For Vegetarian, a Strange New World

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Photo Courtesy David Lebovitz,

My grandmother hides meat in my food. Beef is buried in my mashed potatoes, bits of chicken lurk in my rice like tiny insurgents--edible enemy combatants, undercover and waiting to strike. I love my grandmother dearly, but I've learned never to accept soups from her--the murkier, the riskier--and to keep a sharp eye should we sit next to each other at restaurants. For an 83-year-old, she's got surprisingly nimble little hands.

I'm a vegetarian, you see, and learning to accept that many people will never accept my lifestyle is just part of living without meat. In fact, it's the hardest part, as I explain in this first installment of a series on reconciling love of food with the choice to live as a vegetarian.

The story of how I came to be, as Anthony Bourdain put it, "enemy of everything that's good and decent in the human spirit," is similar to most. I'd long thought that eating a (once) living thing seemed fundamentally immoral, and I knew factory farming was as bad for the environment as its products were for my health. But I adored the taste of it--smoked salmon in the morning, a good burger for dinner, bacon at any time or place--and I doubted my ability to execute such a major transformation. So it went for years, with vegetarianism making sense to me in the abstract but seeming impossible in the actual.

Family members launched an orchestrated campaign of guilt and temptation. Holidays became more like interventions.

The catalyst, the push that finally got me to overcome the fears that it wouldn't be worth it and the doubts that I could even do it, was that same impetus of so many changed lives: heartbreak. I needed something to take my mind off the hurt, and I was barely eating anyway. So I emptied the fridge, read a few articles on vegetarian nutrition--"take B vitamins, get enough protein"--and started my new life.

The first few weeks were tricky. I craved meat constantly, even in sleep--I dreamt about fried chicken every night. Restaurants were the worst: menus were like propaganda pamphlets, covered with warnings about the challenges ahead ("you mean you don't serve a single thing I can eat?") and succulently persuasive arguments to rejoin the carnivores surrounding me.

Eventually, I learned how to scan a menu for the edible-to-me dishes. Cheeseburgers, once a terrible temptation, don't even look like food anymore--they look like little discs of dead muscle tissue, which, it's easy for us to forget, is what they are.

That's when the real challenge started: coming out of the closet. I'd kept it a secret at first, in case I faltered or changed my mind. But soon I knew I was a veggie to stay, and that meant sharing it. I had no idea what I was getting into.

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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