchen Cabinet, according to their Gustavus webpage, is to consider the “ethical, socio-political, dietary or pedagogical uses of the Dining Service.” During that early morning meeting, Heldke looked at me across the table and said, “It is important for you to be exploring with your life as well as with your mind during college. I think we need to ask ourselves, ‘To what extent is experimenting with our palates important to a liberal arts education? What if you were to cultivate your palate just as you cultivate your knowledge of literature and art?”
The cultivation of my own palate still has a long way to go, and yet, it is fascinating to think of how our sense of taste develops as we mature and changes with our values. In the Gustavus Market Place, students have the option of trying international foods as well as traditional Midwestern foods. We seldom realize how much culture and history has been poured into our favorite recipes. As our knowledge and awareness grows, we begin to realize that what we eat is a political matter as well as a social experience. Before taking another bite, Heldke suggests that we ask the question, “Who or what does this food connect me to?” Sometimes the answer is not what we expect or even want to hear. But we begin to recognize that the solitary college-age vegetarian searching for provisions can never eat in complete isolation from the world because the very act of eating connects her with everyone and everything. Bon appétit, eh?