How Vegetarianism Offends My Grandmother (and)

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Food and Family

You are what you eat, or so the saying goes. But what if your family doesn’t approve of what you eat? Below, a young writer of Iranian background and another of Dominican background describe how culture and ethnicity lead to food fights with their families.

How Vegetarianism Offends My Grandmother
By Shadi Rahimi, 21

My grandmother places a steaming dish of white rice topped with yellow seasoning on the dinner table. She walks into the kitchen and returns with a hot tray of chicken kabob. My family stares at the food hungrily. It smells delicious. She fills my plate with rice and reaches for the chicken.

“No thanks,” I say in Persian, waving my hand. “Remember, Grandma? I don’t eat meat.”

“What do you mean you don’t eat meat?” she exclaims, pointing a finger at me accusingly. “You mean you don’t eat!”

I was raised on jeegar (cow tongue), kabob (beef or chicken cooked on a skewer) and mahi (fish). I can’t name a single dish I ate as a child that didn’t contain meat. Almost no vegetarian Iranian dishes exist. Even lubia polo, which is Spanish-style rice and string beans, contains little pieces of ground beef. That’s why, to my 75-year-old grandmother, not eating meat just doesn’t make sense.

My grandmother will return to her home in Iran soon. She gets irritated when I refuse to eat the dishes she spends hours preparing, the same dishes I gulped down hungrily as a child in Iran. In Iranian culture, it’s disrespectful to refuse food. But I often have to. So my grandma shakes her head at me across the dinner table as I poke carefully around the meat with my fork, stabbing vegetables to munch on.

For the first time in my life, I’ve refrained from eating meat for six months straight. I had tried before in elementary school, after anti-fur activists in San Francisco handed me pictures of bloody animal carcasses. I pinned photos of the skinned corpses to my wall, vowing never to eat meat again. But then my mother cooked kabob and told me that I wouldn’t grow without protein. I ate it, but I’m still short.

Every time I tried to kick the meat habit, my mother would have another trick up her sleeve. She would tell me that my hair would get dry, I would get acne, or my muscles would melt away. It was all out of love. She really believed not eating meat would harm me. But what my mother didn’t know was that meat is harmful, and American meat has poisons that Iranian meat does not.

With all the hormones, parasites, toxins, and chemicals I’ve ingested eating meat, who knows the damage my body has suffered? Not to mention the fact that I had been placing within my body the soul of a murdered living being. Now that I’m free of meat, I don’t get depressed anymore. I think it’s the absence of hormones, but I’m not a scientist. What I do know for a fact is that my lifestyle has made me and my family healthier.

My father is a diabetic with high cholesterol. He recently discovered that eating spinach with salmon lowers his blood sugar level. Besides fish, he doesn’t eat meat anymore, either. He is healthier, thinner, and has a more positive outlook than before. My mother, who makes his meals, has also felt similar results. She now teaches me a new vegetarian recipe every chance she gets.

But she is still adjusting. The last time I went home, my mother excitedly dragged me to the kitchen to teach me how to make tofu soup. She showed me how she cooked the rice, chopped the onions, and cut to pieces the jiggly white tofu. She poured the ingredients into a yellow broth bubbling in a large pot on the stove and turned up the heat.

But when I asked my mother what the broth was, she waited until she was walking out of the kitchen to reply. “Chicken broth,” she said in Persian. “It’s good. You need the protein.”

©2004 Youth Outlook.

I’ve Got a Beef With Meat
By Elizabeth Sanchez, 17

It’s another holiday dinner with my father and his side of the family. “Eli, you want some carne asada?” Tia Antonila, my father’s sister, asks, taking my plate and serving me steak before I can say no.

“No, no, Tia, that’s OK. I don’t want any,” I say. My brother sucks his teeth; he knows where this is going.

“Porque no?” she asks in her beautiful Spanglish voice.

“Because I’m a vegetarian,” I say with a smile.

“You are?! Don’t tell me you’re still doing that. Domingo, you hear this? Your daughter says she’s a vegetarian. She’s not a little loca, is she?”

My father, Domingo Sr., comes in with big trays of great-smelling Latin food, like arroz blanco (white rice), arroz amarillo (yellow rice) with oregano, and black and red beans with herbs like cilantro and a little menta (mint) and onions diced in.

“She was reincarnated into a human. She used to be a bird. Can’t you tell?” He laughs, along with the rest of the family. I don’t think that’s funny, especially since the way he says it doesn’t sound like he cares about my feelings.

It’s difficult being a vegetarian in a Latin culture, because most of the food deals with M-E-A-T! If you’re Hispanic, you know what I’m talking about. You have the chuletas (pork chops), bifstek (steaks), salchichas (sausages), pollo al orno (oven-roasted chicken) – the list goes on. I don’t remember a single holiday dinner without some kind of meaty dish.

I’ve been a vegetarian for two years now. I don’t eat animals. That means no cow, no chicken, no turkey, no fish, no lobster, no lamb, no crab, no shrimp, no goat.

I’m not fond of eating eggs, but occasionally when my mom cooks them, I eat them. Each time I do, though, I remember the first summer I spent on my family’s farm in the Dominican Republic, when I was 9.

One day, I was sent to get one of the turkey’s new eggs, but I took the “wrong” one. When I cracked it open, there it was: a small turkey fetus-looking thing! It was so ugly and nasty looking. I hated to think I killed it, and then that I was just going to throw it away like nothing happened.

That summer, I saw all kinds of animals – lambs, goats, donkeys, pigs and cows – give birth. It grossed me out seeing all the blood and placentas.

But later (after they were cleaned up), they looked so cute. And I became close to the animals. I remember waking up to the coo-coo-roo-coo-coo of the roosters and milking the cow in order to sell her milk. I fed the chickens rice and corn. I hand-fed hay to the donkey and went door-to-door asking neighbors for food scraps to feed the pigs.

But I also witnessed animals being killed so we could sell the meat and have big dinners. I saw my uncles tie a rope around the goats’ necks and hang them from a tree in the back yard. Then my uncles tied the goats’ hooves together so they wouldn’t kick and slit their throats. Blood squirted everywhere.

After a couple of minutes it smelled horrible, and I knew that smell was death. I wanted to vomit. I was angry at my family for killing the animals.

But I didn’t say anything to anyone about it because I didn’t want to go against my family or their authority over me. I still continued to eat meat, but when I thought about where it came from, I felt disgusted.

About six years later, I learned about “mad cow disease” on the news. I also discovered on the Internet the organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). The group’s newsletter explained how American farmers inject livestock with hormones to boost production. And the animals are stuffed together in cramped living conditions, some even in tight little cages.

First, I started cutting off hamburgers and other red meat, then went the chicken. Soon I took every animal off my menu.
My family wasn’t supportive. I was teased about my refusal to eat meat.

“Eli, are you on a diet?” Uncle Thomas asked.


“Then eat something, mi’ja.”

“I am.”

“What is this, a leaf?” he said, pointing to the lettuce on my salad bowl. “That’s not food! This is food!” he said, picking up his fork and stabbing his steak. “Mmmmm. ... You sure you don’t want some?”

“I’m sure.”

I lowered my head so I wouldn’t have to look into his eyes. I just stared at my salad, feeling angry at him for not accepting me as I am, a vegetarian. I was sad because I felt alone in a room full of laughing cousins, uncles, aunts and friends.

At least my mom, whom I live with, is more open to trying new things. She used to think I was playing a game with myself to see how long I could go without eating meat. But for the last few months, I’ve noticed that she hardly ever cooks meat, chicken or fish. Cooking is now faster; when the rice, lentils and salad are done, we’re ready to eat.

My father has been tougher on my decision, but he’s cooled down recently. He tries hard not to bring my eating habits up as much.

My family, I think, has come a long way since they first found out I was a vegetarian. No doubt they’re still a bit edgy, but we’re trying to accept each other’s differences in a way where we can laugh at each other, while still laughing with each other.

© 2004 Youth Communication/N.Y. Center.

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