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Vegetarian Journal Mar/Apr 2001

2000 VRG Essay Contest

For information on how to enter VRG's annual essay contest for children, see the back cover of this issue of Vegetarian Journal.

I decided to become a vegetarian when I was in first grade, after something happened to open my eyes. My teacher had brought two adorable turkeys to school for us to play with. Every day, when we were dismissed for recess, I would go to Mr. and Mrs. Turkey. It was the best part of my day.

Thanksgiving came and went. The first day back for school, I ran to go see the turkeys, but both of them were gone. I was terrified! I went up to my teacher and asked her what had happened to the turkeys. She said that she had killed them and eaten them for Thanksgiving dinner! I was horrified to think of those sweet creatures being nothing more than someone's meal.

That's how I became a vegetarian. From that day on, I decided not to eat meat ever again. I am the only vegetarian in my family, which is tough sometimes. My mom says I have a lot of willpower because she tried becoming a vegetarian but couldn't. She did not have the same experience I had because she did not know Mrs. & Mr. Turkey. I think it is harsh to kill animals and then eat them. I know that some animals are raised to be killed and eaten but it is just not right in my opinion. I know that this might sound a bit ridiculous, but I think that if we are able to eat animals then animals should be able to eat us too. Most kids my age don't agree with me but I plan to stick with my beliefs and stay a vegetarian for life.
Stephanie Loeb, age 11
Paradise Valley, Arizona

Compassionate Iconoclasm— The Vegetarian Experience
Did I ever truly eat before becoming a vegetarian? Sure, I mechanically stabbed my fork into hunks of roasted flesh, shoveled gobs of greasy poultry appendages into my mouth, and had no second thought about making a repast of a shriveled, processed patty of dead meat within an airy bun. After all, I was an American and therefore my duty was to consume, to feed the frenzied capitalistic cycle upon which my nation was based. Into my head were drilled the pillars of the glorious American doctrine, beginning in childhood. Earn money! I learned. Comply with cultural beauty standards! Marry a socially acceptable man! And EAT MEAT!

As I grew older, I began to realize that not all of this was necessarily true. Still, the concept of vegetarianism seemed foreign, and vaguely subversive. Why wouldn't I eat meat? Everyone ate meat! What else was there? I loved animals—cute ones, that is—but somehow the image of a benignly mooing cow, grazing serenely in a field, had no relation to the steaming slab of steak I saw on my plate. The idea that a person would adopt a custom as strange as vegetarianism struck me as illogical, and I continued mindlessly dining on the staples of a normal, carnivorous diet.

It wasn't that I enjoyed eating meat so much. I derived no atavistic pleasure from the knowledge that my species stood grinning on the top of the food chain. It was just what people did. So I did it. Then one summer, a jaded and restless teenager, I decided that I wasn't happy following the rigors of conformity. No longer did I shop for clothes with the objective of blending in with my peers; I spurned the radio, with its monotonous medley of prepackaged vulgarity. And, surprising even my own self, I made the decision to become a vegetarian.

I am still uncertain exactly how the original notion surfaced in my head. It was motivated partly by a concern for the fates of livestock, partly for the environment, and partly for my own health. More than anything, however, I just wanted a change in my life. Vegetarianism had the allure of radicalism, of going against the grain of the banal American tradition. Regardless, I established a trial period which, I believe, will last for the rest of my life. For I adored being a vegetarian. It was a matter of merely a few weeks before I had transformed from a staid, meat-eating automaton into a zealous progressive who flinched whenever her skin came into contact with meat. I felt healthier and more compassionate; I was aiding my planet and its inhabitants; plus, I was swindling the proponents of the corporate meat-packing scheme, those conniving swine who profited greedily upon dripping bovine blood. Vegetarianism transcended my eating habits; it was a state of being. No longer was I a vacuous cog in the consumer system. I was an individual! I was somebody! I was a vegetarian! My mother was at first wary of my decision, foreseeing her maternal duties doubled by my separate meal requirements. To ease her acceptance of my new lifestyle, I began to take an active role in the cooking process. Soon I was cooking several meals a week and enjoying it immensely. I loved being a chef. There was something truly empowering about chopping vegetables, stirring rice, arranging everything tidily on the dining room table. As a bonus, my mother, a subtle iconoclast in her own right, evolved towards vegetarianism on her own, and gradually became my fellow defender of vegetarianism against the close-minded remainder of the family.

I discovered how much I had been shortchanging myself as a carnivore. Then, I had never felt particularly enthusiastic about what I ate. After my conversion, the simple pleasures of eating well became apparent. Vegetables were not only aesthetically stunning, in their reckless colors and geometric shapes. They also actually tasted good. Tofu, long considered by me to be pretentious and bland, made its way into my diet, along with the exotic commodities of seitan, tempeh, and the indispensable textured vegetable protein. It was easy to adapt our traditional pasta recipes into vegetarian delights, and I also began to experiment with more unusual substances: hummus, couscous, and the whole-wheat bread with bits of visible grain which I had always detested. Ethnic foods had always seemed too weird for me, but now I openly embraced cuisine from all cultures. And even though I savored eating so much more, I was actually healthier than I had been as a meat-eater. My eating habits were more balanced, and I stopped craving the empty wiles of candy, chips, and soda, in which my teenage peers wallowed. I became more aware of my nutritional needs, making sure that I received enough non-meat protein to stay active.

When high school started that fall, my friends were astonished to hear my news. Some were openly disdainful; others regarded me with mild admiration, mumbling, "I tried that. . . once." Without realizing it, my reputation as a non-meat-eater spread. I soon discovered that I was one of a small, diverse elite of vegetarians within my class. My new identity was reinforced. No one treated me any differently, but being surrounded by the veggie mystique was slightly empowering.

By now, after a mere ten months as a vegetarian, I feel as though it is a major aspect of my character. It sets me apart from the swarming, grease-consuming masses. The single word "vegetarian" divulges a whole set of forms; someone who thinks about her actions and how they impact her surroundings; someone whose idealism has not yet been quite extinguished. I believe that I can make a difference, even in a passive way such as vegetarianism. I believe that by educating people, I, and others like me, can encourage a more harmonious relationship between humans and their planet.

My campaign is simple, informal. It doesn't require an elaborate scheme, no radical world conquest—not that I've completely ruled that out. And I don't intend to become a militant, screaming fanatic at any point in the future; I shall never resort to waving bloody meat plant photos and death threats in the faces of McDonalds' patrons. I'm realistic enough to see that eating meat is too firmly entrenched within our society for it to be eliminated so easily. Nevertheless, I do my best to spread my ideals among my friends. Some of them are pretty receptive; I've even influenced two or three people to go vegetarian themselves.

However successful my crusades are, I know that every time I reject meat, I am not only benefiting my own body, but helping my environment and fellow creatures, as well as dodging the grasp of the malevolent capitalist pigs of the meat industry. I can deal with the perplexed stares and condescending sneers of the unenlightened. Embracing vegetarianism is, for me, the most natural thing in the world.
Sophia Magnone, age 16
Chicago, Illinois

A Vegetable Dawn
I smash the heel of my palm against the flat of the knife. It crushes the small bulb of garlic. I chop quickly. I scrape the garlic from the cutting board. It joins the onions dancing in the oil.

The counter is crowded with husks and peels. A pool of diced red and green peppers sits like a jumbled community of a Monopoly game's houses and hotels. Vials of spices parade on the counter. The trunk of a great, sawed carrot lies like a smear of earthy orange paint on the cutting board. If I count its internal rings, will I be able to tell how old it is?

I began cooking when I was fourteen. As part of a new awareness that swelled during my middle school years, I had stopped eating meat. The new concern for my diet sparked a passion for food preparation. I decided to give up meat, poultry, and fish after extensive research. The environmental, social, farming, and health issues seemed too detrimental to justify a carnivorous diet. My philosophy, at the time: Why indirectly do something I wouldn't do myself? I had no problem with slicing an apple, but my conscience twinged when I imagined robbing an animal of dignity in both life and death.

Of course, it is easier to look the other way, to pretend there are no cows, only beef; to tell yourself that chickens are born breaded and attractively chunked in the back room of the local Kentucky Fried Chicken. But, to me, there didn't seem to be any difference between killing my pet cat and supporting an industry that profits by processing animals. Besides, from a strictly culinary standpoint, the subtle explosions of a tingling, spring curry far surpass the, at best, comforting warmth of the most garnished hamburger. I was lucky. Not only did my parents support my decision, but they were well-versed in meatless cooking. You see, during their twenties, they were committed to a much less inclusive diet than mine: no preservatives, animal products, dairy, or processed foods. A friend of mine, John, currently practices a similar lifestyle. He grinds his own flour, grows a large percentage of his own vegetables, and rarely buys more than bulk quantities of grains, beans, and legumes. When his sweet tooth starts whining for some loving, he adds a touch of honey to his rice, his one weakness, he says.

The problem, of course, with such a diet is the time its maintenance demands. In a "give me convenience or give me death" world, it just isn't practical, most would say, to spend so much attention on maintaining a steady, animal-friendly, earth-friendly, human-friendly diet. We live in a culture that loves to forget, so, naturally, few people embrace the constant focus harmonious eating requires. What they don't realize, I think, is that the task is far from a chore; it is a delight that exists as both its own reward and as a respectful note to the future. However, although vegetarianism, in all its forms, touches on many difficult social and cultural issues, for me, at fourteen, the pleasure was in experimentation. Suddenly, a new layer of life opened. I started visiting the local health food co-op. My parents began giving lessons in lentils and lima loaves. The complexity of the culinary world fascinated me with its new challenges.

Concoctions abounded—some more successful than others—as I explored the art of mixing this and that, and producing an unseen something or other. Huge stir-fries on pillows of rice became my holy manna, as, gradually, ordering a salad in even the most sizzling steakhouse seemed natural and wonderful. Sometimes, though, my lifestyle choice became painfully obvious. Once, while traveling with a friend's family, I ordered a garden salad at a dusty roadside café. To my surprise, the waiter brought a large bowl that was about 30 per cent diced ham, 30 per cent shredded turkey, 30 per cent boiled egg, and 10 per cent withered lettuce, with one token tomato sitting in the center like a rubbery red golf ball. Another time, during a school band trip, the amount of hot-dog buns I ate could have been used to completely cover every mile of US interstate.

From these experiences, I came up with a couple of basic rules that I always use when traveling, and will gladly share here. 1) Always have a jar of peanut butter, a bag of fruit, and assorted meatless snacks on hand. 2) Don't be a martyr; people can have extreme opinions regarding meat-eating—after all, in a way, by abstaining, you are saying that you do not believe in a main part of their lives—so don't give them ammunition by complaining. Since vegetarianism, really, is a choice afforded to the privileged—if they are starving, most people will devour a side of bacon—you can show that, since it's your choice, you are in control. Even if your goal is to convert the world to a more sustainable, meat-free utopia, balanced, honest discussion is more effective than dogmatic preaching.

Now, this self-sufficiency, I think, is the greatest boon I've gained from vegetarianism. Even if future adventures and reflections lead to my diet changing, some part of this independence and willingness to directly face and embrace a personal choice will remain. That, and the simple, tactile pleasure of creating feasts from combinations of colorful vegetables and spices. I say the words like a monk's chant: cumin, cardamom, cilantro. My long-lost cousins, messengers of life, and a sensation that a blind, unevaluated satisfaction with conventional entrées would have been hard-pressed to invoke. Using them is a little more work, yes, but from any angle, to me, the rewards are worth it.
Zach Savich, age 17
Olympia, Washington

Excerpts from the Mar/Apr 2001 Issue

The Vegetarian Journal published here is not the complete issue, but these are excerpts from the published magazine. Anyone wanting to see everything should subscribe to the magazine.

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