The Simpsons have been running their game for 21 years this December, since I was in kindergarten. So it was really only a matter of time before this show, the second most important constant in my life (after my parents, and just barely) revealed exactly how it has influenced my development as a human being. For me, that moment was when the episode “Lisa the Vegetarian” (Season 7, Episode 5) converted my 11-year-old self to vegetarianism.
For anyone who hasn’t seen the episode (first of all, thanks for even reading this article), Lisa The Veg takes the Simpsons to nearby StoryTown Village (fun for ages 1 to 7 ½) where Lisa befriends a little lamb in the petting zoo. Later that night at the dinner table the same adorable, giant-eyed baby sheep pleads with Lisa not to eat the lamb chops on her plate, bleating “Please Lisa! I thought you loved me! Loved me!” as the untouched chops fly up and inserted themselves into the lamb’s torso with a wet squelch. A frantic Lisa asks her family about the meat on her plate, “What’s the difference between this lamb and the one that kissed me?” And so the hamster wheel in my tween brain started slowly rotating.
Being from outside Cleveland and of Polish, Irish & German decent, I grew up in an intensely meat-heavy environment. If a piece of cabbage ever strayed too close to the house, it would summarily wrapped around ground beef, boiled and held down in bucket of tomato sauce until it stopped moving. Growing up, my parents often told me a darling story about how my paternal grandfather, ignoring their horrified warnings, fed me a huge piece of steak while I was still a chubby toothless baby in a high chair. My mom and dad laughed nostalgically, eyes gleaming, about how not only did I not immediately choke to death, but I instantly gobbled it up and gurgled for more, rewarding them with a gummy, grease-smeared smile. Barf.
Later in the same dinner scene, Marge offers a distraught Lisa a host of other meal options besides lamb: chicken breast, rump roast, or hot dog (aka pigeon, raccoon, rat and a boot). I also had a pet rat that recently dropped dead, basically a starter puppy with more scratches. I imagined myself crunching into her scaly tail as I bit into a BallPark frank. Later Lisa takes a stand at school, refusing Miss Hoover’s instructions to pin down and dissect an earthworm. Raising his hand, Ralph explains, “My worm went in my mouth and then I ate it. Can I have one more?” I watched the worm writhing in between Ralph’s teeth. Permanent unsavory connections were being soldered together in my prepubescent mind. It felt like a truth was being revealed unto me, and it was making me want to puke.
By the time Lisa hijacks the riding mower and sends Homer’s pig flying over the Springfield skyline, I was out. So I just…stopped eating meat, cold-turkey. Cold, damp, flaccid, fat-coated turkey. I can’t remember exactly what day I put my plan into action, but the episode aired October 15, 1995 and by Thanksgiving I was inaudibly explaining to my relatives why I would not be eating any of the turkey or turkey-based foods on the table while playing with the table runner.
“Lisa the Vegetarian” is one of several lovely, morally-upright episodes penned by David X. (nee S.) Cohen, addressing themes like faith (“Lisa the Skeptic,” season 9, episode 8), immigration law (“Much Apu About Nothing,” season 7, episode 23), and accidentally raising flesh-eating lizards you’ve mistakenly though were birds ("Bart the Mother,” season 10, episode 3). After watching Itchy & Scratchy in Esophagus Now, a seriously grotesque cartoon in which an increasingly confused Scratchy repeatedly tries to eat a piece of his own stomach, only to have it pop out a ragged hole in his gut, Lisa fears that I&S secretly condones violence against animals. Bart rolls his eyes, scoffing “Cartoons don’t have messages. They’re just a bunch of hilarious stuff, you know, like people getting hurt and stuff. Stuff like that,” before getting hit in the face with the doorknob as an exuberant Homer burst sinto the room. The door between the Simpsons’ living room and kitchen never appears again. Why should it? We all only needed it once for us to get the message.
So why did this one episode make me change my dietary requirements as a sixth-grader? I don’t remember at the time drawing any one-to-one parallels between myself and Lisa as fellow strident losers, but I did feel a thrill when Lunch Lady Doris silently stamped down on the “Independent Thought Alarm” button. Of course that existed at school. Just as I suspected, those bastards. The prominence of the show in my (everyone’s) upbringing, the subtle persuasiveness of the episode’s message, the gigantic eyes of a tearful cartoon lamb: all the elements necessary to convince an 11-year-old Midwestern girl to stop shoveling breakfast sausages into her mouth for two seconds. And seconds turned into years. And while bacon, ham and pork chops still soar through the landscape of my mind (and you know, occasionally mouth), years of singular commitment to the idea of vegetarianism help me to bring me back to the moment of conviction, where I can remind myself that yes, I can and will be able to make friends with salad.
Lisa may have planted the seed, but what it comes down to is that it is much easier to make a social leap when your beliefs are backed up by the most important show on TV, regardless of whether you have much experience with it in real life. As to why that particular episode on that particular topic made such a strong impact at that particular time in my life, I think Homer said it best as he and Lisa apologize to each other at the episode’s finale, after Paul McCartney’s cameo and before Homer gives her a veggie-back ride into the sunset to the strains of “Maybe I’m Amazed.” As Homer hugs his still-staunchly vegetarian daughter, he explains, “I understand, honey. I used to believe in things when I was a kid.”