I really admire my parents. Not just for putting up with my teenage years, but for something they’ve done more recently. They’ve gone vegetarian. Dad is 77 and grew up in London, and Mom is 73 and comes from the Isle of Man (yes, the same place those tail-less Manx cats come from). In Britain in the ’30s and ’40s, meat was something you ate whenever you could. You’d start with the weekly roast on Sunday and then have the leftovers over the next few days in a shepherd’s pie or as “bubble and squeak” (don’t ask). Dad had a particular fondness for bangers and mash (sausage served over mashed potatoes), and Mom loved a nice Manx kipper (salted smoked herring).
Mom and Dad came to the U.S. in the late ’50s, bringing their food preferences with them. (I wonder if their local grocery store knew what a kipper was.) Over the years, they became more health-conscious and started cutting back on red meat. Mom now feels that they benefited from the wartime food shortages in Britain, since without those cutbacks, they would have eaten huge quantities of saturated fat in the form of butter, cheese, and red meat.
In 1995, I went vegetarian. I remember calling up my mom to tell her. After a long silence, she asked, “But where will you get your protein?” I explained how easy it is to get sufficient protein from a plant-based diet and pointed her to John Robbins’ book Diet for a New America. All I was hoping for was to convince them that I wasn’t in imminent danger of malnutrition, but to my surprise, they read the book and stopped eating cows, pigs, and birds. What was really astonishing to me was their willingness to change a lifetime of eating habits and pleasures, with little support from friends and family other than me.
In 2006, I stopped eating dairy products and eggs. Once again, Mom and Dad were concerned about my nutritional prospects, so this time, I asked them to read Dr. T. Colin Campbell’s The China Study to help them understand my choice. I thought the extensive dietary study chronicled in the book would appeal to my dad’s interest in scientific research. Result: Mom and Dad stopped eating dairy products. This was close to unbelievable, since my mom is a lifelong cheese addict. Whether it’s a tangy Double Gloucester or a crumbly white Cheshire, she loves every mouthful. She made it clear to Dad that this no-dairy thing was on a trial basis only, and she’d quit if she didn’t see some health benefits. Sure enough, her painful arthritis, which hadn’t responded to drug therapy, improved substantially. Mom decided that the sacrifice was worthwhile.
For both my parents, this move away from animal products was very much in line with their interest in health and longevity. They also appreciated the animal welfare benefits of their new diet, since Robbins’ book had made them aware of the terrible plight of animals on factory farms. Dad’s current goal is to live past the age of 100, and I fully expect him to. The man is just unstoppable-he takes no regular medications, goes backpacking with his grandson, and can install a composition shingle roof (with help from Mom) in the heat of summer.
I asked Mom and Dad recently what this whole experience has been like for them. Mom told me it would have been a lot harder to do in the ’50s. She loves all the choices in grocery stores today, like Earth Balance nondairy butter and the meat-free meatballs at Trader Joe’s. Most of their friends are mystified but tolerant, and Mom and Dad have gotten good at finding options when they dine out-Mom enjoyed sweet-potato fries and a green salad at her recent Texas barbecue outing with her tennis friends. They do get some teasing (“There’s nothing wrong with you a good red steak won’t fix!”), but it’s mostly good-natured.
My parents traveled a harder road than I did in giving up animal-based foods. I had the support of many vegetarian friends, and I grew up in a time when a vegetarian diet was more mainstream. They had a lifetime of deeply rooted preferences to overcome as well as a social network that finds vegetarianism more than a little strange. Watching my parents make this profound change in their eighth decade of life has been truly amazing and inspiring.