I was 14-years old staring down at my plate with contempt as the rest of my family sat around the table happily chomping on chicken thighs. It just looked so disgusting, that sad, slippery piece of flesh waiting there for me to devour it. Meat had ALWAYS seemed GROSS. For as long as I could remember, it was the last to leave my dish, no peas left to re-arrange. But now I was a teenager. I had opinions. I had ideas. I had the will to be different. And so I decided not to eat meat ever again, right then and there. When my mother made a comment about “wasting food,” I declared abruptly, “I am a vegetarian now.” I pushed my plate aside and smiled victoriously as my dad shot me an exasperated glance. “You heard me,” I had said confidently. “NO MORE Meat.”
It took a few years for them AND me to adjust. I went through a carb phase, bingeing on pizza and pasta. I’d given up chicken, beef, fish, and pork, so what was left? Back then books and magazines were my only source for nutrition information. Google wasn’t an option in 1994 and I was too busy with high school concerns anyway. Nutrition? All I cared about then was staying skinny, writing bad poetry, sneaking downtown to punk rock shows, and of course, not eating meat. I was fine having french fries for dinner.
My family was confused, however. My parents piled my plate high with mashed potatoes and green beans at Thanksgiving per my request, but usually included a small slice of Turkey, “just in case.” And I couldn’t go through a holiday dinner without some comment about my decision. “Don’t you want just a little taste of ham?” My aunt would ask. “But it’s Christmas Eve!” my Grandmother would squawk when I’d decline for the trillionth time, as if I’d insulted baby Jesus himself.
Then in college, I went through my Morningstar Farms period. I lived on veggie chicken nuggets. Fake buffalo wings. Veggies Burgers ground up with scrambled eggs. And cheese. SO. MUCH. CHEESE. (This was before I knew about my dairy allergy). Fruits and vegetables were thrown in there of course, but I was seduced by the clever marketing of the early 2000s. “Soy Protein is the BEST Protein,” they said. It’s all you need! And so easy. If it came from Soy it had to be healthy, right? It was meat-free, after all. A day didn’t go by when I didn’t have some form of processed soy product for breakfast, lunch, or dinner.
Soon enough, I became sick of fake meat products. This was around the time that the trends were changing. Apparently, there was a Dark Side of Soy. One food expert even said that ‘Soy protein isolate was invented for use in cardboard, It hasn’t actually been approved as a food ingredient.’ I also began reading labels and noticed that Soy was everywhere. Mary Vance Terrain said it best in her 2007 article about Soy:
“Soy is everywhere in our food supply, as the star in cereals and health-promoting foods and hidden in processed foods. Even if you read every label and avoid cardboard boxes, you are likely to find soy in your supplements and vitamins (look out for vitamin E derived from soy oil), in foods such as canned tuna, soups, sauces, breads, meats (injected under poultry skin), and chocolate, and in pet food and body-care products. It hides in tofu dogs under aliases such as textured vegetable protein, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, and lecithin–which is troubling, since the processing required to hydrolyze soy protein into vegetable protein produces excitotoxins such as glutamate (think MSG) and aspartate (a component of aspartame), which cause brain-cell death.”
So I did what any prudent consumer would do, I switched out my Soy milk for Almond Breeze. I went on a vigilant hunt for a new protein. I was already eating a few bean burritos a week, but I felt like something was missing. I decided, one day when a plate of lime soaked ceviche was placed in front of me, that it was time to start eating fish again. I reluctantly relinquished the title of octo-lavo vegetarian for the less glamorous option of pescatarian – or one who eats creatures of the sea.
This worked for a while, but then fish started to scare me too. In 2008 Jeremy Piven got mercury poisoning from too much sushi. I was doomed. That’s all anyway ever wanted to do in Los Angeles. “Getting sushi” was the dinner of choice for most of my late 20’s.
Worse still, was all the press about PCBs. This large group of related chemicals is typically found in fish obtained near industrial areas. But most of the fish we find in the grocery store is farm raised, so I was OK, right? I pictured lovely little fish farms full of smiling happy fish swimming along merrily. But not so reported CNN in a January 2010 article. “Studies found that farmed salmon had higher levels of contaminants than wild salmon did, ” they said. CNN clarified that the benefits of eating ANY fish far outweigh the risks, however. Whew. But I was still concerned and as a result, I started thinking. And researching.
Now 15 years after my initial decision to stop eating beef, chicken, and other animals of the mammal variety, I couldn’t remember what truly motivated me to stop eating meat over a decade ago. When people asked me why I had stopped eating it, I didn’t really have an answer. “Did I think it was healthier,” they wondered. “Or perhaps it was for ethical reasons?” they’d implore. “Not really,” I’d answer. “I just think it’s gross.” But I was beginning to question that logic and truth be told, I was bored. I was bored with shrimp. I was completely turned off by salmon. And well, there was no really GOOD Mexican place by my new condo. My husband’s ribs were looking better and better.
I began reading blogs like 100 Days of Real Food. These people were dedicated to eating healthy, unprocessed foods, but they still ate meat occasionally. Lisa Leake, the author of the blog, called her family flexitarians. They viewed meat as a side dish rather than the main event. Maybe I could do that. I didn’t have to be all or nothing.
I also considered the many healthy meat eaters I know. Two of the oldest living members of my family, my Grandmother at 89 and my Grandfather at 94, have been eating cow tongues and lamb shanks for their entire lives. They’ve no cancer. They’ve no serious afflictions aside from the detriment of old-age. I’d love to look like my granny at almost 90.
I wasn’t thinking about all of this a few nights ago when I sat with my husband at a chain BBQ joint after work. I was hungry, but I didn’t want fish. I didn’t want a salad. I wanted barbecue sauce all over my face. I wanted bits of flesh in my teeth that I’d later dig from my gums with floss, satisfied and full of animal. And so I did it. I ordered three juicy ribs and they were delicious. I’m pretty sure I can no longer refer to myself as a vegetarian and I’m just fine with that.