The scene of my first conversion to vegetarianism is nothing very original: I was about 8 years old, walking the pungent streets of Chinatown in San Francisco with my mother, when I came across a window display in which several skinned pig carcasses hung, puckered and eyeless. At the time, I was really into Pocahontas, and in great sobs of moral outrage, I declared I would never again touch meat.
The duration of this phase is up for some debate in my family. While my mother contends it lasted mere weeks, I say it stretched out for months before I finally succumbed to the pressures of beef jerky. (By that time, I was really into Annie Oakley, and women of the Wild West ate beef jerky.)
Thus began my vacillations between abstaining from and committing to eating meat. The summer I turned 13, I was sent away to a vegetarian Christian camp for reasons that have never been satisfactorily explained to me. My mother, in what appears in hindsight to be a fit of guilt, went and bought two giant bags of beef jerky just before I was shipped off, and she parceled them out into little foil packets for me to keep under my pillow. And so I survived God camp.
Later that same year, I brought home a duckling from science class under the impression that I was saving it from the slaughterhouse and strong-armed my parents into letting me keep her. I named her Phoebe, and she waddled after me wherever I went. Naturally, I resolved to never eat duck and for solidarity, goose.
I made good on this promise until my last semester of college when I studied abroad in Paris, where one is culturally obligated to consume confit de canard and foie gras. My remorse was remarkably easy going down.
Through the decades of hovering between disgust and obsession, one thing has remained consistent: I've never learned to cook meat—not in earnest. I've grilled up some sad chicken breasts before, but filet mignon? Beef tenderloin? This is serious stuff, and the prospect of ruining a beautiful, tender, expensive piece of flesh—well, it's always been more than my sometimes-bleeding heart and literature-degree salary could bear.
Thus, when I learned that the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op was offering a class called Back to Basics: Meat Basics last week, I figured it would be as good an opportunity as any to enter the world of meat-cooking adults. The instructor, Dionisio Esperas, was charismatic and thorough. As he walked the class—36 of us, about half men and half women—through a grilled pork chop, chicken piccata, petrale sole en papillote and a New York strip steak, I hardly thought at all about my morals. Or E. coli.
Come Saturday night, I was ready to attempt New York steak alla Fiorentina on my own, so I invited my sister over—the person least likely to hold a grudge if she woke up in the middle of the night with food poisoning.
It turned out beautifully. I spent a very long time staring at it, assessing the pinkness of its center; surely, if the cow still had feelings, it'd have been a bit creeped out.
Does it come as any surprise that it didn't taste as good as I wanted it to? It was a good cut of meat, and I made no mistakes. Maybe it was the blood still pooling on the cutting board in the next room, but there was something in it that tasted just a little bit like guilt.