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Celebrating “Lisa the Vegetarian,” the Simpsons Episode That Changed the Image of Vegetarians on TV

Lisa Simpson meets an adorable lamb in  Lisa the Vegetarian.

Screengrab from Fox 

When Paul and Linda McCartney agreed to appear on The Simpsons, showrunner David Mirkin decided to buy the proud vegetarians a gift. Before flying to England to record the couple’s lines for their cameo, Mirkin, who’d recently stopped eating meat due to his love of animals and health and environmental concerns, stopped at a New York City health food store and picked up a container of his favorite turkey substitute.

This was the mid-1990s. Such products weren’t as prevalent as they are now. Mirkin guessed that the McCartneys would enjoy trying something they might not be able to find in the United Kingdom. After checking into his hotel in London, then taking a 90-minute car ride to Paul and Linda’s estate in Sussex, Mirkin gave them the present.

“I figured they would very carefully try it,” said Mirkin, a “dangerously obsessive” Beatles fan, “and I turn around and the two of them are eating it directly out of the container, shoving it into their mouths and shoving it into each other’s mouths because they loved it so much.” This would’ve caused him to swell with joy if he wasn’t so worried that in transit the turkey alternative had spoiled. His immediate thought, Mirkin remembered, was: I might’ve just killed Paul and Linda McCartney.

Happily, they survived. And after the voice recording session, Paul gave the smitten Mirkin a tour of his home studio and talked about vegetarianism, a subject that not coincidentally was the center of the Simpsons episode in which the McCartneys would be featured. Doing the animated series, Linda told Entertainment Weekly at the time, gave them the chance “to spread the vegetarian word to a wider audience.”

Vegetarians previously had been portrayed in pop culture, but rarely as anything but one-dimensional hippies. “Lisa the Vegetarian,” which aired on Oct. 15, 1995, was something different: a conversion story, told from the point of view of the person becoming a vegetarian. Lisa, the moral center of The Simpsons, spends the episode wrestling with what it means to eat meat. Her agonizing journey mirrors the one experienced by many in real life. After all, the decision to give up meat typically is not made lightly. “It’s like taking a dog’s bowl away from a dog, the way that he’ll growl at you,” Mirkin said. “It’s exactly that. When you talk to people about not eating meat, if they could, they would make that sound.” “Lisa the Vegetarian” marked one of the first times on television that vegetarians saw an honest depiction of themselves—and of the viscerally defensive reaction that meat-eaters often have to vegetarianism.

One day in the writers’ room, where what was for lunch was a frequent topic of discussion, writer David X. Cohen took out a piece of paper and scribbled down this question: “Lisa becomes a vegetarian?” Mirkin loved Cohen’s idea, and he saw it as opportunity to get Paul McCartney on The Simpsons. Ringo Starr and George Harrison already had guested on the show, but enticing Paul would require an idea with which he could connect personally. Cohen’s initial draft for “Lisa the Vegetarian” actually didn’t include the McCartneys, but they were written in when the couple expressed interest in the concept. Their only condition was that Lisa must remain a vegetarian for the remainder of the series.

Cohen, for one, was ecstatic. This was his first full-length Simpsons script. Of the many he’s written, he said, it’s the only one “that really strongly affected the entire future of the show.” Lisa has indeed remained a vegetarian for the past 20 years.

The episode began by confronting, in Cohen’s words, the “segregation we have in our mind between the animal and the meat.” Lisa befriends a preposterously cute lamb at a petting zoo, and at the dinner table that night, she can’t bring herself to indulge in Marge’s lamb chops. “This is lamb,” Homer responds, “not a lamb.” Marge suggests other carnivorous food options, but Lisa can no longer think of meat without imagining the animal it comes from. (When her mom mentions hot dogs, Lisa imagines them as being made from a rat tail, a pigeon head, raccoon paws, and the tongue of a leather boot. It’s an all-time great Simpsons sight gag.)

Homer naturally becomes Lisa’s meat-worshipping foil, a figure many new vegetarians have to deal with when they first decide to give up meat. Homer reacts to his elder daughter’s newly proclaimed vegetarianism incredulously, asking if that means she’ll never be eating bacon, ham, or pork chops again. When Lisa exclaims that those all come from the same animal, Homer says, “Yeah right, Lisa. A wonderful, magical animal.” Cohen based Homer’s part of the exchange on a speech legendary Simpsons writer John Swartzwelder—who incorrectly was rumored to have been the inspiration for Parks and Recreation’s Ron Swanson—once gave about the wonders of the pig.

Over the course of the episode, Lisa attempts to fight social pressure to eat meat, which takes exaggerated forms. Her request for a vegetarian lunch meal in the cafeteria results in triggering Springfield Elementary’s Independent Thought Alarm. She’s forced to sit through a Troy McClure-narrated educational film entitled Meat and You: Partners in Freedom (“Number 3F03 in the ‘Resistance is Useless’ Series”) in which a small boy is given a traumatizing slaughterhouse tour. Lisa’s even harangued by her own family members, who at one point start a conga line and repeatedly sing the now famous line, “You don’t win friends with salad!”

But the episode doesn’t cast Lisa as a virtuous hero surrounded by ignoramuses. The morality of “Lisa the Vegetarian” is more complicated than that. Mirkin said that when some vegetarians first stop eating meat, “They become militant and they want everyone to switch with them.” He wanted Lisa to reflect this tendency, and for her anger and stubbornness to be palpable. Yeardley Smith, who voices Lisa, is amazing throughout, delivering the character’s lines with a tremendous amount of exasperation. Eventually, Lisa becomes so fed up that at Homer’s painstakingly planned barbecue she drives a tractor into a smoker containing a whole roast pig, which eventually ends up airborne and lost forever.

Mirkin also wanted the episode to show that giving up meat isn’t the same as embracing a life of self-restraint. “I’m not a heroic vegetarian,” Mirkin said. “I could only do it when the veggie food became as good as all the crap that I used to eat.” By the final act, Lisa is so anguished and regretful that she caves and bites into a Kwik-E-Mart hot dog. What she doesn’t know is that it’s made of tofu, since Apu, the store’s owner, is a vegetarian. “No meat whatsoever,” he says. “And only thrice the fat of a normal hot dog. I made the switch and nobody noticed.” Apu, who’s actually a vegan, advises Lisa not to take such a hard line, telling her that he’s learned to “tolerate others rather than forcing my beliefs on them.” He also introduces her to the McCartneys, who talk to Lisa about their vegetarianism and tell her, “if you play ‘Maybe I’m Amazed’ backwards, you’ll hear a recipe for a really ripping lentil soup.” (The song plays over the credits of the episode, and if you play them backwards, you actually can hear Paul reading Linda’s recipe for lentil soup.)

“Lisa the Vegetarian” ends with a rare Simpsons occurrence: Lisa apologizes to Homer. In the end, the episode embraces the validity of vegetarianism but also comes down against narrow-mindedness, whether on the part of meat-eaters or vegetarians. Mirkin said that the crunchy premise drew the ire of some viewers, but it’s otherwise a beloved classic. “Lisa the Vegetarian” won both an Environmental Media Award and a Genesis Award, the latter of which is given by the Humane Society of the United States. To this day, Mirkin still hears from people who say that the episode made them feel understood as vegetarians.

Paul and Linda, who died of cancer in 1998, loved the way it turned out. After “Lisa the Vegetarian” aired, Mirkin got a call from their assistant. The couple was in New York City and wanted to know where they could find Mirkin’s favorite meatless turkey.