24 May, 2011

The Reformed Vegetarian


I have become a traitor to the animal kingdom. Though once a vegetarian, I now eat things that used to be living creatures. And I am trying to come to terms with it.

My first foray into the world of bean sprouts and protein product came during that time of great social and personal experimentation: college. As with many colleges, my junior year was a time to travel the world, to jump off cliffs in Fiji, to down a chocolate brioche and espresso on a romantic morning in France, and to test out some special brownies in a shady cafe in Amsterdam (from what I have heard). Instead of doing those things, I signed up for a maritime studies semester based out of the wildest of all American cities: Mystic, Connecticut.

In that small town I lived with a motley crue of young adults interested in questioning the impact they made on the local environment. Because of this, the overwhelming majority of kids did not eat meat, and hadn’t for many years. But I had. I was an outsider.

Yes, please.
You see, I didn’t just eat meat- I relished eating it. It is embarrassing how much I had. My family would tell stories to new boyfriends about that time in Outback Steakhouse when I ordered a full rack of ribs and inhaled it before my dad had even finished his salad. My friends consistently notified me via text message any time corned beef was offered in our campus dining hall. There are some traits that one just cannot deny in themselves, and before Connecticut, eating meat was one of mine.

That’s not to say I wasn’t open-minded. I listened to my new friends as they talked about the evils of the meat-packing industry, and animal cruelty, and the dangers of antibiotics in the foods we eat. It sounded awful. But that didn’t stop my friend Dave and I from sneaking out to the local grocery store to buy contraband bacon and stuff it into the back of the freezer with a tape label that said "?" with the hope of warding off curious housemates in search of that frozen tofu dog.

But slowly, over the course of the semester, I started to change my mind. Maybe I did not need to order three sides of bacon or double-stuff my turkey melt. After considerable thought, I decided to give up turkey for Thanksgiving, and right then and there I knew I was a changed woman.

When the semester ended, I gave a considerable amount of thought to my role in the food chain. When I went back to campus, I reunited with my friends and found that many people had changed in significant and substantial ways. I was a vegetarian, my friend Katie had a rediscovered a fear of heights, and my friend Sarah adopted a rather convincing French accent. While many of these attributes faded faster than the tans of those who “studied” in Australia, my vegetarianism stuck. And I was rather proud of it.

But I suppose that, deep down inside, I knew the whole Not Eating Meat phase of my life would not last; there were signs. It began with a dream. 

For most people, dreams are a way for their subconscious to work out issues that one encounters during the day. (Or is a random series of unconnected events that mean nothing to your waking mind. Whatever you're inclined to believe.)

I started to dream of ham sandwiches. And not just any ham sandwich, it was the mother of all ham sandwiches imagined in exquisite detail: the “how did you get them so thin” slices of ham folded back perfectly onto itself, the way it does in Hormel commercials on television; slices of Land ‘O Lakes cheese delicately layered with pieces of the freshest of lettuce greens, drops of moisture clinging to each and every verdant leaf; whole wheat bread, and, to top it all off, Hidden Valley ranch dressing. The weird part is, when I started to make this sandwich, it was wholly at odds with the rest of the dream. Previously I had been flying from roof to roof, trying to find some missing gem that was really important to me. And then- BAM. Ham sandwich time. It was as though my brain was like, “ho hum, let’s give her the standard boring life metaphor, I guess… no wait. Wait. What if we have her make a ham sandwich!? Scrap that first part, we’re doing this!”

Blissful ignorance
The kicker is, before going meat-free, I had a take ‘em-or-leave’ em  attitude towards ham sandwiches. But remove my conscious desire to eat them? Suddenly I was fiending for them in dream form. I could no more control these dreams than one control the direction of sand blowing in the wind.

This is apparently a fairly common phenomenon amongst vegetarian types: you end up craving the foods you didn’t even think about before. I have a friend who talks about cheeseburgers the way one might talk about an old boyfriend. Sure, it may have been a few years, but when the timing was right… anything could happen.

Once the ham sandwich dreams started coming monthly, I knew it was time to start eating meat again. My family was delighted, and no one more so than my twin sister. She decided the best way to celebrate was to dive right in and hit up this classy little BBQ place in downtown NYC where they sold ribs by the pound and offered tiny plastic umbrellas in their pomaritas.

I knew I shouldn’t have done it.  But there I was, tiny umbrella in my hair, country music wafting in the background, 34 different options of ribs and sauces and all-you-can-eat cornbread, blissfully ignorant of the havoc I was about to wreak on my intestinal system. Twelve hours later, after the migraine had worn off and I was able to stomach more than just triscuits and gingerale, I became a vegetarian again, temporarily.

If there were to be a lesson here, it would be that maybe you should declare the first day of the week “meat-free Monday,” and think more about your behaviors and how they shape the state of food in America. Be a conscious consumer! The other, more obvious, lesson would be not to eat 3 pounds of ribs after a few years hiatus. I cannot be the first reformed vegetarian who has learned this lesson the hard way. But at least now I can wear this shirt, purchased for me by a high school friend during my veggie stint, non-ironically. And I no longer dream of ham sandwiches.