Plants as Food: a Moral Dilemma

by Matt LaBombard

Plants as Food: a Moral Dilemma

Danielle Mulcahy

The summer of 2012 was a time of reflection for me. No dramatic tragedy had occurred to make me ponder my life’s existence, but rather it was a time that I began to rethink my meat consumption.

Like any normal American family, my parents had raised my brother and me on meat and potatoes. Occasionally they treated us to Chinese takeout or a large cheese pizza, but for the most part, our diets had consisted of balanced plates of meat, starch, and greenery. To me, chicken wings, steaks, pulled pork sandwich- es, and other meat-centric entrees were normal, and without meat my dinners didn’t make sense. It seemed as though they were lacking something. But the summer of 2012 was one of unusually large meat intake. From barbecues with friends to pool parties, meat was everywhere, and by summer’s end I had had enough.

As fall approached I no longer found joy in sitting down to our regular meals like chicken parmesan or cheeseburgers. I even had an aversion to heavy barbecue sauces. I craved colorful salads dressed with light vinaigrettes that bursted with bright flavors. It was in those moments that I began to seriously rethink my diet. After toying with the idea of going meat-free, I finally decided to take the plunge. I traded in trips to the butcher for longer, more curious visits to produce stands. It was uncharted territory for me because like many people, I always thought of the vegetable as a side. To make it the star of the show was going to require some serious thought.

Over the next few months I slowly relinquished the bonds of my meat-laden diet. A few nights a week I traded chicken breasts for salads, steak for scrambled eggs, and beef tacos for stuffed portobello caps. I tried new vegetarian recipes and dabbled with new ingredients like kimchi and tofu. Simultaneously, I dove head first into the vegetarian world outside of the kitchen. I read books and articles about vegetarian living and found advice online from plant-based bloggers about converting to a meat-free diet. Along the way, I began to feel a physical lightness in my body and was hooked on the vegetarian diet.

Unlike many vegetarians, I didn’t have an initial drive to convert my diet because of a love of animals or concern for the environment. While it certainly crossed my mind, I made the switch simply for the love of vegetables and an aversion to meat. But after about three months into the process, after I’d ditched the meat for good, I found myself at a crossroad.

I had given up many foods that had once made me happy, and I found myself questioning whether I could ever eat meat again. I was still consuming dairy and eggs and wondered why someone might cut those out as well. So I began to explore the vegan lifestyle and question whether I really wanted to give up more from my diet in the hopes of gaining the deeper spiritual lightness that I’d read about.

To better understand the vegan lifestyle, I painstakingly watched horrible videos of factory farming and began to better understand food production in the United States. As I watched the movies, with tears streaming down my face, something changed within me. My desire to be a vegetarian for the simple love of vegetables became overshadowed by a deeper moral obligation not only to my diet, but to animals and the environment as well. That moral obligation urged me to switch to a fully plant-based diet.

Today, more than two years after having ditched all animal-based foods, I now find myself in a moral dilemma, one that extends beyond the confines of the kitchen. I recently took a trip to a department store with a friend, and as I browsed the racks of shoes, I felt heavy hearted. I had given up all animal products in my diet and yet continued to wear animal-based goods. For a moment, I no longer found myself enjoying the shopping. I don’t eat meat or dairy, but could I really abandon animal-based products entirely? It’s a thought that has sat with me ever since. I was once someone who found meatless living to be a ludicrous idea, but now my diet choices have infiltrated every thought in my life, both in and out of the kitchen. How did that happen?

As I ponder that thought, I wonder, can anyone who chooses to eat and live conscientiously, with a great concern for animals, the environment, and their body, walk through life without questioning their actions every step of the way? Is it possible for anyone who questions how goods arrive in front of us to live guilt-free? Is there an instance that doesn’t somewhere, somehow affect another life, be it animal or human? I don’t know, and to be honest, questioning those thoughts can be depressing.

On the days that these questions seem to be too much, I resort back to the kitchen. To the place that I feel the most comfortable. To the place where taking raw ingredients and creating something delicious soothes my soul. As I cook, my moral dilemmas fade into the background. And I’m sure that you can relate, because for all of us, food is love. It is comfort in times of hurt, and it nourishes our deepest wounds. It brings us together in times of joy, happiness and celebration.

When all else fails, when those questions become too much to handle or I just don’t care enough to think of my action’s consequences, I turn to something that makes me very happy: decadent chocolate cake. Sure, it’s dairy and meat free, but it’s soul-soothing and that is truly what cooking and eating is all about.

I began this journey with an aversion to meat and now I find I have an aversion to questions of moral obligation. As often as I try to answer them, I’m afraid that I can’t. The only answer that I have is to cook. It truly is the one thing that nourishes my soul.