As I shrugged off my silver parka and draped it over the back of a wooden chair, I took in a deep breath and inhaled the mixed scent of fried grease and meat that permeated the atmosphere of Wen Wu, a little Chinese buffet restaurant nestled in the corner of St. Clairsville’s Riesbeck’s plaza. A long, narrow counter squatted in the middle of the dining room, lined with vats of steaming Asian dishes: lo mein, crab rangoons, flounder fillets, seafood surprise, stuffed mushrooms, egg rolls, wonton soup, and about ten different varieties of chicken including (but not limited to) lemon pepper, honey, sweet and sour, orange, General Tso’s, and even the All-American chicken tenders. The only vegetables consisted of fried zucchini and bacon-enhanced green beans—it was a vegetarian’s nightmare. And that was exactly why I had chosen Wen Wu as the provider of my last meat-filled meal before shedding my omnivorous identity and assuming that of the herbivore.
When I decided to become a vegetarian, I knew very little about what this entailed. I only knew that I would no longer be able to eat some of my favorite foods, like my aunt’s famous pulled pork or the chicken nuggets served every other Tuesday at Mount Union’s late night snack. Every day would be like the Fridays in Lent that I had observed for the past eighteen years—no big deal, right? Except for one thing: the rest of the world was still in Ordinary Omnivorous Time, my family included.
I learned this a few hours into my first day as a vegetarian. In fact, I had forgotten about the new label I had slapped across my chest until my sister started to make lunch and asked if I would be okay eating teriyaki chicken and tater tots. I opened my mouth to say yes, but the tiny hippie in my brain shut it and shook my head no. I reminded my sister of my newfound meatlessness and said I’d just take the tots. So I scavenged our refrigerator and pantry, finding only chicken and beef pot pies, beef ravioli, and clam chowder—nothing vegetarian friendly. Instead, I scrapped together a meal of Go-Gurt, an apple, peanuts, and the tater tots, hitting as many of the food pyramid segments as I could. Later, for dinner, I had only a peanut-butter-pickle sandwich, finding little other option than those I had already consumed at lunch.
The next day, before I headed back to Mount, my mom tried to cook a vegetarian-friendly meal and in doing so, whipped up the unhealthiest combination of meatless carbs and grease: Kraft mac ‘n cheese and fried onion rings. Honestly, the Chinese food might have been healthier. A Google Images search of the word “vegetarian” will show you images of skinny women smiling as they shove forkfuls of vibrant organic salad into their clean, white-toothed mouths, but so far my experience challenged that stereotype.
The unhealthy foods didn’t end at home either. Because of my semester meal plan, I had to eat at the B&B Café three times a week, and aside from Italian-dressing-drenched veggie wraps and a vegan “Boca Burger,” the vegetarian options consisted of grilled cheese, cheese quesadillas, fried mozzarella sticks, soft pretzels with cheese, and cheese pizza. Notice a pattern? Even the vegetarian “Garden Burger” patties used cheese as one of their ingredients. My only cheeseless options were the overwhelming veggie wrap, the “Boca Burger,” or a salad without the meat—but with the same meat-included price. Once, when I ordered an Asian mandarin chicken salad sans chicken, a café worker loaded my salad with extra toppings and gave me extra dressing in an unsuccessful attempt to compensate for the overpriced salad. I appreciated her effort, but the dwindling numbers on my Purple Plus account still ached.
Eventually, I succumbed to the temptation of the cheaper, cheese-loaded options on the B&B menu, sacrificing health for affordability. I wondered how long-term vegetarian students managed to balance the limited options of campus fare with their dietary needs. I spoke with Angela Romeo, vegetarian of almost three years and vegan of around eight months, who admitted that it can be surprisingly easy to eat “vegan junk food,” especially when it comes to potato-based foods like French fries and tater tots. She also explained that it can be incredibly easy to neglect certain vitamins and nutrients, such as B12 and cholesterol, so going to a nutritionist at least once a year is necessary for both vegans and vegetarians.
Adam Infantino, another student vegetarian, mentioned that protein tends to be the most difficult nutrient to obtain, especially in Mount Union’s cafeteria. In an interview, he recalled, “My freshman and sophomore year when I was dependent on the cafeteria, finding complete sources of protein was sorta tough because there’s a lot of really cheap and really good sources of protein like chick peas and black beans and quinoa when you buy your own groceries, but when you’re completely dependent on a cafeteria to supply you with food…” He trailed off, and I understood what he meant. The cafeteria has a vegan bar that varies daily, containing various salads made from fruits, vegetables, and grains, as well as pita chips, hummus, and tofu. Throughout my weeks as a vegetarian, I visited this bar often, but sometimes the vegetarian staples—especially tofu and quinoa—were omitted, and this bar completely shut down during the weekends, leaving my options to be wilted spinach salad, cereal, bruised apples, bananas, or occasionally a vegetarian soup or homestyle dish. Cafeteria food is limited on the weekends for all students but even more so for vegetarians and practically impossibly so for vegans.
While the cafeteria staff does take into some account students’ dietary needs, their efforts are not entirely satisfactory. One weekend, I ate cheese quesadillas for three straight meals because they were the only substantial option available. Two other meals consisted partially if not entirely of macaroni and cheese, stuffing my diet with dairy and not much else. I could have gotten a salad, but the salad bar becomes especially dismal during the weekends. The toppings are left out for extended periods of time, and once I found a dead fly in the already-wilting spinach, which has scarred me from eating from the salad bar since then. Although before my transition to vegetarianism, I had realized the less-than-satisfactory conditions of the cafeteria, I hadn’t realized how difficult they could be on students with dietary restrictions. Vegan, vegetarian, lactose intolerant, and celiac students cannot possibly obtain all of the nutrients they need from the cafeteria alone, especially on weekends. Substantial sources of meatless protein are not available, even though it would take little effort to set out bowls of quinoa or tofu at the salad bar instead of Friday’s leftover desserts. So why doesn’t Mount Union’s cafeteria?
Angela provided me with an answer, at least for vegans. She believes that veganism is still a “Western, coastal type of thing” that hasn’t quite gained popularity in our part of the country. Because of veganism’s lack of prevalence in the Northeast, restaurants and cafeterias tend to be less cognizant and less accommodating to the lifestyle, explaining why Mount Union’s efforts are halfhearted at best. However, vegetarianism and veganism are on the rise. When I decided to become vegetarian, I joined approximately 16 million Americans—5% of the population—according to a 2014 study by the Vegetarian Resource Group. Angela had told me that she believed about 1.6 million of those to be vegans but was unsure of the statistics, so after a quick Google search, that same 2014 study proved her number to be a gross underestimation; in fact, a whopping 7.5 million Americans adhere to vegan lifestyles. If these numbers continue to escalate, cafeteria’s like Mount’s will be facing a larger population of herbivore students and drastic menu adjustments.
So why are so many people dropping meat and animal byproducts from their diets? When I decided to go vegetarian, I had no moral or health qualms about the meat industry. I was only doing it for the experience. In fact, on Ash Wednesday after Mass, I went to the cafeteria grill and asked for a basket of just tater tots. Noticing the ashen cross on my forehead, the worker offered a fish sandwich, explaining that she was trying to be considerate of Catholics. I declined, explaining that I was vegetarian. The word fell awkwardly from my tongue. The word “vegetarian” felt like a temporary tattoo that looks real until you run it under some water and dig at it with your fingernail a bit and realize that it’s just for show. As silly as it seemed, I felt like a fraud, which didn’t change much after hearing Angela and Adam’s stories.
Angela comes from a big Italian-American family that participates in Festa dei sette pesci every year, a Christmas feast filled with fish, red meat, and other similar foods. One year, Angela’s parents brought home live lobsters. She threw a fit, horrified by the idea of animals being killed in her own home. Recalling this incident, Angela explained, “That was the first thing that really hit me, that we were killing animals. Like I always knew, but it really bothered me whenever it was in my house. So because of that I just decided to go vegetarian for animal rights.”
Although Adam didn’t name a specific incident that sparked his vegetarianism, he had similar moral issues with industrial farming after watching documentaries and reading books on the topic like The Omnivore’s Dilemma. However, his reasoning had changed slightly as time passed. He explained, “The longer I’ve been a vegetarian, the more weird I think it is to eat something that once had a face.” I suppose it would be a tad unappetizing to picture a fuzzy, snuffling pink snout and two black button eyes every time you cut into a seasoned pork loin, but for me it’s hard to make the connection between the two without experiencing firsthand the slaughter and preparation of the meat. For Adam and Angela, however, the mere idea (and probably some gory documentaries) are enough for them to cut cold turkey, so to speak.
Even so, they both miss certain foods that vegan and vegetarian lifestyles have forced them to swear off. When I asked Adam what food he missed most, his immediate, no-hesitation response was “corndogs.” Although passable vegetarian corndogs do exist, most carnivals don’t offer them. Adam misses the experience of buying a greasy corndog from a tin trailer bursting with bubbling grease fryers and sweaty cooks and, as he says, “demolishing it.” Angela also misses food from her childhood—lasagna, ravioli, and particularly her mom’s wedding soup, which she tried to imitate with vegan ingredients this past winter and failed miserably. She referred to these foods as “childhood comfort foods,” evoking the same nostalgia that Adam had for corndogs. Our senses of taste and smell possess the ability to store memories in taste buds and cilia that are recovered upon encountering stimuli associated with those memories. When Adam and Angela gave up meat, they also gave up tethers to their past.
Part of me is afraid of that. After briefly experiencing vegetarianism and hearing Adam and Angela’s accounts of their experiences, I want to educate myself more on the ethics and health benefits of a well-rounded vegetarian lifestyle and possibly continue this venture indefinitely. But I am afraid of giving up foods that have been such an integral part of my life—homemade pulled pork, cocktail shrimp, chicken nuggets, and countless other meals including, of course, Chinese food. However, a few days before interviewing Adam, he had posted a Snapchat story about eating Chinese food that showed flashes of several appetizing dishes. For my last interview question, I mentioned this story and asked him how it was possible to eat such a variety of Chinese food as a vegetarian. He explained that tofu is actually a staple of Chinese food, used almost as often as other meats, as well as eggs, rice, and vegetables like broccoli. American Chinese restaurants often have these options, too, as he demonstrated through his Snapchat story. Wen Wu must have been an exception.
Although, as a vegetarian, I may no longer be able to taste General Tso’s chicken firsthand, I can still walk into the Ming Moon carryout, relish in the greasy smell of fried chicken, and order a savory, meatless, Chinese meal.