March 10, 2022

OLGUÍN | Vegetarian, Plant-Based Pescatarian

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It is time that I admit the truth. In front of my friends and family, I want to share that I have recently indulged in eating salmon. I, who so proudly was vegetarian for years and years, gave in earlier this year at the sight of Emily Mariko’s salmon-rice-kewpie mayo-sriracha dish. For more than half a decade, I had staunchly committed myself to the vegetarian discipline. I’d learned to forget about the taste of Korean BBQ and learned to cook (and like) alternative forms of protein. Zeus’s BLTease in my opinion, was better than whatever turkey ham option they could have offered. And if they ever bring it back (!), it would still be my first choice. 

I first became a vegetarian the fall of my high school junior year. We had just started a unit on the anthropocene — the term for the era of human-induced climate change — and I may have been the only kid in my class who didn’t sleep through the documentary. Instead, I sat wide-eyed through it all. Ocean acidification. Deforestation. Animal agriculture. All of it came to a startling endpoint — we were altering our world irreparably. We had known for decades that climate change would affect every human that comes after us. And our supposed leadership wasn’t doing anything about it. 

In the midst of learning about my global environment, my sunny hometown turned ashy gray, and I experienced my first canceled class day. Not a snow day or a bomb-threat day, but a smoke day; no school because the amount of smoke in the sky from wildfires had proven to be more hazardous and dangerous than the regularly scheduled Los Angeles smog intake. I was getting the hint pretty loud and clear — our environment just wasn’t doing okay. So I did the only and most impactful thing I thought I could do at that moment — from one day to the next, I became a vegetarian. 

Over this year, I’ve slowly started to reflect on my commitment, thinking about how vividly I saw it as a black and white decision. Wrong and right. With no level of nuance to guide me through what was much more systemic, global and beyond my control than I had originally thought. I don’t mean to say that we don’t have any influence, because I do think we have some. I saw how my actions changed the way my family approached different types of food. How we veganized classic Peruvian dishes like lomo saltado and vegeterianized Aji de Gallina. So, even if tiny and seemingly arbitrary, there’s a little influencer in all of us.  

But such a change also isn’t easy for everyone — not everyone has the support, opportunity or financial resources to shift their diets in dramatic ways. It’s not an uncommon fact that living and eating sustainably is expensive when it really shouldn’t be. I still think individual action is powerful and essential for the sustainability of a sustainable culture, but there’s no ignoring the fact that systemic action is vital for just survival. 

All this to say, my individual action has slightly waned in some ways. My four years learning about the ways in which the world is doomed — and seeing every administration do nothing actionable to help it — has made me reflect. I don’t believe in the moral superiority of veganism or vegetarianism. Behind that often lies ignorance on the consequences of emissions from our favorite healthy foods. There’s emissions in the global transport of fad superfoods.  As far as I know, they don’t grow acai, quinoa and avocados near Cornell. 

So, I don’t believe that a shift in individual diets is the first way to combat a growing climate crisis. Such change is important — but it misses the forest that’s been on fire for decades in favor of the individual responsibility tree. I still don’t and probably won’t eat red meat or chicken, but I’m more okay with indulging in a little fish. I’m starting to comprehend that the actions we can take extend further than our individual diet. 

This isn’t a pass to be a carnivorous fiend, but I think for me, it’s a method of remembering to be mindful about the actions I can take, to think more about the sources of the fruits and vegetables as well as the processes behind the protein that is giving me my energy for the day.

I leaned into the vegetarian and vegan movement, and it taught me more about myself, food and nutrition and creativity than I ever anticipated. While I still believe in the movement, it’s time for me to let the reins go, even if just for a bit. Because life is short and if rich people can fly their planes to and fro, I can have a little salmon in my poke now and then. 

I’m not trying to be cynical, even if I think it’s warranted in a world where people in power don’t seem to care enough. My naive high school self with her heart on her sleeve, who used vegetarianism as her sword to proselytize about emissions, acidification and greenhouse gasses to her very confused family, still exists somewhere in me.  But I’m also sure she’s grateful I’ve enjoyed some ceviche. 

Vanessa Olguín ‘22 (she/her) is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]. Long Story Short runs every other Friday this semester.