A Lenten Observance from My Past

by Karen Topakian

As millions of Christians around the world observe Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent, I am reminded of a Lent I observed 36 years ago. When I chose to give up meat for 40 days.

In 1976, I had recently graduated from college and lived at home with my parents. Though I never ever considered myself a religious person, I had given up food items for lent in the past. Candy and soda dominated the list of my childhood sacrifices.

But this time I felt different. Something had changed within me.

I had recently read Diet for a Small Planet and began to develop an interest in the environment or at the time we called it, ecology.

This book opened my eyes to the cost to our planet and to ourselves of raising and eating beef cows. The high use of grain and water to feed an animal that would die solely for our consumption. The taking of a life to sustain me seemed wrong. Especially since that same grain and water could feed us directly with less damage to the environment.

As typical Armenians my family ate a fair amount of chicken and lamb. Beef appeared regularly and pork on rare occasion. I had liked them all as a child and ate them willingly. Except for the evil beef stew and the dreaded pot roast. I even liked my beef on the rare side.

When I announced to my family that I would give up meat for lent, they couldn’t understand my choice.

Questions arose. What would I eat? How could I get along without our much beloved chicken and pilaf – a staple of every Armenian’s diet? How would I survive? Would I get sick? Why give up so much at once? Try it in moderation!

I would hear none of it.

When I told Nana, my maternal grandmother, that I wouldn’t eat meat during lent, I thought that would please her. I thought she would see this as a sign that Christianity hadn’t eluded me. (It had.) That maybe I would willingly attend Armenian Church. (I wouldn’t.) But she didn’t.

When she asked me why I chose to not eat meat, I decided to appeal to her strong religious beliefs by telling her that, “The bible says, Thou shall not kill.” She responded, “They didn’t mean animals.” I asked her how she knew that. She returned with, “If you thought every time you bought meat that it used to be an animal, then, of course, you wouldn’t eat it, but you can’t think that way.”

Hard to argue with that illogic.

For 40 days, I abstained from eating meat. My choice vexed my family. I became a problem at mealtime. What would Karen eat? At home, I, of course, just ate around the meat items. When we ate at other family members’ homes, I had to state why I would abstain from eating meat. Once again, I needed to repeat my arguments and listen to their arguments against my decision.

Then on Easter Sunday, when my grandmother served the traditional Easter meal, I had to choose whether I would start eating meat again. I chose not to. And haven’t since that day, 36 years ago.


  1. My suspicion: They knew you were a goofball from the beginning.

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