A Culinary Confession | Civil Eats

A Culinary Confession

I blame Bakesale Betty.  If the blue-haired Aussie-American Alison hadn’t lured me into her store with lamingtons and sticky date pudding I would never have succumbed to the charms of her legendary fried chicken sandwiches, which cause perfectly sane people to line up on Telegraph Avenue in North Oakland. For a sandwich. I kid you not.

It also doesn’t help that Bakesale Betty is on my way home from my editing gig and I’m often ravenous as I drive by, doing a quick scan to see if there’s 1. a line snaking down the street or 2. any parking.

If the parking gods and queue karma are on my side, I’m in and out with one of her sandwiches before you can say hello hypocrite.

Let me explain. I’ve been a vegetarian since I was 17, when I gave up meat in what my mum, a good cook, viewed as just another one of my rebellious teenage acts. Despite growing up in a meat-loving land, where the backyard barbie rules, I became a greens and legumes kinda gal.

For more than a quarter of a century, I lived the veg life. To be precise, I guess I’m technically a pescatarian, as I sometimes eat seafood. Especially in my hometown, Sydney, because — news flash — fabo fish to be had Down Under peeps.

So how to explain the recent chicken sandwich obsession? What can I say? I think I’m having a middle-aged meat crisis. Some 20 years ago I introduced the man who would become the father of my child to the virtues of a vegetarian diet. Hell, I married him at Greens. My 11-year-old kid has never, ever eaten an ounce of animal flesh.  (His choice. I’m no zealot.)  My blog is called Lettuce Eat Kale. I’ve watched Food, Inc. I frequent farmers’ markets. You get the idea.

I should be a poster girl for a pro-produce life.

And yet…a couple of years ago around a certain time in my cycle I began craving protein. No worries, fish usually did the trick. Then I started to slip a bit when sharing food at ethnic restaurants around town. Chicken raised with love, care, good feed, and bucolic views began to find its way into my mouth. What the heck was happening?

I wasn’t sure, but I suspected hormones played a role. I also knew I wasn’t dealing with this particular omnivore’s dilemma on my own.  My friend Connie was a vegetarian — until she got pregnant with her first kid 16 years ago. Then it was off to the steak house for her and she’s never looked back.  My dance instructor, Amara Tabor-Smith, eschewed animal protein for decades — she didn’t like the texture — and is now tentatively getting reacquainted with meat.

I’d always assumed, along with many others I suspect, that vegetarian cookbook superstars Deborah Madison and Mollie Katzen didn’t eat meat. Not so, I discovered in the past year during chats with both chefs. Mollie describes herself as a “meat nibbler,” and Deborah’s not opposed to the occasional piece of grass-fed, local beef.

Their most recent books, Get Cooking by Mollie, and What We Eat When We Eat Alone by Deborah, include meat recipes. Still, both women favor a diet where greens, grains, and legumes dominate the dinner plate.  Mollie supports the Meatless Monday campaign and both believe most meat eaters would do well to eat less animal and more plant foods.

Eating meat after years — or even a lifetime — of a solely plant-based diet seems to be something of a trend. For people who chose vegetarianism for ethical or environmental reasons, sourcing meat sustainably is now often a viable alternative to factory-farmed animals, and so some have decided to include it sparingly in their diet.

(Bucking this seemingly female shift, is wonder boy writer Jonathan Safran Foer, who dabbled with vegetarianism for years but fully committed after he became a pet owner. He will probably convert masses to the cause with his description of chicken fecal soup and other horrors of industrial animal slaughter in his recent book, Eating Animals.)

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In this confusing time, I feel I’ve found a kindred spirit in Tara Austen Weaver, the warm and witty writer who blogs about meat and many other food matters at Tea & Cookies.  I can so relate to the mental tug-of-war that underlies her recent book The Butcher and the Vegetarian: One Woman’s Romp through a World of Men, Meat, and Moral Crisis.  Tara didn’t have a choice in her vegetarian childhood — she was raised that way by a Northern California hippie mama.

Several years ago, she started exploring eating meat for health reasons.  Her descriptions of buying, prepping, and cooking meat resonate with me because I haven’t actually ever gone and purchased a chicken or, um, chicken bits and made dinner. That notion makes me feel nauseous, to be honest. I don’t even like looking at raw meat.

I know, I know, I’m the worst kind of turncoat. I leave the house to get a bit of hot flesh on the side. When my son stopped by home unexpectedly the other afternoon, I found myself hiding aforementioned cluck, cluck sandwich before opening the door. Clearly, I have some conflicted feelings about my dietary changes.

So what to call myself: A lapsed vegetarian?  A vegetarian who cheats?

I thank the funny Adair Seldon of Lentil Breakdown for introducing me to the term flexitarian, which seems to fit for now, loathe as I am to saddle myself or anyone else with a label.

For the record, I seem to have no desire to move on to “harder” meats, like beef, pork, or lamb.  (An aside: Why isn’t it cow, pig, and sheep? I suspect it’s a way for many of us to remain in denial about where meat actually comes from.)

And I’ve never had any interest in eating creatures I see on hiking trails such as ducks, rabbits, quail, deer, elk, and the like. But since chicken is becoming a somewhat regular fix (once or twice a month), I’ve learned never to say never.

My vegetarianism stemmed in part, from my inability to kill an animal, hence my healthy respect for folks like Novella Carpenter, who don’t flinch at taking responsibility for ending the life of an animal they’ve raised for food. I feel cowardly in the carnivore arena by comparison.

Penning this post has probably blown my chances of ever writing for Vegetarian Times or VegNews (though I do think this topic is one such mags would do well to cover.)

But you won’t find meat recipes on my blog, although I’m sure some veggies will unsubscribe in disgust at my wishy-washy vegetarianism.

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That would be a shame. Because I am still the girl who obsesses about eating greens. Nothing makes me happier than a meal packed with produce. I am, to borrow a term Mollie Katzen used in a recent story on Civil Eats, very much a pro-vegetable person, a vegetabilist.

And I view healthy eating in much the same way I see sexuality.  In my mind, most humans are basically bisexual, it just depends where on the spectrum you fall in terms of how you define your sexual orientation.

Similarly, we’re probably all on an omnivore continuum, with some of us falling firmly on the carnivorous end and others of us way down on the other end of the line very much in vegetarian or even vegan territory.

In the end, come dinner time, it’s a personal choice what we put on our plate and the justifications we make with ourselves and our sometimes contradictory culinary choices are our own to live with as we figure out our place on the food chain and what our bodies need to stay well.

I welcome your thoughts below.

Originally published on Lettuce Eat Kale

Sarah Henry is a freelance reporter whose food articles have appeared in The Atlantic, Grist and Eating Well. Sarah is a contributing editor to Edible East Bay and a regular contributor to Edible San Francisco and KQED’s Bay Area Bites. She has also written about local food for the San Francisco Chronicle, San Jose Mercury News and California. Sarah got her journalism start on staff at the Center for Investigative Reporting. Sarah is the voice behind the blog Lettuce Eat Kale and tweets under that moniker too. Read more >

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  1. Dave
    Very interesting post. Like many others recently I have sharply reduced the meat in my diet. The emotional satisfaction of eating meat has been strongly associated with being masculine in our culture. Similarly the absolutist morality of strict vegetarianism is something most men haven't wanted to be identified with. These facts had made it difficult for me to make the effort to eat more veg and less meat.

    Your attitude as you express it here significantly lowers the hurdle for average joes such as me to make a move to a healthier diet. There are lots of us doing it and it helps to know that being "pro-produce" doesn't necessarily expose us to ridicule from our tailgating buddies on one hand or the vegetarian crowd on the other.
  2. Interesting + informative post!
    Hello, I do eat + enjoy meat (red + white) but only once or twice a week, and recognise your craving for it. I guess that is just your body telling you that it needs iron, vit B etc. and I don't think there is anything wrong with eating small amounts of responsibly reared meat. But can understand that, as a "pescatarian", it might feel a little like you are selling out. Keep up the good work with your blog. I shall revisit and am already following you on Twitter. Best, Monique
  3. I eat meat, but because it is expensive and often more difficult to prepare than vegetables, I find myself eating more and more vegetarian dishes (replete with dairy, of course). Vegetables are delicious! And I think a lot of people don't realize or forget that. Which probably has a lot to do with how poorly many of them are prepared. Steamed green vegetables are sometimes very satisfying, but for many people, plain steamed veggies are boring, tasteless, and unsatisfying.

    Eating fresh, seasonal vegetables are the way I keep things varied and tasty. :)
  4. Lauren
    Thank you for writing this piece. I have been coming to terms with what it means to be a lapsed vegetarian and I'm glad I came across your story.

    I chose to become a vegetarian about 12 years years ago, for a variety of reasons, including "If I can't kill it I shouldn't eat it". I was never 100% strict, I would sneak a semi-annual piece of meat and feel terribly guilty after, but I never, ever did it in front of anyone else. A couple of years after becoming a vegetarian I started dating my now husband, who grew up with a pescetarian father and, so, was sympathetic to my choice. Sadly, he is also terribly allergic to legumes and nuts so for years after moving in together our shared diet was awful - when we cooked for ourselves we stuck mostly to the starches and dairy we were both able and willing to eat, and our health suffered for it. We were young and didn't really know better.

    After some years of this I began eating fish on a more than semi-annual basis, but only ever with my husband. I thought that when I was around anyone else I had to maintain my strict vegetarian posture lest my Polish family find out and start insisting I stuff myself with sausage. After fighting so hard to defend my choice to not eat meat, I wasn't sure how to justify eating meat only on a few and far between basis. I feared the "meat in extreme moderation" stance would be too confusing. In the mean time my eating habits began to include chicken and the occasional piece of bacon off my husband's plate at breakfast. I was simultaneously eating less wheat and processed grains and for what it is worth, I noticed my body was responding well. I was less tired, my hair looked healthier and I didn't experience the same extreme grumpiness if I got too hungry before eating.

    A year and a half ago, as our wedding approached I quietly revealed my meat eating to our close friends and family. I intended to eat the same chicken we were serving the majority of the guests at the reception (though we chose a caterer with an excellent vegetarian option) and I figured it might as well not be a surprise. While our families and friends are now back to the cultural default of offering me meat when they prepare meals, I don't find it as overwhelming as I thought. I still load my plate with the non-meat dishes and take a small portion of the meat dish if I feel like it. No one has yet put a steak in front of me, or insisted I eat the sausage. Between their own health concerns, recent economic considerations and the ever-shifting zeitgeist of dietary trends, I think the people around me are in a much different place than when I first stopped eating meat.

    While including meat at every meal is still a very strong habit for many people, I think it has become less the overwhelming focus. I still cook mostly vegetarian meals for our friends on Sunday nights and no one stops coming over because of that. I've also begun to learn how to cook meat - I recommend trying to poach chicken breast as a manageable first step (with minimal raw meat handling) - and I work it in in a balanced way when I want to. I will go a week and notice I haven't eaten any meat, and I still, conversely, crave fresh fruits and vegetables after what I consider a meat-heavy day or two. I do consider returning to a vegetarian diet and I may some day, but for now I'm sticking with meat in moderation and I'm happily surprised to find the people I share meals with generally seem able to understand and respect that.
  5. Hi Dave, Monique, Sarah, and Lauren:

    Thanks so much for chiming in regarding your decision-making about what's on your plate.

    All four of you obviously have given a lot of thought to eating ethically and healthily.

    I think your comments illustrate that the old debate pitting omnivores versus vegetarians is obsolete.

    Here's to a continued conversation about sustainability, sourcing food, and keeping veggies front and center in a mostly plant-based diet.
  6. Mary
    most interesting subject! when my cholesterol was soaring and I was adamant about not being on cholesterol meds indefinitely, I decided that the best way for me to approach this was to try eating vegetarian. I am not able to stave off the meat craving completely, but I eat fish several times a week and chicken about once every 3-4 weeks, and vegetarian the rest of the time. I have only done this for about 6 months now, but I am down 40 lbs and my cholesteral problem is no more, so I am happy with this compromise.

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