If I’d known the word vegetarian when I was a kid, I wonder if the shift would have happened sooner. Back then, there was no Lisa Simpson giving pop culture credence, no easily available information, and no role models in my social circle.
I was an unusual tyke in that I liked almost every fruit or vegetable I tried. Steamed artichokes, smooth avocadoes, fresh cherries with pit and stem, even maligned Brussels sprouts.
However, I did like meat. It’s what was for dinner, after all. My mom made a well-seasoned skillet-fried hamburger, which I’d amply top with standard accoutrements, except for cheese. Summer Sundays featured my grandfather’s barbequed chicken, covered in a sweet sauce he mopped on in layers. When the mood struck him, my dad stood for a good hour poking garlic slivers into a roast he’d cook with potatoes and carrots. My grandmother made braciolone (brucelloni, colloquially), a recipe from my Sicilian great-grandmother–a thin round steak filled with chopped boiled eggs, parsley, celery, and seasoned bread crumbs, tied with string, seared on all sides, then simmered in thick tomato sauce. Cue gurgles of gastronomic glee.
When I began to prepare meals for myself and Todd, my partner, I turned to that culinary legacy. My people could cook, I assure you.
So what happened? I can’t pinpoint WHY my transition began, but I can identify when.
Red meat disappeared off my menu first. On New Year’s Eve, 2000, I cooked a sumptuous dinner that involved a superb steak and a rich buttery sauce. That night, all was well and easily digested. The next day, I recreated the dish exactly, but that time, I stared into the bloody center as I slipped a morsel into my mouth. Todd masticated with content while I forced down the bite against a mighty gag. No easy feat. From then on, portions of homecooked roast beef became smaller until I only ate the carrots and potatoes. Hamburgers became dysmorphic with gristle. Chicken smelled funny.
My waning taste for meat seemed to coincide with my practice of yoga. The more classes I attended, the more I wanted to feel better in other ways. After about a year, I decided to stop eating meat altogether to see what that would do. There was no question that I did feel physically healthier with meat out of my diet. I would later learn that it’s not unusual for those practicing yoga to lose interest in foods and drinks that once had been enjoyable. Whether that was the case for me, I’m not sure.
I do know that as I pondered my meat-free choice, it really wasn’t so simplistic. My feel-better-physically reason was a socially acceptable one people didn’t question or challenge. It was useful for a while. I’d seen other vegetarians–in person and in the media–face dismissive, sometimes hostile, comments because of their choices. My half-truth was convenient, protective.
The truth is, deep down, I’d begun to ponder my relationship with animals. As a child, I’d considered becoming a veterinarian. All my life, I’d felt deep affinity for animals of all shapes and kinds. I began to wonder about the categorizations I’d learned, such as cat/not food; cow/is food. I started to become aware of the living conditions of animals raised to be food and to provide it. What most of them were fed and administered, such as antibiotics, surprised me. I was concerned how the land and water were affected. With this knowledge, I had to engage with my own conscience.
That said, I didn’t eat meat any longer, but I still cooked it for Todd. Over time, unpleasant physical reactions became stronger when I did. I was far less able to tolerate smells and mouth-breathed my way through many a dish.
In October 2005, I had a reckoning, my chicken freak-out. I was home after being on a book tour for several weeks. Ah, to be back to domestic normalcy. After a morning of grocery shopping, I settled into the kitchen to rustle vittles, including a batch of chicken fricassee. I cut open the packet of chicken breasts, washed them, put them on a plate. Then I set to work on taking the meat from the bone. I touched the flesh and fully understood–IT WAS FLESH. This was muscle from the body of a creature. Those were its ribs, the joint of a wing. There was little word-thought, mostly feeling, an experience that was emotional, spiritual. I physically shook. Shocked by my reaction, I finished cooking. Later, when we ate dinner, I told Todd what had occurred. I said that I didn’t care if he cooked meat for himself, but something profound had happened and I could no longer cook it for him or anyone else. To my surprise, he glanced at me and said, “Okay.” Yep, it was as quiet as that.
Yet the changes were hardly over for me. More years passed, more reflection. I’d had my first hit of sushi in the mid-1990s and got a fix every few weeks since then. (After a rough work week, I’d sometimes announce that I wanted “happy food” for dinner.) I grew up in a part of the country where seafood is common. Although I wasn’t surprised that I began to think about the fish and its companions, I was unsettled. Like with meat, I considered what chemicals and practices affected not only the animals but also the earth, the waters, and human health. I rationalized that I would, really, find it easier to kill a fish than a mammal or bird if I had to, so if that’s the case then…sushi and seafood dinners with a quieted conscience.
No such luck. There came the fish freak-out. A year ago, I took a walk with a friend around lakes where people like to exercise, walk their dogs, and fish. We were only yards from the end of our four-mile route when I saw a man holding a fish near his shoulder. The sight of it gasping and gaping made me clutch my stomach. “No, not this, too, not this, too,” I muttered. But it was done. I’d felt an undeniable compassion for that little creature with the hook still in its mouth. My happy food was no longer so happy. Dammit.
Weeks after that, I read an article reiterating what I already knew about the lives of dairy cows. Yet that time, I felt the facts in my body instead of only in my mind. I thought about the reality that I never liked milk when I was a child and only drank it, with my sinuses closed off to the taste, because I was told it was good for me. But I cooked regularly with milk, butter, and cheese. Another adjustment on the way.
This isn’t easy. I appreciate that my circumstances allow me choices–survival isn’t an issue– but I’m not as consistent as I wish myself to be. I live with conscious tension that I don’t have to eat animals or purchase products that have used them, but sometimes I do. There have been a few occasions in the last year in which my body craved seafood, so I ate sushi. A meal or dessert now and then will include milk, butter, or cheese, although I avoid it more often than not. I will eat eggs and honey, which isn’t vegan. I will gratefully eat meals with seafood or dairy prepared by friends or family. I dread the inevitable search for a vegan shoe that’s business appropriate.
I don’t miss eating meat, though. I haven’t craved it all. Who knows why. The taste holds no temptation, but emotional memory still lingers. I love the smell of chicken on a barbeque pit and the thought of my grandmother in her tiny kitchen cooking a huge meal. To those who fed me well, I thank them. To the animals who gave their lives, I thank them, too. To future big salads and exotic stews, I look forward.