Part I: Always Use Your Napkin
I didn’t mean for it to end up this way. I really didn’t want to be standing at a rather nice wedding reception, glass of semi-expensive white wine in one hand, and napkin full of half-chewed, hastily spit out stuffed mushroom in the other. Sure, I knew my friends, the now-hitched earthy couple, erred on the side of unconventional and wanted their wedding to reflect that as well. It was taking place in what used to be the old Ojai Jail, a cluster of tiny, ramshackle cabins in the mountains above Santa Barbara. And yet, in the middle of this somewhat rugged mountain setting, my friends had imported stunning orchid arrangements, enough wine to baptize the whole city of Santa Barbara, and (my personal favorite) a wicked cheese platter.
There were even waiters gliding around, passing out tiny, delicious treatsies on trays. And after hurriedly hauling myself to Santa Barbara, surviving the van ride up the mountain with a driver who may have very well had one eye closed, and quickly pounding two (okay, three) glasses of the aforementioned very nice wine, I was starving. Add to the mix that fact that my ex-boyfriend and his new ladyfriend were not only in attendance but also in very close physical proximity, and you could maybe see how the wine would be priority Number One, followed by food.
I kept missing all the waiters, but finally saw a tray approach. Without even pausing, I happily grabbed what looked like a breadcrumb-stuffed mushroom and tore into it. As I chewed, I remember thinking how rich and flavorful it was.
“You know that’s venison, right?”
That would be my boyfriend’s ever-so-helpful but twelve-seconds-too-late information. I couldn’t help what happened next. It was like a gag reflex…literally. I made some sort of loud groan of displeasure then, under the watchful eyes of the Bride’s stepmother, proceeded to hastily eject poor little Bambi from my mouth and into a cocktail napkin.
Which brings us to here. Me. Venison in hand…and starting to soak through the paper napkin. How did I get here? Ah yes, I remember.
Doesn’t it always start with them?
Part II: Goodbye Good Friday, Hello Dixie Dogs
My father was raised a Seventh Day Adventist. To clear up any misconceptions- oh, what’s that? You’ve never heard of them? Perfect. Allow me (and Wikipedia) to briefly explain: “The Seventh-day Adventist Church is a Christian denomination that is distinguished by its observance of Saturday, the original seventh day of the Judeo-Christian week, as the Sabbath, and by its emphasis on the imminent second coming of Jesus Christ. It is the eighth largest international body of Christians.”
They also don’t wear jewelry, don’t dance, don’t drink, and – you guessed it – don’t eat meat. It’s like the town from Footloose, only with no burger joints. So my darling father, who in adulthood isn’t a practicing Adventist, has never eaten meat. In his life. Ever. So we didn’t either. Which meant that my very Italian, Catholic mother gave up meat not just on Good Fridays, but permanently.
And hey, it was a pretty great, though meatless, childhood. I mean, when you’re raised not having something, you can’t really miss it, right? Sure, there were those days in elementary school when the McDonald’s truck would come and everyone would be feasting on Chicken McNuggets. I even had them a few times myself. Eh. Nothing to write to my dead-animal-free home about.
My parents weren’t overzealous about the no-meat thing, we just never had it in the house. If we wanted to order meat at a restaurant, they’d let us. My younger sister had a passion for the paper wrapped chicken at Shanghai Charlie’s, but was horrified when I told her the chicken was, as advertised, real chicken. To this day, she denies eating it, preferring her faux-meat of choice: Dixie Dogs. That was the thing about the Adventists: though they eschewed meat, they sure spent a lot of time making tofu-filled replicas of it. Growing up, our freezer was filled with Morningstar Veggie Burgers (called Grillers), fake bacon (called Striplets), and soy hot dogs on a stick (those would be the Dixie Dogs).
My childhood marched on, with brief, embarrassing pit stops on days when my mom would pack us a particularly hippie/vegetarian lunch of Fri-Chick sandwiches, which I always called Frick Chick. With good reason. I’d get made fun of whenever I’d unpack my lunch and my neon-red, fake bologna sandwich would catch some carnivore’s eye, or the cute boy would recoil upon seeing my limp, dilapidated Striplets poking out of my mom’s valiant attempt at a BLT.
Around 6th grade I started making my own lunch, sticking to PB&Js and every so often a Tupperware of pasta, enabling me to look down my nose at the ham and cheese masses with a worldly, “Oh this? It’s just penne with extra virgin olive oil, capers and sun-dried tomatoes. I’m Italian. It’s no big deal.”
Part III: The Beef Touchdown
Sure, peer pressure came knocking in high school, as it does for many. The cool place to hang out in the heady days of my freshman year was one of those unintentionally-ironic 1950’s diners that were really big in the ’80s (totally stealing this joke from The Family Guy). Our diner was called Ruby’s and everyone who was anyone ate burgers there on Friday nights before the football games. Eek. I wanted to fit in, of course, and put my Frick Chick lunch days long behind me, so I ordered a cheeseburger too. I liked cheese, I liked buns, it couldn’t be that bad, right? Taste-wise, it was fine. Good, actually. Very different from what I was used to, but I had to keep getting the image of a screaming cow out of my head.
“I enjoy your milk, now I will enjoy your muscles,” I told myself as I chewed, pretending to listen to whatever my friends were giggling about. The burger went down alright and I realized, with relief, that I didn’t have to be a weirdo vegetarian if I didn’t want to.
But about twenty minutes later, I got an emergency message from my digestive system. I hadn’t given them the heads up about our little moo-cow visitor, and let’s just say the natives were VERY restless that night. I missed the football game, overalls around my ankles in the high school gym bathroom, listening to the crowd roar between stomach spasms of pure, beef-induced terror. That was it. Peer pressure or no peer pressure, when it came to meat, I had to just say no.
Part IV: Sake It To Me
Imagine my surprise when, as I hit college, I found out it was actually “cool” to be a vegetarian. Thank the tofu-loving Lord. I was finally not a freakshow, but a forward-thinking, considerate animal-lover. But I felt a little guilty. Don’t get me wrong, I love animals, but I also owned Doc Martens and a pretty sweet leather jacket I wasn’t planning on parting with. Did I now have to wear them in secrecy? Lounge around my dorm room wearing my beaded leather belt I got in Colorado from a real cowboy shop?
Luckily, most of my fellow collegiates were too drunk to notice my leather indiscretions. And since the university rite of passage wasn’t a burger joint, but a decadent cookie shop called Diddy Reece, I was pretty safe on all fronts.
But in my sophomore year, something strange happened: I started craving protein. Not meat, mind you. I was permanently scared off beef, and chicken reminded me way too much of what human flesh would look like should we all turn cannibalistic or just get in a really bad spot like the plane crash guys in the movie ALIVE. But I yearned for some sort of culinary satisfaction I couldn’t get, no matter how many bean and cheese burritos I ate.
Then it happened. Sure, I can blame the underage drinking in my college town that forced us to go to some pretty out of the way establishments famous for not carding. Or I can blame it on the fact that the most popular of these establishments was a semi-sketchy Japanese place called Cowboy Sushi. Maybe it was the copious sake bombs I imbibed, maybe it was the excitement of feeling like a real grown-up ordering grown-up drinks in a restaurant for the first time. Heck, maybe I was just hungry.
I ate sushi.
And it was delicious.
I didn’t go too Bonzai Samarai my first time. I stuck to pretty basic stuff: California Rolls, maybe a Spicy Tuna Roll. But I was in love. Raw fish filled a flesh-shaped void in my heart I didn’t even know was there. From that day foreword, I have proudly borne the label of “Pescatarian.”
Part V: The Fishy Aftermath
Yes, since that revolutionary day I’ve gotten in many verbal sparring matches about how fish are meat, too, and if I’m a vegetarian because I’m trying to make a statement about meat how can I be so hypocritical, yada yada yada. But that’s just it. I’m not really trying to make any statement. Yes, I think keeping baby cows in tiny cages to make their flesh soft enough for veal is terrible and the living environments of most chickens is an outrage.
I recycle and buy free-range eggs and don’t drive a gas-guzzler. And yes, fish are animals, too. But somewhere in the murky grey area I rationalize that they aren’t cute and cuddly like lambs, covered in fur like my two beloved Terriers, or a peaceful citizen of the forest like Bambi. Also: I’m a human, another animal. And this animal needs protein to survive.
Tofu is fine, but I get a little bored with it (and I suck at cooking it). Plus, being a Pescatarian has saved me from many a social pickle, i.e. a business dinner at a restaurant that has no vegetarian options or at lunch with my boyfriend’s parents in the South where every single thing on the menu has both eyeballs and a mother.
In closing, fish are delicious sea creatures and…I love the taste of lobster! There. I’ve said it. So I will endure my existence in the semi-vegetarian, semi-carnivore gloaming, spitting out venison-filled mushroom caps but happily gobbling calamari and salmon filets, fresh from the fish market. I will continue buying my free range eggs and being able to split the shrimp fajitas with my boyfriend and ranting to anyone who will listen that you should adopt a dog from the pound before paying exorbitant fees to professional puppy breeders. Because that’s what life is all about: compromise. Doing the best you can. And the best I can involves tuna melts.
I guess the Dr. Seuss book is true: One fish, two fish, red fish, tofu fish. To each, his own. Except for that red snapper. That sucker is mine.