As I look at the title of this post with its angry red scribble indicating that I have clearly misspelled the word, or used the wrong word all together, I realize that I may need to explain what it means. It is really no surprise that my spell-check doesn’t pick it up; Merriam-Webster traces the earliest usage of the word back to the by-gone year of 1993. Before that time, people who chose to eat fish alongside their otherwise vegetarian diet were just called “vegetarians.” This apparently led to the confusion that so many vegetarians deal with when talking to people about their diets.
Enter friendly relative
RELATIVE: I made the best soup! I know you are vegetarian, so I made it with chicken instead of beef.
VEGETARIAN: Uhm, it smells delicious, but I don’t eat chicken.
RELATIVE (confused): You don’t eat meat and you don’t eat chicken? Where do you get you protein, I mean there is SOME protein in fish, but not a lot.
VEGETARIAN: I don’t eat fish either, but don’t worry about it; you enjoy your soup. You don’t have to accommodate me; my dietary preference is a choice I made, which is why I always carry granola bars with me.
RELATIVE: But, PROTEIN!
The Vegetarian Society popularized the term vegetarian way back in 1847, and its intent was always to refer to individuals who did not eat meat in any form, but, with almost 150 years without a term of their own, it is no wonder that pescatarians got lumped in there with the vegetarians. To be absolutely clear, the vegetarians do not want the pescatarians there. From the very beginning, pescatarians have been seen by true moral vegetarians as being somewhat morally ambiguous. There have been extensive studies about fish and pain, and while it is clear that they do not process pain the same way that mammals or birds do, there is no clear consensus as to whether or not they feel pain at all. I used the term “moral vegetarian” back there. I am not going to dive into all the different reasons why someone would choose to abstain from eating meat here (there are a ton, maybe in another blog post later on), but moral vegetarians choose to not eat meat because they can’t look their food in the eye and then eat it with good conscience. (Plants, for the most part, don’t have eyes, which I guess makes it easier to eat them. The obvious exception being potatoes, but I have never met a vegetarian who wouldn’t eat a potato, so there must be something fundamentally different about potato eyes that just makes them seem less relatable.)
Anyway, back to pescatarians. I am one. I eat seafood alongside my mixed veggies and my potatoes. I haven’t always been a pescatarian, just like before I was pescatarian I hadn’t always been a vegetarian, and way back before I was an omnivore I am told I drank a lot of breast milk, and before that I had never seen sunlight. I eat seafood because I like seafood. It is not a moral dilemma for me because I can look into the eyes of a little fishy, and I don’t see a whole lot going on in there, and mollusks, like broccoli, don’t have eyes. Shrimp and lobsters have eyes, but it is kind like with the potato. Their eyes are weird and alien and don’t really count. Besides, they are just big bugs, and even the most hardcore vegetarian eats the occasional bug. What I do not eat is octopus. Eating an octopus ranks right up there with eating a dog for me. Pigs are smarter than dogs, and octopi are smarter than pigs. Octopi may be smarter than humans. I cannot eat something that is smarter than me. I have eaten squid on occasion, but it is not very good, so it is not a huge hardship to give that up just in case it is mislabeled octopus.
I became a pescatarian when we moved from the land-locked world of Utah to the equally land-locked state of Pennsylvania. The difference is that we are only a couple hours’ drive from my house to the ocean, where before it was a couple days. No seafood is better than old seafood. Making that decision was quickly followed by my introduction to the term pescatarian. I had never heard the term before my wife informed me that it was the word associated with my new dietary choice. It is not the only word associated with a vegetarian who also eats seafood, but it is the most widely used. Pesco-vegetarianism is another one of the terms, but it is a mouthful, and, like most hyphenated names, it would probably just get shortened to the more palatable “vegetarian,” which just adds to the confusion. My favorite term for the fish/veggie diet is vegequarian, but it sounds too similar to vegetarian so its clever structure would be lost on most.
So I am pescatarian: it is one of the labels that I gladly accept. Maybe in another 150 years, people will actually understand what it means.
by: Tim Kiester with extensive grammatical edits provided by Laura Nelson (check out her blog; she is hilarious).