Confessions of an herbivore
A proselytizing Taco Bell sinner and a recovering plant-eater share their own veggie tales
I haven’t been the most devout vegan. In fact, sneaking the occasional salmon sashimi or cheese pizza isn’t uncommon. So yeah, that actually makes me a pescatarian. But I digress.
After filling up on animal products, I get an overwhelming pain in my gut—from guilt, yes, but mostly because my stomach isn’t used to meat. I started my vegan journey strong: a September afternoon last year, on the phone with my dad, a recent vegan convert who after a few months of intense research (and significant weight loss) became an expert on all issues herbivore. I don’t know what it was about that afternoon, but halfway through a chicken-salad sandwich on a Parmesan bagel and a chai latte with skim milk, I caved. I became a vegan, cold Tofurkey.
And during the first month, I was hard-core. No more Cheez-Its and Lean Cuisine pizzas. Hello minestrone soup, beans and portobello mushroom burgers. I felt amazing, healthy. But I also felt deep, intense cravings for meat—like that scene from Rosemary’s Baby.
So being vegan became more like being in detox. I remember seeing commercials for Wendy’s Crispy Chicken Sandwich and Papa John’s pizza, wanting desperately to sink my teeth into that thick Silly Putty cheese and spicy pepperoni.
And then I fell off the wagon. And with the worst food of all: a beef soft taco from Taco Bell, extra sour cream.
But Taco Bell is nothing compared to the pressure of being around meat-eating family and friends, who think dining on biscuits and gravy with sausage is OK if you chop the sausage really small. So, I’ve made it a mission to educate everyone about veg diets. And I started with my boyfriend, Beau.
Problem is, I’m a terrible exemplar. I hate cooking. If preparing food takes longer than five minutes, I’m on the phone with Round Table. So I often rely on bean burritos and veggie corn dogs. Beau always lectures me when I opt for these crutches instead of cooking a proper meal. “People need to eat meat for protein,” he serenades while I nibble on a peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich for dinner. You can get sufficient protein from nonanimal sources. I just don’t source those sources.
I’d heard that Rebeca Wise, of Pure Joy Cafe at Fourth and N streets downtown, has a lot of smart tips on how to make everyday nutrition a little more practical, so I visited her during lunch. She said that other than coffee and soda, meat is the most acidic substance people can put in their bodies. “I gave up meat because I found a higher quality of protein,” she explains, suggesting that I eat more vegetables and fruit to get sufficient protein—which, surprisingly, is a leap of faith for many.
Wise’s wisdom reminded me that my body is struggling for nutrients, because we all know veggie corn dogs, no matter how delicious they taste, don’t have a lot going for them when it comes to the food pyramid. I realized that to convince my boyfriend to eat more vegetarian food, I would have to prepare more flavorful, nutritious meals.
So, on Thanksgiving, I used Beau and his family as my guinea pigs. Or Boca Sausages.
The trick with Beau is flavor. If something tastes good, he’ll eat it. It might not even have to be actual food. He switched to soy milk and cut back on cheese when I did. He even started replacing beef patties and Polish sausages with faux chicken patties and burgers when I showed him all the fat and calories in the meat products.
But I’d have to up the ante with this Thanksgiving experiment. It’d have to be a dish his family wouldn’t know was vegan. I quickly nixed Tofurkey—too risky—deciding instead to try a “Meat-Eating Husbands Love This Shepard’s Pie” recipe from VegWeb.com—with broccoli, celery, mushrooms, onions, carrots and other vegetarian awesomeness.
I set all the ingredients out on the kitchen table. The first step: “Mash cooked potatoes.” I paced, then stared at the five russet potatoes, pondering how to cook them. I recalled something from my childhood involving boiling water and potatoes, but couldn’t remember if I needed to peel them first. Then I wondered: If I’m supposed to mash cooked potatoes, doesn’t cook mean in the oven?
Like I said, I’m no chef. So I called my dad.
Two hours later, the kitchen was dressed with broccoli florets, flour explosions, olive-oil streaks and the requisite potato peels (yes, you peel them). But when I opened the oven door, it was like a shepherd’s pie apparition from The Martha Stewart Show. The aroma of baked veggies mixed with the scent of perfectly crisp french-fried onions on top of golden-coated mashed potatoes.
It was a vegan miracle. But would it pass the ultimate meat-lovers test?
Beau’s family was surprised to see me arrive at Thanksgiving carrying a casserole dish. As I proudly announced that I’d actually cooked, my plan to get them to secretly eat vegan food backfired.
“What kind of meat did you use?” they asked. The whole family was quiet.
“I didn’t use any meat,” I confessed, fearing they wouldn’t even fork the toasted crust if they new this shepherd was an impostor. But Beau’s grandma and aunt quickly scooped up a heap of pie. And they liked it. They really liked it.
A couple days later, I caught Beau microwaving leftovers.
“This is wonderful, babe. It’d be great if we ate like this more often,” he said.
“Well, if I cooked only vegan meals, would you eat them?” I asked.
“If it tastes this good.”
Everyone has an Achilles’ heel, and for me it’s fiber—and the relationships fiber has destroyed. No, not continence; I’m talking fruits and vegetables. Even as a 16-year-old vegan, my then-girlfriend would bust my hypocrite chops for wearing leather shoes. So, one day I unlaced the Chucks and chucked them out the car window.
She didn’t last, and neither did veganism. But until this summer, I’d been vegetarian for a solid baker’s dozen, from 1996 to 2008. Yes, the oh-eight did me in. It wasn’t economic stress compounded by SN&R’s draconian editorial load—or Sarah Palin’s moose-hunting trips or after-school-detention fantasies manifesting as carnivorous binging. Nothing like that.
I just really wanted fish tacos.
What planted the seed was an article this summer by Ben Russell, in these pages, where he described tacos filled with “hot slices of suckling pig,” which led to relapse: a fateful shopping spree at Corti Brothers in July. Airy Mi Abuelita tortillas, dry cotija cheese, onion, cilantro, tomato and, of course, two tilapia fillets. A little olive oil, salt, cumin and lime on the catch, then slap them puppies on the barbecue. Flipping the filets revealed raw sienna and charcoal grill marks, complimented by an agreeable fishy smell that tempted and mesmerized my dogs.
Break off a few pieces of the tender, flaky, brackish fish onto a warmed tortilla with some aforementioned condiments, then enjoy.
After more than a decade of chewing everything but things without cell walls, it’s an odd sensation to find oneself with a mouth full of fish. It’s like your first dip of chewing tobacco, an uncomfortable density—but nothing a swig of Negra Modelo can’t handle.
Now, life as a recovering vegetarian is more or less ideal. For starters, everyone assumes you’re still vegetarian, so there are options. “I’ll pass on the chicken,” you say, because those thighs look suspect. “Save me that last Bledsoe bacon slice,” you demand, because Bledsoe Natural Pork is the swine of gods.
And you can wear any sneakers you want.