A little over twenty years ago, my Dad came home from a trip to Seattle and announced his vegetarianism. My Mother, a die-hard Mainer, born and raised on fish, meat and potatoes, was baffled, and perhaps a little bit furious. After all, she had a spare freezer stocked to the brim with red meat from our latest American Frozen Foods delivery. Being used to my Dad's unbridled enthusiasm, she simply shook her head, and gathered round with us kids as my Father explained his reasoning.
He told a story of kindness, humanity, and tofu. Inspired by his recent fascination with Buddhism, and the advent of Star Trek's Next Generation series, my Dad had come to the conclusion that mankind had reached a point in its development where it was ready to move past eating animals. When he tasted faux meat for the first time, it gave him the courage to make the leap from veg-curious to ovo-lacto vegetarian. Though we were not forced to go along for the ride, it was only a matter of days before each of my sisters, and I, decided to become vegetarians too.
My Dad, dressed as Eco-Bear, a character of his own imagination, created to bring environmental awareness to the world, one Memorial Day parade at a time.
Other kids' parents would try to coerce us, guilt us, but most often just trick us. They would sneak meat into our food. They would lie to us, telling us that we were eating tofu when we were really eating meat. What they didn't realize was that after a child goes more than a year or so (everyone differing of course) without eating meat, the re-introduction can make them sick. I can't tell you the number of sleepovers I spent doubled over with stomach pains or running to the toilet. People just didn't get it, and when I warned them that meat made me sick they wouldn't believe me. They thought they knew better than I did, and better than my parents did. What they hoped to accomplish with their culinary espionage, I can't say. I can only guess that their intentions were good, that they thought they were saving us from our crazy parents. They must have been convinced that we were being starved and neglected. Or perhaps they thought that if we tasted a White Castle burger, just once, we could be saved from the hell fires of our vegetarian lifestyle.
Of course, there were not many vegetarian kids at school. My Mom packed our lunches every day, besides Friday, which was pizza day. Other than my sisters, the only other vegetarian kid I knew was a Hindu boy named Nicket. He and I stuck together, allied by our differences, for all the good that did us. We were teased mercilessly over our "weird" lunches, and interrogated constantly about the details of our unimaginable lives. Though being teased is never nice, it was a lot nicer with someone else.
Nicket was able to answer a good 90% of questions with "it's against my religion". I envied him for that. If only my parents would declare us Buddhists or Hindus, at least I could dodge a portion of the torture. But, alas, my folks were hippies to the core, and stood fast by their decision to let their kids find their own way when it came to spiritual mysteries. (For that, I was labeled a Satan worshipper by my fellow liberal, progressive NYC suburbanites. But that's a story for another time.)
I remained a faithful ovo-lacto vegetarian, and a fierce defender of the lifestyle throughout my school years, and into my early twenties. When I was 21, I did take a short break from being a vegetarian after the drunken discovery of chicken fingers. My younger sister, Heather, and I were somewhere well past tipsy that New Year's Eve. When we stopped at a diner, post-party, our friends began to coax and dare us, as usual, to eat some meat. I'm not sure which of us decided that it would be a good idea, but somehow or another a plate of chicken tenders made its way in front of us. Together, we ventured into the unknown, and found it to be delicious. After spending more than half our lives as vegetarians we did not remember what chicken tasted like. Our minds were blown, and it became very hard to resist the temptation of meat.
Heather never looked back. She was the first of us to stray from the fold, and before too long she was happily chowing down on steaks and burgers. I had a short love affair with poultry, bacon, and hot dogs, but after a few months of experimentation, the guilt of it all drove me right back into the arms of my beloved vegetables. However, I was never as strict again. After my affair with omnivorousness, I would taste different meats and poultry whenever I could, mostly out of curiosity, partly because I really did like it. Years later, when my husband and I moved to China, I gave up on being a vegetarian all together. At the time I believed it to be a temporary choice, for the sake of convenience and cultural experience, but when I came back home and enrolled in cooking school that gave me another reason to continue eating meat.
These days, I still eat meat, but sparingly. I try to live a vegetarian lifestyle at home. You won't find meat in most of our meals, but when we go out, I do eat meat here and there. It's hard to resist in Austin, but more and more often the morals of my youth call me back. I think, in my heart, I don't want to eat meat, and at this point it has become more of a bad habit than an exploration. I am constantly cutting back, but perhaps it's time to get more serious about my lifestyle.
As for the rest of my family, my parents went back to carnivorousness about two years ago. I'm not sure whether it was a big decision, or just something that they slipped into after watching the rest of us fall out of habit. After 20 years on veggies they are on a high meat, low carb, gluten free diet, and seem to be enjoying every minute of it. Our youngest sister, Caity, who had actually been raised from a baby as a vegetarian now dabbles in pork and poultry, but still can't stomach beef. Most of us, even the purest, have fallen off, except for one.
My older sister, Sarah, wins the prize for longest, most faithful vegetarian. She's gone in and out of being vegan over the years, but has never, not once to my knowledge, eaten meat or poultry. Sarah is the longest running vegetarian in our pack, and for that she deserves a round of applause. As for the rest of us, we live somewhere in the gray, between who we were, and who we'll be next.
To accompany my series of posts on Vegetarian Cooking, Then & Now, I'm giving away a copy of Michael Natkin's new book, Herbivoracious. I met Michael while he was promoting the book in Austin, and he gave me and a bunch of other happy food bloggers a free copy to check out. He even signed them with a bit of good advice.
I'll be discussing the book more in a later post, but for now I will just tell you that it rocks. It's a great example of modern vegetarian cooking, filled with recipes that will please omnivores just as well as vegetarians. If you've never visited Michael's blog, definitely check it out. You can find tons of really creative vegetarian recipes there. To enter to win a free copy of his book, courtesy of Harvard Common Press and Herbivoracious, use the fancy widget below. The winner will be alerted via email when the contest ends. Good luck!
Disclaimer: This post contains a sponsored Amazon link to Herbivoracious that helps support Mary Makes Dinner. Purchases resulting in clicks result in my earning a teeny tiny comission. This isn't a plug, just a necessary clarification via the latest FCC blogging guidelines.