Monday, October 31, 2005

The Veggie Chronicles

Though never a vegan/raw or live food adherent, like any good crunchy person, I was for a time a vegetarian.

It all started when I was 8 and impressionable, especially, apparently, when it was a militant vegetarian teacher doing the impressing. Mrs. Dinner (her real name! for Yonah's benefit) had been an eighth grade teacher at , my school, who after hitting a student, was "demoted" to teaching third graders. Wise move. No, she didn't hit any of us, but she did tell us in explicit detail how cows are taken on the conveyer belt and sent to be slaughtered. Many an 8 year old went home that night and announced to their parents, "I'm a vegetarian" to which most parents, including my own, replied, "No you are not. You are eight." Not realizing at the time that vegetarians and eight year olds need not be mutually exclusive, I acquiesced.

But it stuck with me. And at age 14, I silently resolved not to eat meat - which worked for about three years, until I was told by a rabbi that I could not be a vegetarian for the reason I was a vegetarian. He had obviously never had Mrs. Dinner as a teacher. Nevertheless, he explained, since God gave us permission to eat animals, who are we to say we are above that or that it is cruel? I rationalized in my mind that it was better to kill chickens than cows, and became a chicken eater, though only a tiny amount on shabbat, with ocassional pastrami allowances. Later, as an adult, I read a number of responsa which indicated vegetarianism is fine, but the damage had been done. I was now a shabbat chicken eater.

And a reasonably happy one at that. There's some good chicken eatin' to be had out there! If there was a vegetarian option, however, I would almost always take that over the poultry selection. So, though I would now eat chicken, I often chose not to, but rather just entertained it as an option. As it was limited to second choice shabbat entree, I felt I was still somewhat vegetarian (lacto-ovo chicko?), while not being holier than God, and at least I wasn't eating dead cow. I also felt healthy and had no cravings for red meat.

Somewhere into my second year of yeshiva, I was invited to the home of a Temani (Yemenite) couple for shabbat. I would never tell people in advance that I did not eat meat, as I did not want them to have to go to the trouble of preparing a separate dish just for me, and truth is, there are almost always enough veggie side dishes to fill you up if the main entree is a roast, and a shabbat meal would often feature chicken. I followed that same policy in this case.

This particular couple, however, were hardcore carnivores, which I only realized upon presentation of the meal. There was red meat in EVERYTHING - and I mean everything - the soup, the salad, the main course, the sides. I was their only guest, and I could tell they had put a lot of effort into preparing this meal. When I told them I did not eat red meat, their faces fell, and I quickly added, "until tonight." I consider myself very principled in general, but when pitting a cause I was not fully embracing vs. the feelings of others, the feelings of others will win out with me every time.

So I ate the meat dishes.

And it was fine. I had not had red meat like that in many years. It tasted good, but I was happy I could take or leave it. No sudden red meat cravings developed as a result. The only change was that I was now willing to eat red meat on select ocassions as well. Although I still prefer veggie options, my days as a card-carrying vegetarian and pseudo-vegetarian were over.

Mrs. Dinner has had a lingering effect, though: handling raw chicken makes me want to throw up; I still cannot eat chopped meat, and only rarely partake of steak or brisket; lamb, cornish hens, or anything that is a baby animal or presented at table as an entire carcass will not enter my mouth; I do not eat chicken drumsticks, wings, necks or pupiks, only breasts and thighs.

Hmmm, not sure exactly how that last one is attributable to Mrs. Dinner, but we'll give it to her anyway.....