I was a vegetarian for eight years, from age 12 to 20. Because I was not only a preteen, but a cartoonish parody of a preteen, my conversion was almost entirely precipitated by the musical Rent – specifically, the line in “La Vie Bohème” when someone sing-orders pasta with meatless balls. 24-year-old me understands this throwaway lyric was probably intended as nothing more than a) a moment of hipster self-deprecation and b) a balls joke, because what Broadway musical wouldn’t be instantly improved with the addition of a balls joke? But to 12-year-old me, a wide-eyed, brace-faced, precocious weirdo, it was nothing less than a heaven-sent blueprint for coolness. I wanted to be cool. Vegetarianism would make me cool.
And it went okay. I could never – will never, unless lopsided glasses with finger-smudged lenses unexpectedly come into fashion – rightly be called “cool,” but I found that I enjoyed being a vegetarian for its own sake. It inoculated me with a small measure of resistance to crying during ASPCA commercials (key word: small), and made things easier in ways I wouldn’t have expected. Fewer choices, fewer risks, fewer reasons for someone as painfully indecisive and slow to change as me to order anything but grilled cheese at diners. In high school, I lunched almost exclusively on cafeteria pizza and, on special occasions, macaroni and cheese kids’ meals from Boston Market. For most of college, I subsisted on a diet of Boca Burgers, Diet Coke, and vanilla frosting.
When I was 16, a boyfriend thought it would be funny to feed me a spoonful of a pasta dish that contained chicken and, for him, it was. (We dated for another year after that. As I said: indecisive, slow to change.) Once, I accidentally took a bite of a scallop dish, having mistaken it for scalloped potatoes. Other than that, I never strayed, for no good reason but inertia.
During winter break my junior year of college, I traveled to Spain with my roommate, Anna. It was my first time outside the country as a semi-adult, and I was nervous. I’d known going into the trip that vegetarian options would be few and far between. I decided that, good sport that I was, I’d gamely eat a little meat if the situation called for it. The situation called for it earlier than I expected, when I was faced with a shrink-wrapped, over-microwaved, and altogether anticlimactic chicken breast on the flight out of Boston. I chewed, reluctantly, and swallowed. Was this all I’d been missing?
We split two weeks between hostels and in the home of Anna’s doting, generous host family from a previous summer abroad. Juana, her host mother, was particularly wonderful, but a force of nature. In Spanish I understood at best two-thirds of, she refused to accept that the physical limitations of my untested stomach made it difficult for me to finish my heaping portions of her meaty home cooking, ridiculously delicious though it was. But after a few days (and nights) of intestinal woe, I finally began to take pleasure in my rumspringa. A great deal of pleasure, in the form of Serrano ham, unsettlingly juicy prawns, and pots of paella large enough to be visible from space.
Before the flight back, I’d remembered to preorder a vegetarian meal online. But as I poked my fork into the doleful, gelatinous veggie loaf that jiggled before me, I knew it wasn’t the same. I’d chosen the dark side.
The next year passed in a myoglobin haze. I consumed meat almost single-mindedly, to the detriment of my digestive system and the delight of every other part of my body. I ate bacon, I ate bone marrow, I ate chicken-fried steaks slathered in country gravy. I experienced the glory of the cheeseburger for the first time since childhood. I tried venison, chili, snails, and hot wings. It was like coming down with a cold and only half-tasting everything for weeks, then one day snapping out of it and suddenly appreciating the full floral bouquet of a heretofore bleh bowl of oatmeal. But we’re not, of course, talking about oatmeal. It was like falling in love.
I felt better, stronger, and happier than I’d ever been. Replacing frosting as my primary source of protein may have contributed to this – before, I was both figuratively and, I suspect, literally anemic.
Without exception, the vegetarians I know enjoy lives full of delicious and satisfying food, whereas, in my personal food pyramid, Cheetos’ vaguely carroty color qualified them as produce. For those with the means of doing so, there are many good reasons to forego eating animals – health, ethics, the environment – and much better ways to do it than via the processed cheese-based nutrition plan I adopted as a teenager. But for me – as bleeding heart as the rest of my belief system may be – eating meat is choosing pleasure, and curiosity, and growth, and a three-dimensionality of experience that I once avoided because it overwhelmed me.
One of the first nights I stayed at my boyfriend’s house, he offered to make me a steak in the early hours of the morning. A strange thing that happens when you spend much of your young life as a vegetarian is that you accumulate a long list of seemingly commonplace foods you’ve never tried. Steak was on mine.
He took a ribeye from his freezer (n.b. date someone with a mysterious supply of steaks in their freezer) seasoned it with salt, pepper, and rosemary, seared it, roasted it, then basted it in butter and garlic. My first bite, all fat and umami, lit up deep-seated neurons I didn’t know I had. Again, I fell in love.