I was born in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada in 1954. Back then, we went to church twice on Sundays and on occasion between the meetings we would stop off at the local “Kentucky Fried Chicken” and grab a bucket so that Mum wouldn’t have to cook. If we were particularly hungry, or we had guests, we would get a “barrel.” When the cardboard box with “finger lickin’ good” chicken was delivered, I would volunteer to hold it until we got home. I remember it was wonderfully warm in my lap, and the aroma of the Colonel’s magical blend of “11 herbs and spices” filled our Buick and my nostrils with a wonderful aroma and the promise of a chicken chow down.
I suppose they have changed the recipe since, but in those days, the bucket would be soaked in grease, inside and out. No amount of washings could erase the smell from my church pants, and I was a walking advertisement for the Colonel from Kentucky. We typically dispensed with more formal dining protocol and sat in front of the TV watching “Jungle Jim” and “77 Bengal Lancers” while feasting on chicken parts. There were wings, breasts, and the coveted drumsticks. The latter were the favoured selection for the youngest as they were the easiest to hold.
One Sunday afternoon, we were watching some cartoons while eating. One featured a group of chickens being hunted by a ravenous fox. They proved particularly elusive, and Mr. Fox never did catch one, but every time he looked at them, he imagined them as various parts to be eaten. Each body part would become enlarged and labeled and great drops of saliva fell from his mouth. I was just finishing my drumstick when he started fantasizing about the chicken’s legs. In an instant, I made the connection. I looked down at the drumstick in my hand and suddenly saw the bone, tendons, ligaments and skin. For the very first time I thought, “So that’s what a drumstick is!” I never looked at a chicken or any other animal that we ate the same way.
I didn’t stop eating meat until many years later but that experience and image never left my mind. I thought it was odd that some animals we kept as pets, some we rode around on, some we poisoned as pests, and others we ate for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It didn’t make sense to me. The first time I heard the word “vegetarian” was when I was writing a paper in high school on Mahatma Ghandi. I learned that for ethical and spiritual reasons he consumed no animal flesh. I remember thinking it was honorable and clean, and the idea appealed to me. I additionally marveled at his strength and stamina as he walked hundreds of miles across India. Few persons even half his age could keep up with him. Subsequently, every time I heard or read the word “vegetarian” it always struck me as a positive, good, clean way to live.
As a young man, I served my mission in Monterrey, Mexico. I had prepared for it all my life, but confess that significant scripture study was never a big part of my preparation. I read the Book of Mormon and Doctrine & Covenants for the first time on my mission, in English first and then in Spanish.
We taught investigators that the “Word of Wisdom” as contained in D&C section 89 was requisite for membership in the Church. I had grown up knowing that we didn’t smoke or drink alcohol, coffee or tea and remember the occasional reference to making sure we got enough sleep, but that was it. The first time I read section 89 as an adult, verse for verse, I was stunned. When I read that the Lord counseled us to eat the flesh of animals only in times of winter or famine I was confused. We had plenty of food (Mexico is the ultimate “land of abundance”), and it certainly wasn’t cold. The statement, “and it is pleasing unto me that they should not be used” hit me particularly hard. It seemed a very plain and simple instruction, and it made sense. I couldn’t understand why that part of section 89 was skipped over. Further study led me to the Joseph Smith translation of the Bible where I read in Genesis that the Lord warned that, “the blood of every beast will I require at your hands” (JST Genesis 9:11). The pieces were starting to fall into place for me.
My companions weren’t particularly interested in discussing these ideas, and our conversations usually ended with the question, “Then why don’t the leaders of the Church teach it”? I thought it was a good question and with the brashness and naiveté of a young missionary, I decide to write a letter and ask then President Spencer W. Kimball. It has occurred to me over the years that as a record-keeping church, my letter is in a file somewhere in Salt Lake. I would pay money to have it. A month later I received a reply from President Kimball’s secretary (I think it was Arthur Haycock). He politely thanked me for my letter and said that the matter had been referred to my mission president.
My mission president didn’t mention the letter until months later when I was serving as his personal secretary in the mission home. He shared that he almost didn’t extend the call to me as he was afraid I might be uncomfortable in a home where the good “hermana” included meat at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We never had a philosophical or scriptural conversation about it. I finished my mission eating meat as “sparingly” as possible. I had discovered incredible fruits and vegetables in Mexico that I loved (especially mangos), and the staples of beans and rice were particular favourites of mine.
Fast forward to April 15, 1989. I was in Vancouver, British Columbia visiting my family. We had dinner one night in North Van at a Chinese restaurant called “Yicks.” It was the last time I ever ate meat (Kung Pao Chicken as I recall). During dinner, my mother mentioned that she had a book she was sure I would like. A friend in the ward who was particularly health conscious had given it to her. I am a voracious reader and was between books so I was excited to get it. It was Diet For A New America by John Robbins, and it changed my life. I started reading at about 10 p.m. and finished it in the wee hours of the morning.
This book gave me the answers to all the questions that had been nagging at me since my drumstick experience as a child. Robbins expertly and scientifically talked about diet from three perspectives: health, the environment and the treatment of animals. I added to that my religious beliefs, and it all felt right. I called my wife Linda back in Sacramento and told her I had made the decision to become vegetarian and was determined to never eat meat again. She was less than enthusiastic, and I remember her first question was, “What are we going to eat”?
For about a week or so after returning home, Linda and I would sit at the dinner table and eat our respective meals while I would read out of Robbins’ book. She was impressed but not ready to change her life so drastically just yet. One night while reading scriptures to the children, she reread section 89 and received a powerful witness that we should go plant based. It has been a great blessing in our lives, and we have never questioned or wondered if we were doing the right thing. In fact, we have become more convinced over the years that the Lord knew what he was talking about and meant what he said.
Our transition diet began after reading Eat To Win by Robert Haas, personal nutritionist to Martina Navratilova (a dedicated vegan). As an avid tennis player, I was looking for any advantage to improve my game. I went on his thirty-day diet and lost nearly thirty pounds. While not completely plant based, it deemphasized the consumption of flesh and protein and emphasized fresh fruits and vegetables and complex whole carbohydrates. With this as a base, it was easy to go all the way to a whole foods, plant-based diet.
Linda has become a wonderful plant-based cook, and I have mastered a few simple recipes that our wonderful, omnivorous friends request on a regular basis. My cruelty-free, vegan chili sin carne is a particular favourite, along with my homemade hummus, guacamole, and almond milk. In fact, my guacamole was featured in an “I’m a Mormon” spot that the church did some years ago (my 15 minutes of Mormon fame). I should mention that when asked to participate, I said I would under one condition, that they made sure to mention that I am vegetarian. They thought it was great and included it at the end.
It is a very different world for vegetarians than it was nearly thirty years ago when we made our decision, and it keeps getting better. I recently attended the “Natural Foods Expo” in Anaheim where more than four thousand exhibitors presented a cornucopia of healthy, plant based products.
My personal journey with the Word of Wisdom has been a testimony builder and a witness that this is the Lord’s restored church on the earth. It has been a blessing for my health, for Mother Earth, for my animal friends and I am humbled with the knowledge that it pleases the Lord.
Byron Elton, age 60, is a veteran media professional having worked for 40 years in television and online. He and his wife live in Santa Barbara, California. They have five children and eight grandchildren. He is the founder and host of “Mormon Vegetarian,” a weekly podcast covering a plant based lifestyle from a Mormon point of view. He is an avid tennis and ultimate frisbee player.