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The backsliding vegetarian 

"My God, how is this potato salad so delicious? ... Wait. Is that bacon?"

A vegetarian friend was in town from Los Angeles and he'd never been to the South. He'd certainly never known the decadent glory of adding bacon, ham hock or "drippings" to anything. I had warned him, giving my four rules of ordering as a vegetarian in the South: 1) If you don't want meat in something — be it mac 'n' cheese or Cap'n Crunch — always say so. 2) Yes, the beans have meat in them. They just do. 3) God yes, the chili has meat in it, and please shut the hell up before you get us kicked out of this tailgate. 4) Finally, if you order the house salad, make sure you tell them to leave off the chicken fingers.

There are 10 million vegetarians in America, and at least 6 of those are in Arkansas. We're in the Bible Belt. We may do the other six Deadly Sins pretty well, but even Caligula never ate a deep-fried turkey. We have gluttony knocked. And keep your fork, lotus-eaters, there's (fried) pie.

I was a vegetarian for my last five years in New York — and for my first two months back in Arkansas. Initially the decision to become a vegetarian mostly had to do with what I'd read about the meat industry, but it also had to do with convenience. I realized that almost all the meat I was eating was fish, and if I didn't have to cut dairy from my diet, with a few more conscious choices here and there, I too could become a full-fledged (half-assed?), sanctimonious, bleeding-hearted hippie.

The decision to break my vegetarian vow was also about convenience (and, if I'm being honest, pulled-pork nachos). Go ahead. Order the "veggie sandwich" at most Arkansas eateries. I dare you. As much as I love iceberg lettuce with brown edges, pale, regrettable tomatoes and Hellmann's mayonnaise, a man can't live on bland alone. (And don't send letters, please. There are fantastic vegetarian dishes at several local restaurants, but, from what I've seen, not enough inexpensive options to live on.)

Also, eating meat is more sociable, especially in the South. How many party hosts enjoy hearing the words "dietary requirements"? And if you choose to suffer quietly, you're left eating a plate of Rice Krispie Treats, some waffle-cut pickles, Ruffles, and your Solo cup.

And here's the other thing: Meat is awesome, and nobody does meat better than the South. For every boat race off Martha's Vineyard that Northerners engage in, there are a few thousand glorious rednecks sweltering over outdoor grills, competing for shiny, swine-topped trophies. Within a short drive of my house, I can have the best burgers I've ever eaten, at Arkansas Burger here in Little Rock, or CJ's Butcher Boy Burgers in Russellville, or Cotham's in Scott. I can eat my favorite barbecue just down the road at Whole Hog or at Craig's in DeVall's Bluff. I can drive a couple of hours east to Gus' in Memphis and have a plate of fried chicken that, yes, is worth driving to Memphis to get.

Does the level of my carnivorous delight, or the lack of convenience for better vegetarian food, make my backsliding okay? Probably not. The Michael Pollans and "Food, Inc.'s" of the world are becoming harder to ignore, and few of us can say with a straight face any longer that the meat industry is humane.

That leaves me where I typically reside, in the morally fuzzy middle. On a national level, the meat industry isn't going to disappear, but the hope would be that through the pressure of consumers and (the saner) animal rights groups, the lives of the animals we eat could be as happy as possible and their deaths could be made more swift and painless.

On a personal level, getting this down on paper is a good reminder of just how weak my arguments against vegetarianism actually are. They essentially come down to "It's hard."

So, I hope meat production becomes more humane and transparent and that the South (and Arkansas specifically) increases its vegetarian options. As for me, I'm going to try to make the meatless choices more often, and choose the meat I buy more conscientiously. Thoreau said, "I have no doubt that it is part of the destiny of the human race, in its gradual improvement, to leave off eating animals ..." And I hope he's right. In the meantime, I'll be fighting what's bound to be, at least occasionally, a losing battle with those pulled-pork nachos.

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