Jun 192014
 

When people ask me about why I became a vegetarian, I’m sure they’re braced for some PETA-scripted canned response about choosing not to eat anything with a face, or some granola manifesto about health benefits. But my vegetarianism story was born from sheer stubbornness.

My mom wasn’t a bad cook, but I hated her pork chops. Naturally, this was the meal she seemed to make the most when I was growing up. They were just so dry and worthless, and always laying on my plate in some hideous, mocking, splayed-out fashion; all the apple sauce in the world couldn’t make them go down any easier.

Finally, at age 16, I snapped. Maybe a regular kid would have faked a pork chop allergy, but I chose a different route to get out of choking down those hunks of dry rot: I just wasn’t going to eat meat at all. Ever. Not even Slim Jims or bacon bits.

My parents saw this as a huge joke, something new to heckle me about, to place bets upon. “Oh look, Erin wants attention from us again!” They were used to this behavior from me. Once, I vowed to eat nothing but Welch’s grape popsicles because I was trying to get a hospital admittance to avoid going on vacation with my Aunt Sharon (who is crazier than me). But I stopped after a few days because no one was paying attention, and I ran out of Welch’s grape popsicles.

My vegetarianism was basically just another Welch’s Grape Popsicle episode as far as my parents were concerned, and they egged me on in all of the worst possible ways. They gave me three days tops before I succumbed to meatloaf. (My mom really did make a fantastic meatloaf. So moist. So meaty. So topped with Ketchup.)

This is why, 18 years later, when people ask me how I became a vegetarian, my answer is a simple “I hated my mom’s pork chops.”

***

In 1996, getting into a vegetarian lifestyle was pretty rough. I lived in Pittsburgh, not Los Angeles. Denny’s didn’t have Gardenburgers on their menus yet, Giant Eagle’s frozen food aisle wasn’t exactly a Garden of Eden, and my mom refused to make separate dinners for me. So while my family gnawed on BBQ ribs in front of me, I would eat cheese sandwiches and cereal and act like it was a meal fit for Valhalla, because: STUBBORN. At school, I would pair a peanut butter cookie with a carton of iced tea and call that lunch. I was terrible at this, but determined.

Finally, I started buying Vegetarian Times magazine from the bookstore and kind of started learning about what it was I was doing exactly. I began collecting recipes but my mom was like, “Tofu? What the hell is that? Fuck you.” So one weekend when my family was out of town, I hosted my own vegetarian dinner for some friends, which was no small feat because there was no Internet, no Whole Foods that I had ever heard of way over here in my South Hills suburban wonderland. I had to use the YELLOW PAGES to find some weird health food store in Mt. Lebanon that sold kelp and tempeh and a package of tofu that I would wind up having a staring contest with later because what the hell do you do with tofu? I had to beg my friend Lisa to begrudgingly drive me out there so I could buy ingredients for a dinner that no one but me was going to enjoy. Because “Sea”sar salad doesn’t sound appetizing to meat-eaters, I guess.
That was my first and last attempt at “cooking,” by the way. Sorry to all of the boyfriends who came later, expecting a home cooked meal. Not on my watch.

***

As a kid constantly struggling with thunder thighs, weight loss was a perk I thought would go hand-in-hand cutting meat out of my life. Newsflash: replacing chicken and beef with cheese in 87 different forms is not conducive to losing weight. When I’d go out with friends in high school, I’d eat the shit out of grilled cheeses, dressing-drenched Caesar salads capped with veritable parmesan hats, fettuccine Alfredo, just give me all of the cheese. My friends and I would always go to this diner called Home Cookin’ and I went through a good long phase where all I would order was cole slaw and pie. One of the waitresses laughed as she scribbled down my order late one night and asked, “You pregnant?”

“No, I’m a vegetarian,” I replied somberly.

Once I moved out at 18, it got even worse. I had friends over constantly, so we would order out all of the time. Cheese pizza, cheese sticks, cheese-covered eggplant parmesan hoagies, cheese hoagies with extra cheese to replace the meat. It’s a wonder I didn’t spend most of my 20s in a state of perma-constipation.

The only vegetables I ever ate were breaded, fried and delivered to my house by a bored teenager driving an Omni. Not to mention all of the alcohol that was consumed. I was far from that “anemic vegetarian” that my grandma worried I was going to turn into.

But at least being a vegetarian would render fast food impossible, right? Four words: Taco Bell’s 7-layer burritos.

One time, a security guard at one of my jobs said he was surprised I was a vegetarian.

“Why?” I asked, wondering if my natural stench was eau de osso bucco and I just didn’t know it.

“You know,” he said, cutting an hour glass shape into the air with his hands.

Suffice it to say, I had gained some weight those first few years.

***

An important thing to know about me is that I am helpless; basically just a flailing flesh-sack in a scary meat-filled world.

When I started dating my current boyfriend Henry in 2001, he was horrified when he opened my refrigerator and found it full of alcohol, condiments and film. (Because photography was more important than nutrition.)

“Why don’t you have any food?” he asked incredulously.

So I showed him the box of rice and cans of Spaghetti O’s on the shelf, the only things that I could purchase from the gas station down the street that I actually could kind of cook OK on those off-nights when I wasn’t being fed by chain restaurants.

“How are you getting your protein?” he asked, and I swear this isn’t going in the sleazy direction you might have in mind.

I had no answer for him. I barely knew the food pyramid, and he was asking me about protein?

After that conversation, Henry started cooking real meals for me, dishes loaded with vegetables, chick peas and tofu, because he was man enough to not give a shit about cooking with tofu, and I slowly started learning things I had never known, like what a “root vegetable” was.

Henry was appalled that I was a vegetarian who didn’t eat vegetables. Or fruit, for that matter. He made me things like mock mashed potatoes (I never knew I liked cauliflower!) and rice-and-fake-meat stuffed peppers, taught me that I really liked melons, and even added COOKBOOKS to my library of horror novels and Alternative Press issues.

By this time, a lot of the chain restaurants in Pittsburgh started offering veggie burgers on their menus, but Henry took me to a lot of ethnic restaurants, where vegetable-laden dishes and meat-substitutions were prevalent; it was starting to feel like maybe I stood a chance at survival. I still didn’t understand tofu, but I sure liked to eat it. I was starting to see vegetarianism as something more than a bet with my parents. It had become a lifestyle, and I began to realize that somewhere along the way, I stopped missing meat. Now I was eating things that I never knew existed, like seitan and tempeh, and I loved it.

I guess my point here is, if you want to be a vegetarian but lack a lot of basic life skills such as “how to grocery shop”, “how to read a recipe” and “how to operate kitchen machinery”, get yourself a good girlfriend/boyfriend/butler. It could open up a whole new world that normal, self-sufficient people already know about.

I can only imagine how high my cholesterol was before Henry the Nutrionist came in and pumped me full of vegetables. (Not a sex analogy, unless you want it to be.)

***

A few months after I swore off meat, I was in the attic smoking pot out of a crushed can of Cherikee Red with my friend Melissa. Nothing to see here. The rest of my family had gone out without me as usual, and my mom had left out a pan of the Hamburger Helper she made all the “normals” for dinner that night.

Teenager + pot = me lying in a pan of Hamburger Helper like some pathetic human-Garfield.

I cried in my bed that night like I had just had shameful hobo sex, my flesh smelling like it had been rubbed down with raw meat.

Up until pretty much right now, Melissa was the only one who knew meat had touched my PETA-anointed tongue but she vowed to keep quiet. I felt terrible about it, like I was such a fraud. But slip-ups happen and I suspect it’s more normal than the staunchest vegetarians will admit, like it’s some dirty, bloody cow carcass of a secret. I still wonder if there’s some sort of code I should be following. Should self-flagellation happen the next time I accidentally eat chicken disguised as a biscuit at a Chinese buffet? What is my penance? Sneaking meat is the dark underbelly of vegetarianism, like nuns fapping to pictures of Justin Bieber. No one talks about it. But sometimes, meat happens, folks.

In 2006, I would occasionally eat fish while I was pregnant, but I was trying to grow a healthy baby then so it made me feel like I wasn’t really cheating. (Don’t worry, Henry and my doctor knew what kinds of fish were OK for preggos to eat; I wasn’t sitting around eating bonbons and mercury sandwiches.) I vowed to stop after the baby was born, and I was doing so well until a few months later on vacation and some “friends” tempted me with sushi. You guys. It was so amazing!

“Don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone!” one of them said when I started crying at the table about feeling guilty. But that girl was such a snake, she probably went home and made a filtered LiveJournal post about it. (We are no longer friends, FYI.)

That was pretty much the gateway food for me. I resisted the urge for quite some time, but then I gave up and openly became a fish-eater and stopped calling myself a vegetarian because I ain’t no fraud.

Sushi, you guys. It is so good.

As of last week, I am back to eating “nothing that has a face.” I couldn’t take the guilt anymore, and the constant reminder that my mom would think she had won the war if she ever found out I was casually chewing sashimi like bubble gum. However, if you ask my son, he will tell you that Mommy eats meat when no one is home. Which could be true if I knew how to cook that shit. But I don’t. So, nice try, son.

***

I was a vegetarian for three years before someone asked me, “So are you ovo-lacto?”

“Ok,” I answered. Because I didn’t know there were different kinds of vegetarians! My three years of barely-passing Latin classes in high school at least helped me figure out that it meant I was a vegetarian who also ate dairy.

I was a vegetarian for six years before I found out that I wasn’t supposed to be eating food made from gelatin because it contains animal by-products. Two vegetarians actually had a shouting match about this at one of my game nights and I quietly shirked away because I didn’t want to get involved.

I was a vegetarian for ten years before I was finally able to accept that “vegetarianism” is not synonymous with “skinny.” We can still eat cake and cookies. And potato chips. And milk shakes . And Kit-Kats.

I’ve been a vegetarian for eighteen years and I still don’t know what to do with tofu. It just sits there in the package, looking all slimy and wet. And the “firm” and “extra firm” versions are just as jiggly, so whaddup, tofu? Explain yourself.

My friend Amber recently told me she wanted to add tofu to her diet and started asking me questions about it. Questions make me nervous because my response is usually “I don’t know.” Or just a shrug if I’m feeling like three words are just too much to muster. I’m conversationally ambivalent.

I had to text Henry and ask him what kind of tofu Amber should buy, because while I’ve come a long way in that I can now name more vegetables than peas and carrots, don’t ask me about tofu.

***

I worked in a butcher shop for 4 years. What kind of a vegetarian even looks at a butcher shop for a minute, let alone works inside one for 4 years?! Luckily, my office was upstairs from where all the disgusting shit was happening, but sometimes my boss thought it would be hilarious to send me downstairs to get the meat cutters’ lunch orders. I’d have to wear a USDA-approved hardhat, even.

Four years working in a butcher shop actually made it A LOT easier for me to stay true to my meatless lifestyle.

But then the Great American Bacon Explosion happened. Bacon sundaes. Bacon milkshakes. Maple bacon donuts. Maple bacon cupcakes. Chocolate-covered bacon. Candied bacon. Bacon-flavored condoms. Bacon breath mints. Bacon wigs. Bacon 4 President. Kitchen utensils to aid with the fashioning of bacon bowls to be filled with more bacon. I had no idea I even missed bacon that much until I was being tempted with bacon-wrapped apples in every garden. When I was a carnivore, bacon was just bacon. I mean, it was great, I loved it; but when did it become OMG BACON?

My tattoo guy is vegan. The last time I was at the shop, his consultation appointment brought him donuts, one of which was maple bacon. He quickly offered it to one of the other guys there. “Seriously, I might eat that if no one takes it. I think about bacon like, all of the time.”

“Me too!” I cried. And then I felt less alone in this small, meat-free community.

If I ever fall off the wagon for good, it will be because of bacon. Goddamn you, bacon.

***

***

There’s a stereotype for my kind: that obnoxious preachy person who sits across from you at dinner and judges you for ordering a steak. I was never that person. I don’t give a shit what you eat as long as you’re not dripping its blood on my plate. However, one time in 2003, I opened the refrigerator to see half of a Cryovac’d cow taking up an entire shelf. That might have been one of the most brutal fights Henry and I have ever had. He never brought shit like that into my house again.

It always bothered me though that I let people have their meat and eat it too, yet there were always those ones who just couldn’t wait to make fun of me for eating faux chicken nuggets and black bean burgers. Like the time my whole family erupted in exaggerated dry-heaves when Henry was nice enough to cook me a Tofurkey for Thanksgiving in 2004. I had to sit there while everyone pointed out how gross and disgusting I was, like I was hand-shoveling dog feces into my mouth. And then my mom would swear that she substituted cream of mushroom soup in her side dishes that called for cream of chicken, but then she would snicker, so God only knows what they were feeding me. I couldn’t eat anything my grandma made me because I was 95% convinced that she was pureeing beef into everything from soup to muffins so that I wouldn’t “catch anemia.”

Then there are the people who treat vegetarianism as a joke, refusing to order a plain pizza because they have zero respect for my dietary requirements. I got really good at picking pepperoni off pizza.

We can totally have a conversation without me thrusting a PETA petition at you (although I will sign the shit out of those at every single Warped Tour while Henry stands to the side, rolling his eyes up to the meat-filled heavens). I’m not going to tell you that you’re ruining your life by feasting on poor, defenseless animal flesh or hand you a pamphlet that illustrates what exactly is in that food court hot dog, because I don’t care what you do.

Moral: don’t judge me and my tofishy tacos and I won’t judge you and your KFC Double Down.

And don’t ask me about tofu.

  11 Responses to “Don’t Ask Me About Tofu”

  1. I’m not a huge meat eater (har har) but I don’t think I could ever fully stop eating it, and the biggest reason is probably bacon. I have always had a food crush on bacon, so when it became The Thing To Eat, I rejoiced. As it is, probably 80% of my food intake consists of fruit, veggies, and sugar.

  2. I don’t eat a lot of meat and have a love/hate relationship with it, certain aspects gross me out about it (bones, anything that looks like it did when it was alive ie. shellfish, no pork and no roast beef (my mother’s pot roast probably rivals your mother’s pork chops)) and could become a vegetarian easily if I weren’t so lazy. I guess meat eating is one of those bad habits I have chosen not to break. I can’t believe people were so mean about it to you though, so glad you have Henry to help you out.

  3. Great read. I like posts like this. I get to stalk you–er, learn more about you, while being entertained by your particular storytelling style.

    Henry is a veggie hero. All brocolli hails Henry.

    • Thanks as always! I originally wrote this as a guest post for a Pittsburgh blogger event thingie a few mths ago and figured it would make good filler while I’m on a mini-vaca ;)

  4. People are such dicks. Why do they even give a shit what anyone else is eating anyway? Unless someone grows it and forms it into whatever with their own two hands then they don’t even know what they’re eating in the first place. That burger could be human meat for all they know. Chances are it is a little. People who need to feel superior over others are so small.

    I’m always stoked when you give us long posts. You tell the best stories!

  5. Though I’ve jumped ship to the carnivore side again, I can totally relate to most of what you wrote here. It was far simpler to live the vegetarian lifestyle when I lived alone or with family who also shared the desire. Dating Bill broke me, plain and simple. I happen to know he delights in this fact, because he couldn’t help but comment on how he “converted me” back while dining at a steak house. Society challenges the lifestyle for sure! I remember feeling like an inconvenience for requesting meat-free meals, or getting 20 questions when I brought veggie dogs to a barbecue. There was always whispered commentary, concerned inquiries and empty apologies about food I “couldn’t” eat. It wasn’t an allergy, it was a choice – duh! I am/was also very indifferent about what others chose and ate, but never really got the same courtesy. Even now, I eat a lot of things people consider weird or gross, and I simply don’t care. I’m not fond of the negative attention I get when I bring a box of nigiri into the office, but I try to brush it off. Truth be told, I’d gladly go back and have very little personal struggle with it, if not for my busy schedule. Unfortunately with 14 hours between leaving and coming home from work, I rely on Bill to help prepare food and manage the house. I love him to death, but he’s no Henry in the kitchen. Most of his mastered dishes involve meat in a big way, follow a box recipe, or almost entirely lack vegetables of any sort. When I was a vegetarian I often had to prepare 2 meals and overstretch my budget, it became cumbersome and more expensive than I could manage. He just simply won’t eat certain things and I don’t have the energy to double cook or pre-prepare meals. I’m hoping that gardening may help with this somewhat. Perhaps if Bill helped grow the veggies, he’d be more likely to give them a try. I need to make some changes either way, meat or not, and get away from things in cans or boxes. Now you’ve got my brain churning, thanks for the inspiration.

    PS. I like tofu, but preparing it myself always seemed tricky and never turned out as well as when I ordered from a restaurant. I feel your pain.

  6. Ooops, didn’t mean to post logged in as W3, my bad…

    Though I’ve jumped ship to the carnivore side again, I can totally relate to most of what you wrote here. It was far simpler to live the vegetarian lifestyle when I lived alone or with family who also shared the desire. Dating Bill broke me, plain and simple. I happen to know he delights in this fact, because he couldn’t help but comment on how he “converted me” back while dining at a steak house. Society challenges the lifestyle for sure! I remember feeling like an inconvenience for requesting meat-free meals, or getting 20 questions when I brought veggie dogs to a barbecue. There was always whispered commentary, concerned inquiries and empty apologies about food I “couldn’t” eat. It wasn’t an allergy, it was a choice – duh! I am/was also very indifferent about what others chose and ate, but never really got the same courtesy. Even now, I eat a lot of things people consider weird or gross, and I simply don’t care. I’m not fond of the negative attention I get when I bring a box of nigiri into the office, but I try to brush it off. Truth be told, I’d gladly go back and have very little personal struggle with it, if not for my busy schedule. Unfortunately with 14 hours between leaving and coming home from work, I rely on Bill to help prepare food and manage the house. I love him to death, but he’s no Henry in the kitchen. Most of his mastered dishes involve meat in a big way, follow a box recipe, or almost entirely lack vegetables of any sort. When I was a vegetarian I often had to prepare 2 meals and overstretch my budget, it became cumbersome and more expensive than I could manage. He just simply won’t eat certain things and I don’t have the energy to double cook or pre-prepare meals. I’m hoping that gardening may help with this somewhat. Perhaps if Bill helped grow the veggies, he’d be more likely to give them a try. I need to make some changes either way, meat or not, and get away from things in cans or boxes. Now you’ve got my brain churning, thanks for the inspiration.

    PS. I like tofu, but preparing it myself always seemed tricky and never turned out as well as when I ordered from a restaurant. I feel your pain.

    • Oh man, thank you for reading this! I’m glad that it got your brain churning!

      It was fun to write this because I totally had forgotten how trying it was to be a vegetarian in the 90s. Like, I bet the Bavarian Inn didn’t have a vegetarian menu back then!

      Henry made Dorito-crusted tofu for me last week before we left for our road trip and it was pretty good. I can send you the recipe if you want!

  7. I became a vegetarian at 16 too, but my mom made me research the shit out of it first. I was about as well prepared as a vegetarian could be in 1989. I got lucky though. A local store’s cafe had veggie burgers on their menu on Fridays only as early as 91/92, and I worked at a vegetarian cafe in 92/93. I had other vegetarians to fall back on.

    Now I’m too lazy for it. I cook for a massively picky husband and a kid with serious texture issues. Simple meat and veg dishes make my life a zillion times easier.

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