One summer when I was a teenager, my mother was nervous about a cousin’s impending visit. Pam had become a vegetarian and my mother had no idea how to cook for her. How would she get any protein? My mother was deeply worried. My father, who loved hamburgers and steak, was much calmer. “Tolstoy and Gandhi were vegetarians, and Thoreau preferred a vegetarian diet, too,” my father said, as the evening news blared in the background. I secretly wanted to be a vegetarian like Pam, and had an image of a large country kitchen with big pots of vegetable stew boiling on the stove and the smell of whole-grain bread wafting from the oven—bread from a recipe from the Tassajara Bread Book, the first book I ever read about cooking whole foods.
“For years, I ate cheeseburgers with guilt and would try to give up meat and fail. Then on Thanksgiving 1990, when everyone at our table became ill with salmonella from either an undercooked turkey or raw eggs in a chocolate mousse, I chose to blame the turkey and promised myself I would take a stand. I would give up meat for good.” All I remember now about Pam’s visit is how she stood in our tiny kitchen, mixing various sprouts and veggies in a blender to make a drink that had the scent of a just-mowed lawn. It was a bright lovely green, but when my father drank some, he immediately became queasy. Still, I felt Pam had a point—she was upset that to eat, something had to die. When I brought this up to my mother, her reply was, “We are animals, too. That’s how all animals survive.”
“Cows don’t eat meat, Mom.”
“But people do.”
Arguing with my mother was exhausting, so I continued to eat the steaks, ribs, and meatballs she cooked for my father and me. Years later, when my father was ill, I wanted to cook for him.
“How about a hamburger, Dad?”
“You know, I have lost my taste for meat.”
My mother, however, never lost that taste and was happily eating bits of steak and lamb chop in the final days of her life.
“I just love meat, Resa. I love the taste and the smell of it cooking. I can’t help it, but I do.”
For years, I ate cheeseburgers with guilt and would try to give up meat and fail. Then on Thanksgiving 1990, when everyone at our table became ill with salmonella from either an undercooked turkey or raw eggs in a chocolate mousse, I chose to blame the turkey and promised myself I would take a stand. I would give up meat for good.
I loved being a vegetarian! I was finally boiling those pots of vegetable stew, though I never got around to the Tassajara bread. I saw vegetarianism as a spiritual act and a political one. I tried not to preach, but secretly felt proud of being in the company of Gandhi, Tolstoy, Thoreau, and my beloved cousin, Pam.
My mother panicked when I came to visit her. “Resa, how do I cook for you? Can’t you just eat the vegetables in my chicken stew? Or how about a lovely piece of salmon?” This went on for about a decade, until I was diagnosed with a rare sarcoma and underwent a series of surgeries.
I lost a lot of intestine, and was having difficulty eating. I consulted a gastroenterologist, who glanced up from reading the surgical report.
“Don’t tell me you are a vegetarian.”
“But I am.” I was weak from not being able to eat, and it was hard to talk. “Well, you can’t be one anymore. You have lost the part of your intestine that makes it possible to eat a lot of vegetables and fiber. From now on, chicken is your friend. Have a steak. Have lamb.”
“I don’t think you understand…,” I meekly began.
“You won’t get well on your vegetarian diet. Go home and try a little chicken broth.”
I called my mother. She nearly rejoiced. “See, Resa! You need to have protein.”
I cried as I ate the soup, and cried some more as I took bird bites of the boiled bird flesh floating in the broth made of birds. But then I realized as I regained strength that my mother had been right. We are animals, and as such, do what we must to live.
Thank you, Resa. This piece reminds me of me. When I became a vegetarian at 28 years of age, my dad asked me if I was an “asshole.” I told him I didn’t want to eat anything I couldn’t kill. Since I hated killing anything, including bugs, I didn’t feel as if I had the right to eat it. Like you, I have figured out that biologically, I do better with animal protein. I’ve had to reconcile how I want to be in the world politically, with what my body needs physically or physiologically. When I have a burger, my body rejoices, but I do try to make sure that I only eat meat from sustainable and compassionate sources. Perhaps it is a rationalization, but as you (and your mom) suggest, we do what we must to live.
Thanks for this essay. Like you, I grew up with the standard Jewish-American diet with chicken, meat, or fish at every meal. Then, at fourteen, I remember seeing some people at summer camp who got special vegetarian diets and it intrigued me. By the end of my ninth grade year in high school, I decided I would be a full fledged vegetarian; and, after reading more about vegetarian diets, went vegan at age seventeen. I stayed that way for years until in college an anthropology professor mentioned that he thought it was impossible for early humans to have sustained themselves without eating meat. I went home, thought about this, and gradually and (only, very occasionally), put fish back in my diet. A few years later, feeling adventurous, I bought a roast chicken to cook and was surprised at how good it tasted: it reminded me of my childhood. Yet, eating such items was just very rare for me. Fast forward to this year: and, I could tell you my vegan cooking has become very advanced. Having lived a lot in New York, I’ve learned to copy some of the recipes I see featured at places like Candle Cafe and make them my own. But I can also say that my ability to feel fulfilled and nourished by vegan sources has not stayed the same as when I was in my early 20’s. Then, I remember talks with my grandmother where she would ask me if: “didn’t I just crave a piece of meat?” The answer was always honestly “no”. But, now, I feel it is different: I do crave meat and have experimented with all kinds of food this year: I’ve made lamb, I’ve tried soup with beef in it, I’ve made ground beef, and I’ve enjoyed all these foods very much. My reasoning is that if something tastes good to us, it is probably genuinely needed. Yet, family members still look at me in awe if they see me eating these foods as they have always thought of me as “that vegan person”–and that presents an added sense of guilt. However, what I think the difference for me in my cooking and eating now is that I learned to design my meals based on non-animal foods (with a big emphasis in more recent years) on plants and veggies, whereas, in my mom’s and grandmother’s generations the piece of meat was the meal. For me, the meal now is everything included, but your GI doctor is right, just a little bit of broth with meat in it makes a huge difference.