Friday, February 27, 2009

Meatless in San Francisco?

I became a vegetarian in 1979. After I read my friend Ziva’s freshman composition about vegetarianism and how our food choices affect the world, I gave up meat and chicken within a week.

Four months later, while I was eating in a Jerusalem café with friends, I gave up fish as well. My entrée that night was whitefish, with the head attached, so the sight of it made me realize that not consuming animals included water creatures as well.

I maintained my commitment to vegetarianism for 30 years. It was an ethical decision: I simply didn’t want to eat anything that had been killed for me. Yes, I know, ripping off lettuce leaves may constitute murder to some of you, but I just didn’t want to be a carnivore.

So for three decades I never willingly ate meat, chicken, or fish. Being the slightly obsessive guy that I am, I still remember several of the times I accidentally ingested animal flesh.

One time, a family whose son I was tutoring invited me for a healthy dinner: spaghetti squash smothered in tomato sauce, which, they’d insisted, was vegetable based. As soon I as I started chomping on the stringy vegetable, I knew there were bits of meat in it. As politely as possible I just stopped eating. I can’t recall now 21 years later if they said anything to me or me to them.

Another time, at a party with friends, the host assured us the baked beans were vegetarian. We scooped out several spoonfuls and started eating. Soon we found a chunk of bacon in the sauce.

Then there was the infamous Appleby’s vegetarian burger episode. Shortly after Verna finished her chemotherapy in 2006, amid a sweltering heat wave when the temperatures soared to 106, we escaped to the air-conditioned confines of the local Appleby’s.

I ordered a vegetarian Mexican fiesta burger, which, when it came, tasted like a Boca burger, not my favorite veggie offering. But I asked Verna, who humors my paranoia that meat might actually touch my lips and tries everything that makes me suspicious. And she usually responds, “No, that is not meat, Steve.” It’s always mushrooms or chopped tomatoes.

But this time she hesitated before answering. “Yep,” she said. “That’s meat.”

Someone in the kitchen had goofed up and I was pissed. Before my anger grew too much, Verna halted me, “Excuse me. I’ve just had toxins running through my veins and body for four months, so you can handle a quarter of a hamburger.”

And she was right.

Since Verna’s cancer diagnosis, she has eaten more meat, chicken, and fish, after 15 years of catering to my vegetarianism and cooking from the pile of recipes and cookbooks we’ve collected. And she has suggested on several occasions that maybe I should jump ship as well.

Verna’s cancer was aggressive and carries a high likelihood of recurrence, so she wants me to be as healthy as possible for logical reasons. She worries that I might not be getting all the vitamins and nutrients I need as a vegetarian who is about to turn 50.

So last Sunday I decided, after much internal anguish and debate, to eat chicken. I’d always said if I were to renounce my vegetarian ways it would be with the rotisserie chicken and potatoes sold at the local Farmer’s Market. The blazing hot broilers drip fat and spices onto red potatoes and season them to mouth-watering perfection. (Only sustainable, free range animals for me)

Rain was pouring down, so we left the kids in the car. Verna went to get Maya a Belgian waffle; I went to buy oranges from Sonia and apples from the mountain grown girls.

“I’ll meet you at the chicken guys,” Verna said with a twinkle or particle of dust in her eye.

I was nervous, though Verna said she’d believe I was abandoning my vegetarianism once she saw it.

Well, I bought the chicken; then we dropped off the warm package at home before running some errands. When we returned Verna sliced chicken off the bone and heated it up with the potatoes.

I grabbed the plate from her once it was done, but she shouted, “No, wait.”

We had to document the moment. She had the digital video camera and Miguel held his digital camera, both poised to record what was for them a momentous occasion. I was still in a state of shock, not quite believing that I was voluntarily going to eat the roasted chicken.

But I did. And I felt weird. I faked having terrible stomach cramps, though everyone, even Maya, knew I was kidding. It tasted fine. I was never a chicken fan, but the potatoes were very sumptuous.

Right before I ate, Miguel said, “I know this is going to be better than quorn,” which is a tofu-like substance probably derived in some laboratory on a former commune tucked behind hills of marijuana plants and patches of organic fruits and vegetables.

Was it better? I don’t know. Was it healthier? I don’t know. How do I feel about this sudden and drastic change in my life, where I’ve dropped a label—vegetarian—that has been an intimate part of my life since I was 20? I don’t know.

Two days before I ate the chicken, I spoke with a friend whom I’ve known since the early 1980s. He’d been a vegetarian for many years, but ditched it after his wife, Laura, was diagnosed with cancer several years ago. She died in 2003.

I started explaining to Dan that some people have said people need certain nutrients from animal sources, especially as they age, and maybe it was a good time for me to switch. Then I said, “And Verna has been gently hounding me for years. Now that she has cancer she figures…”

He stopped me there and said, “Well, if your wife wants you to, that is reason enough.”

Meatless in San Francisco no more.

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