Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Meat and Potatoes

Who am I and why am I here? Every once in a while I have the urge to quote the, um, immortal words of Admiral Stockdale, made during his interesting vice presidential candidacy many moons ago.

I ask those questions now because I am having a personal identity crisis. After being a vegetarian for 30 years, I started eating chicken and fish in February. My carnivorous ways lasted about three weeks before I returned to nuts, berries, and grazing in the backyard.

But this summer I was felled by a nasty virus that sapped me of all my strength. After I found out I wasn’t beset with the swine flu, meningitis, or severe sinusitis, Verna simply said, “Maybe you need to eat meat. Maybe your body isn’t getting enough protein.”

Thus I decided that after three decades of eating a high variety of fruits, vegetables, nuts, grains, and everything soy, maybe I needed larger volumes of animal protein. So I ate some salmon burgers and marinated chicken—not at the same time. Within a few days, I was feeling much better.

“See, you just needed to eat meat,” Verna said, trying to sound as if she were a nutritionist.

I argued with her to no avail. What if, I posed, the lingering virus had just run its’ course, and that was why I had more energy?

“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that you ate meat and now you’re better just like that,” she responded.

Arguing with Verna is usually a losing proposition for me, so I gave up and gave in, lest I offend the marriage gods and awaken the slumbering virus. I accepted that as I’ve reached 50, my body may in fact need the nutrients provided by high quantities of animal products.

But I was sticking to my resolve that I only eat chicken and fish, and both had to be hormone and antibiotic-free and all-natural. I still struggled with guilt over abandoning my ethical commitment to vegetarianism, but I hoped I was doing something that would ultimately be healthier for me.

I even got to eat salmon that Miguel caught. He went fishing a few weeks ago on Lake Tahoe with my father-in-law and a few of Verna’s cousins, and caught five salmon, second most in the group of six.

“It was gross watching Roger (one of Verna’s first cousins) clean the fish,” said Miguel about the gutting and cleaning of the salmon, blood, bones, and fish entrails oozing to the floor.

Miguel didn’t enjoy eating the bounty he caught (he’s never been a fan of fish except for calamari), but he seemed glad that I ate it. And how often does one get to enjoy a meal his son or daughter fetched out of the open water?

So I wasn’t overjoyed about eating chicken or fish, but my resignation wasn’t too bad. Then, a few weeks ago, my neighbor Ken, whose wedding I officiated at recently, said, “We’re going to have a barbecue soon and we’ll be serving meat.”

“Ken,” I boasted, “you roast the meat and I’ll eat it.”

It was a throw away line, similar to ‘let’s do lunch’ or ‘just let me know how I can help’. I wasn’t really serious, but that’s my nature. I was almost bullshitting Ken in a neighborly way. He’s my friend, I officiated at his wedding, and he was inviting us to a small barbecue outside his home. Meat? Sure, no problem. I’m your guy.

I didn’t think he took me seriously. Most people rarely do.

On the day before the barbecue, two Sundays ago, Ken mentioned dinner was going to be around five. I didn’t even say anything to Verna, figuring that since we had no plans I could tell her on Sunday.

Well, on Sunday morning Verna came to me. “Steve, why didn’t you tell me about the barbecue Ken and Corina are having today?”

“I was going to tell you. It’s pretty informal. Just us and them.”

“Ken’s making steaks,” she said.

“I know he’s making meat. But I’m sure there’ll be chicken or fish too.”

“Just meat,” she said. “And he bought it special for you. They went to Whole Foods and got the grass-fed, range-free steaks. Just for you. You better eat the meat.”

Oops. Gulp.

So I ate steak for the first time in more than 30 years. The last time was in 1979 when Mindy Domb and I broiled kosher minute steaks we’d seasoned with garlic salt in our college dormitory in NYC.

Ken’s steak tasted fine. I had two small pieces to go along with Verna’s homemade potato salad and Corina’s tomato, onion, and feta salad. I am not really a meat fan, so I can’t say I enjoyed the steak. But I truly appreciated all the effort Ken and Corina put into the meal, largely on my behalf. They kept asking me, “How is the meal?” And I kept answering truthfully, “Very nice. I am just glad to be here with you.”

And we topped off the slabs of flesh with chocolate pecan cookies and ice cream mud pies, delectable desserts designed to savor and enjoy with deep satisfaction.

But the meal did precipitate my identity crisis. If I am no longer a vegetarian, a health-conscious guy for ethical and environmental reasons, then who am I? Prior to becoming a vegetarian as a college sophomore, I kept kosher. Now I am no longer a vegetarian and the meat I am consuming is not even kosher. What the hell has happened to me? After so many years of defining myself by my commitment to sustainable eating, I felt adrift in the culinary sea.

The day before Ken and Corina’s barbecue, Verna, Miguel, Maya and I attended the Eat Real Festival in Oakland, which featured all-natural, sustainable, and locally grown foods that were either raised humanely (in the case of meat, chicken, and fish) or produced without any artificial preservatives or ingredients. I’d actually had a chicken sausage that was quite good. It made me realize that rubbery tofu hot dogs, even slathered with mustard and ketchup, are no match for the real thing.

So maybe I have solved my identity crisis. I may no longer be a vegetarian or someone who keeps kosher, but I am someone who only wants to eat foods grown in a sustainable manner. For now, that will not only have to do, but it will have to be something to celebrate AND enjoy. Who am I? I am a sustainatarian. Something like that.

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