Every time I speak in public about being vegetarian, the same thing happens, at least once. Someone will approach me shyly, drop their voice to a conspiratorial whisper, and say: “I really want to be vegetarian. But the thing is, I know that every now and then I’m going to want a steak.” Or a burger. Or bacon. Or whatever else may be on their exception list.
I always reply, matching their whisper: “Here’s what you do: Be vegetarian. And every now and then, have a steak.”
My point is not to dilute the definition of vegetarianism. My point is to say that, labels aside, everyone can draw their own dietary lines however they see fit, and they don’t have to apologize for it. And also this: For some people, allowing themselves the breathing room to have such exceptions means they’ll probably live up to their ideal more often than if they didn’t. When something is forbidden, its appeal grows.
My own exception list is two items long. I have an oyster-and-mussel loophole.
I know, I know: You can’t be a vegetarian and eat animals, right? Feel free to say I’m not a “real” vegetarian, then. But when I think about all the reasons behind my dietary choice, oysters and mussels are pretty much equivalent to plants. Environmentally sustainable? Cultivating oysters and mussels actually helps filter the oceans. Nutrition? They’re high in protein and low in fat, and they boast an impressive array of vitamins and minerals, including B12, zinc, omega-3 fatty acids and more. Animal cruelty and welfare? At least according to such researchers as Diana Fleischman, the evidence suggests that these bivalves don’t feel pain.
Because this is part of a collection of Valentine’s Day essays, here’s perhaps the most important piece: I love oysters, and mussels, too. So much. And I feel great when I eat them.
That last part is important, because my evolution to vegetarianism has been intuitive . I found my tastes and cravings changing along with my thinking, and the more vegetables I ate, the more energy I felt, so I kept moving in that direction. Now, I can slurp a dozen freshly shucked oysters on the half shell (preferably “naked,” with nothing more than lemon to distract from their briny gloriousness) and not break a sweat. Trust me, that didn’t happen when I used to eat the same amount of bacon.
Mussels, too: The last time I went to Granville Moore’s on H Street NE and devoured a big bowl of mussels mariniere, it wasn’t the bivalves that left me feeling a smidge overstuffed: It was the basket of french fries.
Ultimately, I know, readers may pounce on the labeling here, just as they did when Christopher Cox, a vegan, wrote about his oyster loophole in Slate in 2010 or when Fleischman, a vegan evolutionary psychologist in Britain, analyzed the issue on her Sentientist blog in 2013. Fleischman anticipated the objections by calling herself “ostrovegan,” while acknowledging that it “sounds like you’re a vegan who comes from the Austro-Hungarian Empire.”
I may have it a little easier, as I’m not claiming the mantle of veganism. So, suggestions on my particular label are welcome: Am I a lacto/ovo/ostro-vegetarian? Maybe. Or perhaps, like most eaters, I have a diet that escapes neat categorization: I’m mostly vegetarian — with a very short exception list.