Dining

Meet the Exceptiontarian

There's a new word for vegetarians with a dirty little secret
Photo: Dave Katz/Tasting Table
Exceptiontarians

I don't remember when I first became a vegetarian, just as I don't remember my first step or my first word. It came early and instinctually: As a child, no one ever made me eat meat, and I never felt inclined to do so.

I also don't remember the first time I ate sushi. I'm pretty sure I had already reached my 20s, had already read Eating Animals, watched Food, Inc. and subscribed to the ethical, environmental and health-related arguments against consuming flesh.

What I do remember, however, is the most recent time I ate sushi, as it was just a few weeks ago. It was at Sushi Tatsu, a modest joint where I've enjoyed many meals and which, these days, is the most frequent scene of my crimes against my own belief system.

Explaining to others that I'm a vegetarian who occasionally eats sushi—but no other meat, including no other fish—isn't fun, mostly because of the conflict it presents. In an age with seemingly no end to dietary identities from which to choose—fruitarian, gravitarian, locavore—there isn't yet a term for people like me: vegetarians, vegans or pescatarians who are 100 percent consistent in their dietary choices, with just one—or, OK, maybe two maximum—exceptions.

But there should be, because there are lots of us out there. In the past few days, I've spoken with one pescatarian who eats chicken nuggets only from Chick-fil-A—an ethical "double whammy" as she describes it—and another who cooks his vegetarian bacon in the leftover grease of the real bacon he cooks for his family. I talked to a vegetarian with a soft spot for thinly sliced salami (and, yes, all right, the occasional bit of raw fish as well, but only at one restaurant, Well-Being Sushi in Dumont, New Jersey). I've spoken with a former vegetarian whose weakness is octopus, and another who always orders a croque monsieur at Sunday brunch.

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Calling this hyper-selective group flexitarians—vegetarians who occasionally eat meat—doesn't describe the limited nature of their deviation. That's why I propose we avoid the confusion and get precise. Call us exceptiontarians.

How widespread is exceptiontarianism? It's hard to say. But there's evidence to support that a majority of self-described vegetarians are far from meat free. In a United States Department of Agriculture survey of more than 13,000 Americans, 3 percent described themselves as vegetarian. When pollsters called those people a week later to ask what they'd eaten the day before, 66 percent admitted they'd eaten animal flesh. Some of these people were likely secret flexitarians, but surely there were some secret exceptiontarians among them as well.

If exceptiontarians seem cagey about disclosing their dietary habits, it's probably because sharing it with others often results in either confusion or hostility.

"I usually call myself a pescatarian, so I don't really have to explain everything. I don't really tell people I eat salami," said Hannah Bellon, who started eating the seasoned sausage because her grandmother often served it thin, and the texture, therefore, didn't bother her like other meat.

"My family says, 'Why are you eating salami when you don't eat meat?' I don't have a reason for them. I just say, 'Leave me alone! Let me do my thing,'" she added.

I've certainly been in Bellon's situation, but for the most part, I understand why people find exceptiontarians frustrating, particularly those who are tasked with cooking for us. For chefs like Jamie Bissonnette of Toro in NYC—himself a former vegetarian and vegan—it can be "a pain in the ass" to meticulously work around a diner's restriction to, say, dairy, for an entire meal, only to watch that same diner order a dairy-based dessert.

"It totally blows my faith in humanity and honesty out the water," he told me.

For evidence of how exceptiontarians are generally viewed in the public eye, look no further than arguably the world's most famous exceptiontarian, our exceptiontarian in chief, if you will: Bill Clinton. Two years ago, in the course of an AARP The Magazine interview about his newfound love of veganism, the former president revealed that "once a week or so," he eats a "helping of organic salmon or an omelet made with omega-3-fortified eggs" for health reasons. This did not go over well. "The headline is deceiving—you should report that he eats small amounts of animal products to maintain a healthy lifestyle, not that he is vegan or vegetarian!" one commenter wrote, according to the New York Daily News. "Clinton is NOT a vegan. . . This man is still lying," another wrote.

Health concerns are a common reason vegetarians and vegans choose to eat meat again, but it's not the only one. Many find it socially taxing to be the only vegetarian in the room. Others have irresistible cravings for meat. Exceptiontarians incorporate meat into their diets for those reasons, too, but their experiences of those forces are highly specific. Pescatarian Travis Huggett, for instance, started cooking his Morningstar vegetarian bacon with real bacon grease partly out of laziness—the only pescatarian in his household, he didn't feel like cleaning the pan after making his family breakfast—and partly for the taste. But his craving ends at bacon.

Plenty of exceptiontarians may take advantage of what Peter Singer, often considered the founder of the modern animal rights movement, calls the Paris Exemption. That's a loophole that allows vegetarians to eat meat when dining at extraordinary restaurants or when they're in places that don't offer vegetarian food. Nikkitha Bakshani, a writer and former exceptiontarian, had that experience when she used to go to New York's acclaimed Pastis with her family and order a croque monsieur.

Croque Madame | Photo: Tasting Table

"We were regulars at that restaurant, and they didn't have that much vegetarian stuff on the menu. They had pasta basically, but I didn't want to go to Pastis and eat pasta. It was one of my favorite restaurants in the city," she said.

Forty-three percent of vegetarians who go back to eating meat, according to a study by the Humane Research Council, do so because they simply can't handle the demands of maintaining a "pure" diet. Exceptiontarians, to a much lesser degree, can't handle those demands either, but for them, that's no reason to abandon the diet they have no trouble sticking to 99 percent of the time.

Personal purity, particularly when it comes to one's food choices, is an alluring quality, but scholars and advocates believe it may benefit one's own psyche more than the larger cause of reducing harm to animals.

"For animals, it's a better thing to have a lot of people eating less meat than having a few people eat no meat, just from a strictly utilitarian perspective," Hal Herzog, a Western Carolina University psychology professor and author of the book Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat, said.

According to PETA, refusing to eat a veggie burger from a restaurant because the bun may contain traces of milk or eggs may actually discourage that restaurant from offering vegan options in the future. Singer, meanwhile, thinks it's more important to "try and produce a change in the right direction than to be personally pure yourself." He gives this example: "So when you're eating with someone at a restaurant, and you ordered something vegan, but when it comes, there's a bit of grated cheese or something on it, sometimes vegans will make a big fuss and send it back, and that might mean the food is wasted. And if you're in company with people who are not vegan or not even vegetarian, I think that's probably the wrong thing to do. It'd be better off just to eat it, because people are going to think, Oh my god, these vegans . . ."

As much as that argument makes sense to me, I know that in the eyes of the omnivorous public, exceptiontarians are likely damned whether they make the fuss at the table or make the exception, whether they choose to be the hypocrite or the culinary prude. Which is why I try not to beat myself up too much for being an exceptiontarian. What's the use? Other people will do it for me.

People, of course, are often walking contradictions: Some doctors smoke, some animal rights activists are addicted to horse-race betting (seriously, Herzog said he knows a guy), and, generally, the gap between what we believe and what we do is often wider that we'd like it to be. Exceptiontarianism might not be easy to swallow, but it's human through and through.

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