Editorial Views: When I Was a Vegetarian -- February 2010
Julia Gallo-Torres, Managing Editor

Working on a food product development magazine, I’m slightly amused when people learn where our food, specifically meat, originates. In our highly sanitized society, it’s almost easy to forget it involves an animal. Having toured many food plants, especially in Latin America, I have seen all stages of meat/poultry processing. While I do appreciate and consume meat, I also understand why some become vegetarians.

I spent my childhood summers in Peru. Our first trip was striking for me on many levels: the political instability, the disparity between the haves and have-nots, the unfairness of our cousins being better-educated than us, but lacking opportunities. Most of our family, at that time, still visited the open air markets that characterize much of the region: they picked up bread, vegetables and fruits, and some chicken...a chicken that was still living. This was no problem, as the vendor would just twist its neck, throw it in a bag and off we’d go. “You also want some beef?” the vendor would ask. “My brother, in the other stand, just killed a cow this morning, and he’s butchering it as we speak.”

Peru was a strange world to us, in terms of novel foods. New fruits and vegetables, like white asparagus, purple potatoes, sugar cane, papaya, passion fruit and mangoes, weren’t readily available in the U.S. at that time. Unfamiliar Peruvian dishes, prepared by extended family, surprised us almost every day. Some days were better than others. In this part of the world, meat is a luxury, as it can be very expensive. So, when we were told we were having steaks for dinner, we were very excited.

Our family put a lot of thought into a meal. They wanted us to feel at home. However, after seeing the dead cow and watching my cousin de-bone and tenderize it, we had a lot to think about. As an adult, I understand how disappointed our aunt, who had slaved over the meal all day, must have felt, when we wouldn’t eat what was served. However, I became a vegetarian that summer, not only for political reasons, but also because the grass-fed beef tasted very different than our corn-fed variety. My stand ended when I returned home, as I reverted to eating my beloved American steaks and hamburgers.

Eventually, as an adult, my job as a food editor would put me face-to-face with modern animal processing methods. This has given me both the perspective of small family butchering operations and larger commercial plants. Both serve their purposes in today’s modern world. Both also help me understand that food is a very personal thing, and I should not judge others by what they do or do not eat. pf