According to a 2008 study commissioned by the Vegetarian Times, 7.3 million Americans are vegetarians, with an additional 22.8 million following a vegetarian-inclined diet. And while in larger metropolitan areas, vegetarians and so-called “flexitarians” are not uncommon, maintaining a meat-free diet can be tricky in smaller communities — particularly in the South, where meat is a staple even in vegetable dishes.
Heather Miller grew up in Birmingham and moved to her mother’s hometown of Oxford at the age of 14. She began to have health problems, and by the time she was 17 she made the decision to become a vegetarian. After four or five months, she had made the transition and was cutting out dairy. After six months, she went fully vegan.
“It was hard, but it was a choice I made,” she said.
Miller learned to pack her breakfast and dinner with protein so she could get by on baked potatoes and whatever other vegetarian options she could find while still a student at Oxford High School.
Eating out with friends was difficult for Miller. Sometimes she was told by servers that her food was free of meat and dairy, but “they don’t think about the fact the pasta may have egg in it or the beans may have been cooked with ham.”
And Miller could always tell when a mistake had been made.
“Your body rejects meat if you don’t eat it for a certain amount of time,” she said. “I would go get something out and get violently ill … It got to a point where when you’d go to a restaurant, you didn’t want to take the risk.”
Miller learned to cook for herself, and 10 years later, she said, she can turn almost any recipe into a vegan alternative.
Besides the logistical complications for eating vegan, Miller felt a social implication as well.
“I was looked at as weird,” she said, recalling the reaction she first received at a church potluck. “People always made me feel like I was judging them, but that was not the case. When you tell them you don’t eat meat, they think you’re judging them for eating meat.”
Church potlucks are a nearly opposite experience for Nixon Mwebi, for whom the health benefits of a mostly vegetarian diet are mingled with his religious practice. An elder at Anniston’s Seventh Day Adventist Church, Nixon said there is often a focus among his church’s congregation on the whole person.
“Your body is a holy temple of God,” Mwebi said. “If you are a confessed Christian, you can’t take a gun and shoot your body.”
Similarly, he believes that maintaining a healthful lifestyle is key to maintaining the holy temple of the human body. Although some Adventists are strictly vegetarian, many others eat some types of meat, but the focus is on health.
“It’s about the health message and being responsible and being good stewards of everything God has given you, including your body,” he said, adding that he sometimes eats fish, but not red meat or pork.
Mwebi and his wife, Phane Ogendi, have a kitchen filled with whole grains, brown and red rice, dried beans of several varieties, and greens and other vegetables grown in the garden in their backyard. Ogendi said she stocks up on such items as flaxseeds, coconut oil, quinoa and liquid amino (a salt substitute) at stores such as Whole Foods or Wildwood Country Store, an Adventist-run store in Georgia.
The couple employs tricks like chopping for two meals at once to make cooking easier throughout the week, and Mwebi often makes fruit smoothies for a healthy breakfast.
“Out of one week, if you have three meals a day,” he said, “I’m probably going to have 21 meals at home.”
A few local establishments are safe havens for vegetarians and vegans, including Garfrerick’s Café in Oxford. Owner and chef David Garfrerick was a vegetarian for 25 year before opening his restaurant, at which point he began tasting meat again in order to prepare the dishes on his menu. At least one of his daily dishes — grilled fresh vegetables with lemon juice and olive oil with quinoa — is completely vegan. And Garfrerick said he and his staff sometimes take special requests from customers, creating vegan-tasting menus and other custom options.
“It’s more difficult to comply with that kind of a diet when you live in a small town without more restaurant options,” said the chef whose mission is to put his customers in touch with their food.
Miller has seen the other side of this, her restaurant choices expanding since moving to Atlanta for graduate school. She frequents Café Sunflower, a vegetarian restaurant with many vegan options. But even at regular restaurants, Miller is more confident about ordering dishes prepared vegan.
“It’s a lot more common here to be vegan, so they know how to adapt their menus,” she said.
She no longer has to make monthly trips to Whole Foods to stock up on supplies. There is a Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s nearby where she can grab weekly essentials. Even the Target in Atlanta has more vegan-friendly fare than the Oxford location, she said.
But although her dietary lifestyle is easier, Miller said she’s traded one trait for another — the ease of eating vegan for the familiarity of small-town living.
“I don’t miss the stigma of being a vegetarian; I don’t miss the constant uphill battle,” she said. “But I miss the atmosphere of being in a small town. People are nicer, you know your neighbors. Life is easier there. But a vegan diet, not so much.”