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Summer Equals Barbecue: If you're a vegetarian, you'd better learn 101 ways to grill them tomatoes, because barbecue season is coming on strong.

Vegging Out

Some people get a head start on vegetarianism, others aren't so lucky

By Elisa Camahort

I went vegetarian when I was 25. It was kind of a cold turkey thing. So I had a passel of people who didn't quite get the transformation at first--a mother who likes to cook, a boyfriend who was allergic to fruit and hated vegetables (and was totally skinny, the bastard!), friends who were used to going out and scarfing down some fried calamari with me. And I had a lifetime of eating habits to ignore. Not just eating habits, but mental messages about eating. Summer does not equal barbecue. Thanksgiving does not equal turkey. An indulgent breakfast does not equal bacon. Comfort does not equal (don't ask me why) the Swanson's Pot Pies I ate as a child. I came late to the vegetarian game, and it would have been easier, especially in the beginning, if I hadn't.

Recently, via this column, I met, online, a teenage reader who has been a vegetarian literally all her life. Ranjani Sukumaran lives in Fremont and is a dedicated vegetarian who recently took it a step further and went vegan. It seems like her being raised a vegetarian in a vegetarian home has made it a much simpler effort: no family pressure about whether you're really meeting your nutritional needs, no meat to miss and a religious view that puts humans and animals on equal footing and promotes nonviolence.

Whereas I occasionally smell a steak on a grill and feel wistful, Ranjani never had meat in her house, so she has "never even had the slightest idea of wanting meat."

Whereas I've tried to go vegan several times and found myself giving up (despite knowing it was the right thing for me to do, despite all my best intentions), Ranjani, already a life-time vegetarian, went vegan this December and found that remembering "the torture you are inflicting on thousands of poor, helpless, defenseless animals" was enough incentive for him to quit dairy without a backward glance.

What Ranjani and I do share, however, is a desire to set a good vegetarian example for others. I've mentioned in previous columns that I make it a point to let people know that we don't have to go to special restaurants for me to have something to eat. I want to make being a vegetarian seem totally carefree. In the same way Ranjani says she would like to "show that being vegan doesn't require any extreme willpower or austerity, as people may believe. All it requires is compassion and dedication for all living beings."

And we also share a desire to reach out to others who share our beliefs. I write this column and subscribe to numerous online vegetarian groups. Ranjani wants to form an animal-rights club--or just find other people in Fremont who are interested in animal rights too. (She's finding it kind of tough, so let me know if you're interested, and I'd be happy to play Fremont vegetarian matchmaker.)

Of course, some popular perceptions about vegetarianism don't make it easy. A recent episode of the Top 20 TV series House featured a secondary story line about vegan parents raising their baby as a vegan--a baby that they brought in because she was losing rather than gaining weight. Scorn was heaped upon the parents. I believe they were called "idiots," and eventually the police were called on them, and the baby taken away since "starving" the baby was akin to child abuse. Just when I was getting truly incensed, the story took a twist, as the parent said they'd been seeing a nutritionist and following his recommended diet, and the brilliant Dr. House realized that the baby actually had some glandular issue, and that the vegan diet was not to blame. All was restored, just like a Shakespearean comedy; the baby delivered to her waiting parents' arms. But it was too little, too late to mitigate the dismissive, insulting portrayal of stereotypical hippie, clueless vegans, in my opinion. No wonder people still ask me how I get enough protein in my diet!

Ranjani has gotten a 25-year head start on dealing gracefully with that question, and a head start on good health and a head start on being an advocate for animals and the environment. Lucky girl.

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From the June 1-8, 2005 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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