Saturday, August 14, 2010

Filling Up My Plate

"If you aren't certain about things, if your mind is still open enough to question what you are seeing, you tend to look at the world with great care, and out of that watchfulness comes the possibility of seeing something that no one else has seen before."
-- Paul Auster

When I initially thought about moving back to my hometown, I worried that I'd have too much on my plate because I'd have so many family members and friends so close by. I never actually thought about my literal plate, though.

Prior to moving back to New Jersey, I hadn't eaten meat in over two years, but I've recently discovered that being a vegetarian is a lot more difficult in New Jersey than it is in California. Being a vegetarian in California is as common as, say, being an Italian in New Jersey -- many people are; it's just part of the demographic. Hence, in California, people always seem to ask dinner guests if they eat meat, restaurants always offer multiple vegetarian options, and there are even many specialty stores and restaurants that cater to the dietary preferences of vegetarian eaters. Here, not so much. The last time I visited New Jersey, my dad asked if chicken on the grill was good for dinner. When I reminded him that I didn't eat meat, he replied, exasperated, "For Christsake. Chicken's not meat." (I'm fairly certain that he does actually believe that.) Restaurants seem to be similarly confounded -- yesterday I had to order a proscuitto sandwich without the proscuitto, and the deli staff seemed to need multiple verbal confirmations that my order had been correctly recorded.

Perhaps, though, the most uncomfortable experience is being served meat as a dinner guest in someone else's home. My husband and I had dinner at his grandmother's house last year, and I politely declined her pot roast on account of the fact that I don't eat meat.  Her response: "But it's so tender!" After 10 minutes of attempting to explain (in as dinner-table appropriate terms as possible) that my decision not to eat meat did not hinge on its tenderness, I gave up and finally accepted that grandmothers -- particularly those who cook for Italian families -- do not speak vegetarian. When my host is a non-family member, though, I can't even muster the nerve to tell him or her that I don't eat meat. I take some, push it around on my plate, bury it with my side dishes, and then bring my own plate to the sink when we're done eating. This routine is stressful, and it often leaves me quite hungry (and drunk if there's alcohol served, as I can't hold my liquor on an empty stomach).

I've recently wondered whether life would be easier if I just ate meat every now and again, so I tried it. As a dinner guest a few weeks ago, I ate a friend's baked ziti with meat sauce. All seemed to be going well until my stomach started gurgling and churning and generally urging me to hurry on up to the bathroom ASAP. As it turns out, when your body hasn't eaten something like meat in years, it forgets just how to digest it without incident.

So it seems to me that the best course of action would be to eat meat with some regularity, so as to avoid what would henceforth be known to my husband as The Baked Ziti Incident. Doing so, however, requires some sacrifice of what I see as My Principles. There are several somewhat vague reasons that I gave up meat, the usual suspects, really: environmental reasons involving the destruction of forestland to accommodate grazing land, ethical reasons related to the fact that we could feed the world if we used grazing land to grow grains instead, ethical reasons involving the ways in which animals are raised and slaughtered, health reasons related to hormones and antibiodics in food. (Notice that none of these reasons actually involves disliking meat -- I do like it, which makes it extra tempting to eat it when it magically appears on my dinner plate!) I should confess here that I'm not even really a vegetarian because I've never quite been able to give up seafood, which technically makes me a pescetarian. I tend not to identify myself as such to other people, though, because no one knows what it means, and then I feel like I sound even more pretentious.

So, here I am. I'm trying to negotiate a balance between my desire to honor my principles, my desire to avoid being a giant pain in the ass to those I love, and my desire to eat meat just because it tastes good. I think the solution is simply to be less anal -- eat meat when you feel like eating it and attempt to do so every so often. The problem with that solution, though, is that it means learning to be comfortable in the gray area. For me, absolutes, ironically, tend to be easier to live by. For some people, myself included, being OCD about certain things is actually easier than not being that way. It's harder to live in the middle than on either end because when you're on the ends, you know right where you are. In the middle, you have to make a kind of peace with your own amorphousness; you have to become comfortable in constant state of mild uncertainty. But, in the end, I think I choose uncertainty. It's harder, but it also leaves room for change and adaptation, things I feel are almost always good for me. We'll see how I do...

1 comment:

  1. Shannon--I had The Roast Beef Incident at my mother-in-law's house many years ago. Not a pretty outcome. I can totally relate to your dilemma.

    We were vegan for 4 years, about 25 years ago, because my youngest could not tolerate dairy---and we were already vegetarian. The only thing people felt comfortable offering us was pasta with red sauce or chili without the meat. Although I cooked constantly, my husband (6' 2") got down to 139 lbs and never had any energy. It was definitely challenging. We went back to eating dairy eventually, and then fish and fowl. We just eat it less often.

    My youngest is still a vegetarian at 26. My oldest and his family prefer to eat vegetarian but their baby has a gluten intolerance and that is difficult for nursing mom. I think your conclusion is just--you do what you need to do and move on. The stress just isn't worth it sometimes.