About ten days ago I stopped eating meat. There were no green-bordered, engraved cards made from heavy stock telling the world that “Mrs. Nichols announces with pleasure her decision to forego all animal protein until further notice.” There wasn’t really a reason, either, aside from a niggling thing in the back of my mind about the hypocrisy of refusing to eat lamb and veal while eating other (older, less adorable) birds and animals. That, coupled with the fact that I mostly just don’t love meat that much made it pretty easy. I already ate Garden Burgers when my husband and son grilled regular burgers, and I always ordered my Chinese, Thai and Korean food with tofu instead of meat.
Well there was kind of a reason. I read a lot about factory farming, how animals are treated, and the environmental costs of raising, slaughtering and distributing meat. I am also troubled by farmers subsidized to grow food for livestock rather than for people. I would feel infinitely better eating organic, grass-fed, free-range everything, but we really can’t afford it. I buy organic milk and vegetables, but our budget doesn’t extend to ground beef that costs three times more than “regular.” For me, it’s easier to stop eating it.
It’s also true that vegetarianism has always been a romantic, aspirational thing for me – I’m an earthy, hippie type born ten years too late, and I have been reading Diet for a Small Planet, Laurel’s Kitchen and the Moosewood cookbooks since I was in high school. Throw The Tassajara Bread Book, a little patchouli and alfalfa sprouts growing on the windowsill and you have the stuff of my dreams.
It helps that I know how to cook, so that I can make “convertible” meals to provide meat to the carnivores I live with while preparing a vegetarian alternative for myself. It also helps that I am neither zealot nor purist. Last night I made Penang Nu, a beef curry, and cooked some tofu for myself. At serving time, I picked out all of the meat from my portion and divvied it up between my husband and my son, stirring the cooked tofu into my own portion. A real vegetarian would probably have been horrified, but it worked for us. A purist might point out the hypocrisy (that damned word again) of talking the talk about factory farming while continuing to buy meat for my household. Thing is, though, neither of them has any desire to be a vegetarian, and I am not on a crusade to change the world. My husband grew up on a farm and is far less sentimental than I am about the whole “eating things with faces” dealio, and my son is a rail of a kid who needs all the nutrients he can possibly get while he’s growing. This is my thing.
Outside my own house, finding something to eat is a crapshoot. Some of what I find reminds me of the Veggie Dining Hall of my senior year in college. I ate there not because I was really a vegetarian, but because I was chasing a boy who ate there. The offerings were not only meatless but flavorless, and generally repulsive; there seemed to be a belief that people gave up any interest in texture, seasoning or complexity along with animal protein. My personal favorite was a slab of shivering, naked tofu, un-flavored in any way, baked served on a plate with a lemon wedge on top. I have, in recent days, ordered the “veggie” version of something in a restaurant and had a similar experience to the Tastectomy Tofu.
Other restaurants do better, although I was perplexed by the Chinese place that offered “Vegetarian General Tso Beef” and “Vegetarian General Tso Chicken.” As it turns out, seitan comes shaped like pieces of beef or pieces of chicken. It was pretty good, my “vegetarian beef,” but in general I’m not enraptured by the idea of “fake meat.” I would rather have an honest slab of tofu than a tofurkey and I prefer decent falafel to most “veggie burgers.” It seems strange to forswear meat and then create fake versions as if the rejected substance was the de facto holy grail of foodstuffs. Why not eat an honest seitan stir-fry or lentil-cheddar loaf instead of making faux meat? I will admit, though, that it’s tricky to grill falafel.
I still cook meat at work, and I’m okay with that. I try to make sure there are tasty vegetarian options, but it is not my charter to impose my personal choices on the public. I’m still pretty sure that if someone offered me a taste of grilled, marinated flank steak, or the world’s best fried chicken, I’d eat it. If I went to dinner at someone’s house and they had made their famous Chicken a la Neige, I’d probably eat it to be polite. I will not be thatvegetarian, the one who makes everyone around her feel guilty and backwards because they have made the perfectly valid and healthy choice to eat meat.
But who knows? I may never eat meat again. I may start eating meat again tomorrow. I may, in the final analysis, be an ovo-pisco-vego- flexitarian. (Or a Rastafarian). All I know is that right now, I don’t eat meat and it feels just right.