“Lisa The Vegetarian” (season 7, episode 5, originally aired 10/15/1995)
I am not a vegetarian. Far from it, really. But even I know what an impact this episode had on a lot of kids my age (I was nine years old when it aired). It does not lay out some stunning advocacy for abandoning meat-eating or anything like that. There is no patronizing tone to the episode; it does not assume that one side (Homer and all the meat-eaters of Springfield) is superior to the other (Lisa, Apu, the McCartneys and any other vegetarian). It’s about getting over one’s assumed superiority and not rubbing it in anyone’s face. Which is an excellent lesson to learn.
It’s very strange that Lisa isn’t a vegetarian in the first six seasons of The Simpsons. It feels like such a fundamental part of her character, and since this is a show where very little changes, it’s almost incongruous to have her eating meat as ravenously as the rest of her family in the first six years. But I appreciate that we see Lisa evolve into her position as a lot of people who become vegetarians at a young age do—after a trip to a petting zoo at the beginning of the episode (one of the few things the family has ever done on this show for Maggie’s benefit), she makes the connection between an adorable lamb and the chops she’s eating later that night.
That’s enough for Lisa, and her leap in logic is easy to understand, even if it’s one you never made yourself. Lisa’s brain is analytical and obsessive enough that we can see how meat-eating would be ruined by this revelation forever. Plus, she’s always stood somewhat apart from her family—this a very plausible, easy division for her to have with the Simpsons. Lisa’s conversion to vegetarianism comes as Homer is planning an epic barbecue, and so her father is even less sympathetic than normal. He’s joined in song by Bart for “You Don’t Make Friends With Salad,” one of those Simpsons refrains I still bust out a few times a year. I’ll never forget that ten-second ditty.
This is a plot-light episode for The Simpsons. After the first few minutes in the petting zoo, everything’s focused on Lisa, and there’s no big twist or crazy leap of logic the audience has to go along with, aside from maybe the revelation that Apu hangs out with Paul and Linda McCartney. But more on that in a minute. First, we get an inspired ten minutes or so on Springfield’s utter resistance to vegetarianism. This episode was written by David X. Cohen (his first credit for the show—he’d later help develop and run Futurama), and shepherded by showrunner David Mirkin, a recent vegetarian himself.
Unsurprisingly, Springfield is the worst place in the world to be a vegetarian. Lisa’s struggle comes across a little dated now, as the world catches up to the meatless diet, but it’s not hard to remember a time where the only thing a vegetarian could get in some restaurants was a side salad. Lunchlady Doris hands her a hot dog bun, saying it’s “rich in bunly goodness.” A wonderfully horrifying Troy McClure film sponsored by the “Meat Council” is shown, including a visit to a slaughterhouse and a food chain where everything points towards humans. It ends with a cowboy-hat wearing McClure petting a kid’s head as he protests “Mr. McClure…you’re hurting me…”
“They can’t seriously expect us to swallow this tripe!” Lisa cries. “Now, as a special treat courtesy of our friends at the Meat Council, please help yourself to this tripe,” Principal Skinner replies, as children ravenously feast on a tray of offal. Lisa’s last stand comes at Homer’s barbecue, where her offer of gazpacho is laughed at by the crowd (“go back to Russia!” Barney yells) and she responds by ruining her father’s suckling pig de resistance.
As I mentioned earlier, this episode is not just about Lisa’s revelation that eating meat is wrong. It’s about her revelation that most people in society aren’t going to agree with her about that. Lisa episodes are often about realizing you’re in a minority of opinion or thought, and that there’s nothing wrong with that. “Lisa The Vegetarian” is probably the finest example. How can she love her father when he does something she despises? Easily, Apu (the show’s only other vegetarian) explains. The enlisting of Paul and Linda McCartney is classic late-era Simpsons guest star stuff—they appear implausibly out of nowhere to explain something they’re closely associated with. But the moment is so lovely, and the realization so profound for Lisa, that there’s no complaint I can make about it. This is one of those Simpsons episodes that ends on a lesson we would all do well to remember every day.
- Homer is not stunned by the animatronic fairy tales. “Eh, it was good, but not great!”
- “Attention families. This is Mother Goose. The following cars have been broken into.”
- Lord Thistlewick Flanders is not that into the Flanders mannerisms. “Charmed. Uh, a googly-doodly.”
- Ralph is told to sleep through class. “Oh boy, sleep! That's where I'm a Viking!”
- Skinner complains about “a certain agitator. For privacy's sake, let's call her Lisa S. No, that's too obvious. Let's call her L. Simpson.”
- “When I grow up, I'm going to Bovine University!”
- Homer wants Lisa to pass him the syrup without talking to her. “I just want to drink a nice glass of syrup like I do every morning.”