Vegetarian Journal's Essay Contest Winners

The Price of Dinner

It was the smell that got to me first. It was my first trip to a Chinatown at age eight, and I was standing right in front of the seafood counter, waiting for my mother to buy the fish that she would turn into a delicious dinner dish later that night. The stench that emanated from the whole seafood area was a combination of the wet, muddy tile floors, seawater, and - I realized later - blood and guts.

My mother had been waiting a good 20 minutes before finally arriving at the front of the line; the place was packed with people buying anything from lobsters to sharks. I saw my mother peeking through the large grimy fish tanks and pointing to a fish crowded towards the middle of the tank. The man behind the counter, who wore a thick plastic apron smeared with dried blood that covered him from shoulder to mid-calf and heavy boots on his feet, took a basketball-sized net and ladled out a fish my mother had scouted out. He reached into the net and grabbed the writhing fish by the tail and, in one swift motion, raised his hand high above his head and then slammed it down, letting go of the fish just before his arm reached his side. I stood horrified, unable to comprehend what had just happened. The man then took a large mallet and bent forward, giving the fish a few blows that effectively crushed whatever life was left after the violent throwdown.

When my mother carried the plastic bag holding the fish back to the cart, I no longer thought of the scrumptious flavor of the fish that would fill my mouth in a few hours. Instead, I kept replaying the sequences of the poor creature's execution. I asked my mom, "Why did that man have to kill the fish like that?" "And how could you buy something that you just watched being killed?" Recognizing the fear and confusion in my eyes, my mother smiled faintly and said, "Don't worry, fish don't have feelings, so that fish didn't feel any fear and it didn't hurt at all. And now we have a fresh fish for dinner; only a fish right out of the sea can beat that ..."

On the ride back to my house, I barely spoke. I tried to imagine how it would feel if someone took me up high in the air, slammed me down to break my back, then pounded me with a mallet to finish me off. I was terrified of the image. That was when I decided that I could not simply allow this to happen. That night at dinner, when my mother reached over to my plate to pass me some fish, I said no. My sister had given me a puzzled look and managed a "What?" while my father demanded, "Why not? This is absolutely amazing, and so good for you, especially since you're growing right now." I explained that I could not bear to have animals so brutally killed just so I can have a tasty dinner.

In the days after, I eventually stopped eating all kinds of meat, as I learned about the processes by which animals were raised and slaughtered. Each time, I imagined myself in the animal's situation—whether it was having my bill cut or tail snipped, pumped with antibiotics and hormones, or stuffed into cages barely big enough for me to fit. All I knew was that I would never want to live such a life of misery and end with a trip to the slaughterhouse.

Every once in a while, my mother would ask me if I wanted any of the pork roast or shrimp she had cooked. I can smell the aromas, but I always say no. I'm satisfied eating my tofu and beans because I know, by not eating any meat, I can spare a few animals the same fate that I had witnessed on that fateful day.

The Storyteller

My grandmother Rita is quite a storyteller. Her stories start with her hardworking grandparents, emigrating from Russia in the early 1900s, settling in a small village high in the Catskill Mountains called Tannersville. The origin of the name was derived from the tanning factory located on Main Street, where most of the townspeople worked. Due to the area being rural, animals were in abundance and trappers were able to turn in the pelts of rabbits, raccoons, and beavers they killed to be treated and stretched.

My Great, Great Grandpa Joe's mission was to provide a home and food for his growing family. His first job was a peddler selling small miscellaneous items to people living in the surrounding villages and towns. Many of his customers were farmers, and along with improving his knowledge of the English language, he saw farming as an opportunity to improve his family's lifestyle.

In order to embark on farming, more money was needed to purchase land and build a house and a barn. With the help of his eldest son, Louie, they became entrepreneurs by becoming animal trappers, killing, skinning, and tanning the pelts themselves and then selling them directly to fur traders in New York City. Being Jewish Orthodox, the meat of the animals was given away to other families because they were not allowed to eat it.

By the 1920s, hotels were cropping up all over the Catskills to accommodate city dwellers who wanted to escape New York City during the hot summer months. By that time, Great, Great Grandpa Joe provided those hotels with chickens and eggs, since he now had the land, the house, and a barn with plenty of space to raise hundreds of chickens. The chickens were kept behind fences high enough to prevent them from flying out and allowed to walk freely around the ground. You might say they were "free range."

Grandma Rita also relates that, in the 1940s, when she and her cousins were young, they were given the job of finding the eggs laid by the hens and feeding the chickens. Every Thursday, the chickens that were plump enough were caught and packed into wooded crates for shipping to various hotels and butcher shops. The kids would run after the chickens with a metal pole that had a hook and then grab the chicken by the leg and cram it into a crate. The crates were then piled one on top of the other on the back of a panel truck with no ventilation. The chickens awaited their execution, having their necks slit and held upside down allowing the blood to run out so they would be kosher!

Some of the hotels wanted the chickens delivered alive; others wanted them killed and feathers plucked. Thinking about it now, my grandma realizes how cruel the whole process was, whereas at the time the kids thought, "This was fun!" and made a game of it.

I realize killing animals is no game and that is why I have become a vegetarian with aspirations of one day becoming a veterinarian to help animals, not harm them!

I'm reminded of my grandma's stories every time I pass a butcher shop or see people wearing fur coats! We are in a day and age where we no longer have to be barbarians; there are so many non-animal food sources and so many other things you can wear besides a dead animal on your back!

That is why it is good to have a storyteller in the family—so that new stories may be told!

ANNUAL ESSAY CONTEST RULES

To enter VRG's annual essay contest, just write a 2-3 page essay on any aspect of vegetarianism or veganism. There are three entry categories: ages 14-18, ages 9-13, and age 8 and younger. Winners will each receive a $50 savings bond.

All entries must be postmarked by May 1, 2010, for this year's contest. Entrants should base their entries on interviews, personal experience, research, and/or personal opinion. You need not be vegetarian to enter. All essays become property of The Vegetarian Resource Group. Only winners will be notified.

Send entries to: The Vegetarian Resource Group, P.O. Box 1463, Baltimore, MD 21203 Please make sure to include your name, age, address, phone number, school, and teacher's name.