February 17, 2012

On Meat and Judgment: A New Kind of Social Anxiety

It’s uncomfortable for me to go over to a friend’s house for dinner to eat chicken. I don’t want to ask about the chicken, because I feel like a snob. And I don’t want to explain why I don’t want to eat their meat from the store because I don’t want them to think I think I’m better than them because I buy different meat than their meat.

So I always just feel uncomfortable and eat the chicken.

Chicken Dinner on Dining Room Table

Sometimes I lie and tell people who don’t know me very well that I’m a vegetarian because it makes things a lot simpler. And it only takes one word—“vegetarian” —to explain what you eat, and people get it. OK. No meat. It’s easy. It’s like when Jewish people say they don’t eat pork, and no one thinks too much about it. OK. Hold the bacon.

Even though “I only eat meat when I know where it comes from, and feel good about it” is only 16 words, for some reason it feels like a mountain compared with the clear-cut “vegetarian” explanation of what’s cool and what’s not for a dinner menu. There are one-word explanations that people have come up with to describe a kind of eating preference similar to mine. “Ecotarian” is one of them, but no one would know what the hell I was talking about if I told them I was one of those. “We’re having roasted chicken and mashed potatoes.” “Sure. And you realize I’m an ecotarian, right?” That would cement things pretty clearly when it came to people thinking I’m a snob.

And that’s the thing. I don’t want to be a snob. And I hate the thought of people thinking I’m a snob. So what’s the protocol?

I’ve heard of vegetarians taking trips to other countries and eating meat when they were guests in locals’ homes. They did this because they didn’t want to offend anyone. It’s not exactly the same thing, but this is always the story I tell myself when I’m keeping my mouth shut and eating the chicken (or the beef or the pork or the turkey—whatever the case may be): that I’m being humble and joining the customs and general practices of the household. I’m gratefully accepting what’s been prepared for me, even if I am worried that the animals lived horrible lives and ate nothing but feed full of pesticides or that the burger has pink slime and ammonia in it or that the chicken was soaked in bleach. It’s the right thing to do to just eat it, right?

At restaurants, I have no problem asking about meat sourcing. Sometimes I can tell people think I’m being stuck up because of the way they look at me or the way they seem annoyed when they tell me they’ll go ask the chef. (I think sometimes the server takes a bathroom break after telling me this, and then comes back and gives me some vague answer about the meat.)

Mean Waiter in Restaurant

But I don’t care what they think, because I don’t know them. With friends, it’s harder. With family, it might be hardest of all. It seems if you were close enough with someone, you could talk candidly about food issues without too much anxiety and without judgment on either side. But I haven’t figured out quite how to do it yet. If I say something, I usually feel like a jackass. If I don’t say anything, I feel uncomfortable and feel mad at myself for not having more confidence.

A few years ago, if I’d had friends over for a chicken dinner, the chicken most certainly would have come from the regular old grocery store. And I’m trying to imagine how I would have reacted if a guest would have questioned the ethics involved in my meat. Would I have gotten defensive? Would I have thought twice before having this person over again very soon?

Food is personal. Our food choices—whether they have to do with ethics or calories or health or the environment or any other factors—are personal. So it’s tough to think that by questioning what someone else serves on their table, they wouldn’t take it personally.

What are your thoughts?

Photos from Flickr/Creative Commons


  1. I'm so glad you brought this up, as I've had the exact problem and line of thinking. I had an uncomfy situation last summer in which a friend got defensive with me regarding a dinner we were preparing together. This was without me even bringing anything up--she had just heard that I had preferences that didn't include Costco's frozen beef patties and therefore lashed out. So yes, I assume had I brought it up when I was truly a guest in her home, there would have been issues. But as you said, I typically just cross my mental fingers and hope I don't contract some sort of illness. Maybe things will be less awkward 10 years from now when sustainable practices are more widespread...


  2. Thanks for your comment, Susanne. That's too bad the situation with your friend got so tense without you even mentioning anything. I've found people can be just as protective about their food choices as they are about their religion. It hits a lot of nerves.

    One thing I keep thinking about since I wrote this post is validity. It seems a vegetarian could be invited over for dinner, and the host would more than likely accommodate that person's food preferences without too much fuss. I know I would do that if I had a vegetarian or vegan over for dinner. That type of food lifestyle seems to carry social validity. Sometimes I get a little bitter that my choices don't have a clear "category" that carries some weight ... that has the same validity. "I Don't Care Much for Animal Torture" and "I Care About the Environment" aren't quite categories that communicate clearly what you do and don't eat. But, like you said, maybe in 10 years it will be easier? I'll cross my fingers about that.

    1. Yes, the validity point is a good one. I wonder how much of that has to do with the higher prices of organic and sustainable food. You mention not wanting to come across as a snob. Well, it's relatively easy to make modifications for a vegetarian; however, accommodating an "ecotarian" often means buying pricier foods. Those who live by those choices don't even see it as a choice--the price is nothing compared to the piece of mind and environmental/health benefits, but for those not on the bandwagon yet, I can certainly see how it sounds as though we're saying, "Please feed us meat and vegetables that cost twice as much."

      The price point was a tough hurdle for me to get over initially. But now that that's all we shop for, I've gotten used to it. Seems like in this case, people almost have to buy into that way of life in order to respect it. Vegetarians' preferences are easier to respect, for they don't necessarily affect a host's pocketbook.


  3. Shelley,

    First of all, I think blogging about it is a great place to start. Hopefully your close friends and family members will see your heart here, realize you're not trying to be snobby, and cater to your preferences... hopefully letting you know that they will accommodate your preferences before you're pressured into accepting or declining their invitation for a meal.

    And, in any other situation I think stating that you are a vegetarian is a completely acceptable, short and sweet, somewhat accurate statement that explains your dietary needs. After all, if you aren't sure about the source of the meat, you would likely prefer to eat vegetarian for that meal, wouldn't you?

    I, personally eat very, very little meat (we're talking, maybe some turkey at Thanksgiving) and I regularly let people know that I'm not really a meat eater. But I assure them that I can almost always find enough to eat just by enjoying whatever side dishes typically come along with a meal so there's no need to make special accommodations. I feel like it's a win/win. They will know not to be offended when I'm not eating their meat, but I'm not putting them out by requesting special food.

    In regards to a last minute social situation though, I suggest just quietly and politely filling your plate with other things that you feel good about. Sometimes people notice and ask why I don't have meat on my plate and I give them a short and sweet answer about my non-meat preferences, then compliment the host about one of the many great side dishes and change the subject as quickly as possible. It seems to work for me... most of the time anyway.

    Good luck with this dilemma, I know it isn't an easy one to navigate!

  4. Love this, Shelley. Our dogs, lambs and goats really miss you. Karen and I go through this now and then -- usually when dining out. We grill the wait staff on the sourcing. Bottom line for us is that if we or a close friend didn't raise the animal, it's almost impossible for us to eat the meat. Except when we're at a friend's place. Then we're pretty much in paying homage to the host mode. For the record, I don't think seeking healthy and humane food makes you a snob, no matter the dollar cost. And we will always talk about humane animal raising strategies and the like. Industrial foods are very expensive but those costs are not passed on to us as direct cash outlay. Industry passes the costs to us by way of poisoned water and air, poor health, tortured animals and farm-workers treated like slaves.

  5. I agree with most of what's already been said here, and love the post (and am happy to have the post-er back in action!). I will say that, even though some of the conversations have been uncomfortable, before I brought up the idea of wanting to know where my meat (and all my food, really) comes from, my family and most of my friends had never thought about it before. Now, with many exceptions of course, a lot of them feel the same way and make more humane and healthier choices. One thing I started doing was giving the big meat eaters I know gifts of grass-fed, locally raised meat - lamb summer sausage was in my Dad's stocking this year - so they could try it out and see it as a cool, special thing. Which I think all food and meals should be :).