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.

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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.

Family members launched an orchestrated campaign of guilt and temptation. A relative who remembers my fondness for smoked salmon has it out whenever I visit. "Chicken isn't meat," another still tells me regularly. "You can eat it. I got you some." Holidays became more like interventions. Only easy-going Uncle Joel let me be--although his frequent invitations to join him deer hunting raise some questions.

Of course, their attempts at reverting me were rooted in love--they sincerely believed I wasn't living as full or healthy a life without meat. But giving it up has only made me healthier and increased my already-deep appreciation of food. Sources of easy meals are gone--restaurants from McDonalds to Bouley, deli counters, most takeout--so I cook nearly everything, and am more skilled for the time and energy that must go into every meal. People think vegetarians subsist on dreary, flavorless, tofu-filled meals, but the truth is that I've never eaten better.

The most difficult part of being vegetarian is the misconception that we judge or, worse, want to convert meat-eaters, an assumption I blame on PETA's vitriolic ad campaigns, which suggest a mindset of herbivore heroes versus carnivorous villains.

When I tell someone about my diet, their first reaction is almost always to apologize, as if even mentioning meat to me were like telling an evangelical Christian they'd performed an abortion that morning for fun. "You know," they always tell me, "I barely eat meat, and I'm seriously considering becoming a vegetarian."

I've learned to wait until the second or third date to let my secret slip, an announcement I make carefully, almost guiltily, as if admitting I had children out of wedlock. And sometimes that's about the reaction: "I didn't know you were one of them." But the most frequent is, surprisingly, relief--more often than not, she's a vegetarian too.

Yes, most of my relationships since going veggie have been with fellow meat-refusers, though it's not deliberate. Maybe there are certain personality traits common to vegetarians--I'd like to believe we're compassionate, thoughtful people, but I'm probably just flattering myself. After all, Martin Luther King, Jr., ate meat and, yes, Hitler did not. (Maybe.)

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Photo by oztenphoto/FlickrCC

I may find myself spending more time with fellow herbivores, but I'm better at getting along with the meat-eating majority. My family has come to accept my lifestyle as here to stay, friends no longer fear I'm judging them, and I'm good enough behind the burners to cook for non-vegetarians. My southwestern corn bread pudding, which I serve with spicy black bean soup, is an especially big hit. If you don't believe that vegetarians can also be food-lovers who know how to cook, maybe you can come over sometime. Just don't hide any bits of meat in my soup.

Recipes to please any vegetarian or meat-eater:
Southwestern Corn Pudding
Black Bean and Jalapeno Soup