On the night I stopped eating meat, my uncle Jim said I was a pain in the ass. He had a point. What kind of teenager announces she doesn’t eat animals as a plate of veal scallopini, which she ordered, is placed in front of her at a fancy restaurant? However bad my timing, I couldn’t eat that veal. The surety of this welled up with unexpected force. I made my statement then spent the evening teary, righteous and terrified, both of my uncle and my uncharacteristic boldness.
During the six months I lived with my aunt and uncle in San Francisco I watched them eat meat. Had I come from another family, a day of bacon and eggs, salami on rye, and spaghetti bolognaise would not have been alarming. But my father gave up meat when I was small and my mother, thrilled to have an excuse never to cook again, threw her arms in the air and declared the kitchen was his. My father cooked for the family from what remains a limited repertoire of vegetarian meals. He did prepare meat dishes for us, but often we ate meatless meals. We didn’t discuss it.
Living with relatives alerted me to the strangeness of my family’s eating habits. I bought two books I still recommend: the Moosewood Cookbook by Mollie Katzen and Diet for a Small Planet by Frances Moore Lappe. I hunted out health food stores. I spent weekends with family acquaintances in Berkeley in an old house with a wide porch, sleepy Labradors, and floors layered with rugs collected on the hippie trail. The people there ate ratatouille, tofu and organic apples, and talked about why they did so. My reading, my upbringing and Berkeley swam in my angst-ridden head for months until I knew what I wanted to do. Why I ordered veal is beyond me.
In mid-June 2011, it was thirty years since I became a vegetarian. To the best of my knowledge I’ve not had a mouthful of meat during that time, though I’ve eaten fish on occasion. My naturopath tells me this intake of protein and omega 3 fatty acids is a good thing, but frankly, it’s an endurance test for everyone at the table. I know to ask if risottos and soups contain chicken stock, and I can say ‘without animals’ in several languages.
I’m healthy, with caveats. My father, who eats too much processed food, drinks too much wine and takes vitamins without guidance, has gout. Here’s what I know about my own vegetarian body: my heart and organs are in great nick; my cholesterol levels are low; I’ve broken one bone (my toe); I’ve been in hospital twice and both times walked out the door with a healthy baby but a low milk supply. Like many vegetarians I have deficiencies: iron, zinc, magnesium and vitamin D among them. I don’t have the energy levels, strong nails or full-bodied hair of a meat eater but sometimes wonder if my healthy skin and good eyesight can be credited to my diet. Regardless of the pros and cons, I don’t waver, because a careful diet and supplements can deal with the things that matter. It requires vigilance to be a healthy vegetarian just as it does to be a healthy carnivore, because the human body is high-maintenance. As Jerry Seinfeld said: ‘If your body was a car you wouldn’t buy it. It’s too much upkeep.’
I cook meat for my children and partner every week, and only occasionally do I find this confronting. Tongs and long knives are my friends. Because I stopped eating meat before I learned to cook, I serve meals I’ve never tasted myself, but most meat dishes can be managed with a timer and a good eye for colour. I regularly have two versions of the same meal on the go – curry, pasta sauce, stir fries, skewers, noodle dishes – which is not that hard to manage.
I read recently that being a vegetarian means constant denial and there’s something in that. I’ve had many delicious vegetarian meals over the years, but usually when I eat out I order what I can rather than what I want. I avoid French restaurants, have never had yum cha, and ring ahead if there is a degustation menu. I can’t recall the last time I read a whole menu – there’s no point. Some years there’s more choice than others since vegetarianism falls in and out of fashion. At the moment it’s not great, which surprises me since there’s widespread awareness about the link between raising livestock and planetary destruction.
Cutting meat out of my diet brought up a lot of issues, some practical, some ethical, some intensely personal. I’m not inclined to tell anyone over the age of eighteen how to eat (if you’re younger than this, chocolate is not a breakfast food), but I would suggest this: make some time to read about food, think about it, stare at your plate, then do what feels right.