I love meat. My meal of choice has always been a big juicy burger, extra grease and add bacon. Lots of bacon. A medium-well steak with a little bit of A1 and a loaded baked potato with bacon, sour cream, and topped with cheese and butter. Did I say extra bacon? When it’s time to order the monthly Pizza Hut pizza, keep the vegetables off of it, extra pig and cow for me, please. Give me the Meat Lover’s pizza.
Vegetables and I have never gotten along. There’s only a few that I’d attempt to eat. In fact, it’s such a short list that I can name them here. Ready? Peas, green beans, potatoes (do these even count?), corn. That burger? Hold the tomato, onion, and pickle, please. I’ll eat the lettuce, but that’s just a waste of stomach real estate.
This particular quirk was thrown in my face when an old friend stopped by on her way back home to the hipster paradise of Seattle. She’s a vegetarian. Not just a “Oh, I’ll just have a salad” vegetarian, but a die-hard militant “don’t you dare eat that poor, poor animal” vegetarian. I realized that not only would I not eat anything that she wanted to eat, but I didn’t even understand the concept of a meal without the flesh of an animal.
I ended up escaping the horrors of making a vegetarian meal by going to Venti’s Cafe. I had my usual chicken teriyaki with noodles, she went with the falafel platter. We spent a portion of the meal talking about her transformation from a meat eater to vegetarian. Her meatloaf recipe is one that I still pass around to people who say they don’t like meatloaf. How could she betray the trust of carnivores everywhere?
Her answer was simple: you’re eating tortured animals that had to die so you could have that burger. And by the way, that burger is going to give you a heart attack.
And you know what? She’s right. Not many people enjoy the idea of animal flesh being the main portion of every meal. Some people solve the problem by eating happy, local farm-raised animals who are taken care of when they are alive and then savored on a plate later. Others end up being either vegetarian or the hardest of hardcore: vegan. And then some of us try to ignore the fact that meat comes from animals. As I’m sure you could guess, I’m in the last camp. I don’t want to shake hooves with a cow before eating its rear end.
The herbivore angel on one shoulder said that I shouldn’t eat another living, breathing thing. The carnivore devil on the other shoulder said that it’s just a tasty dumb cow, who doesn’t know how to do anything but prepare to be steak. Its life, a marination process.
In homage to Morgan Spurlock, I issued myself a 30-day challenge:
1) Do not eat meat. This involves being anal-retentive and verifying all labels to be sure there are no animal preservatives, meat products, flavoring, etc.
2) Spend no more money than normal on food. An easy excuse not to change your diet is to say that you can’t afford to change it.
3) Don’t eat exclusively at restaurants that serve vegetarian fare. This last one ended up being more about making sure that friends weren’t choosing restaurants that had a large selection of vegetarian food to eat, so I didn’t whimper while looking at the menu.
Grocery shopping was pretty easy. I ended up with a grocery list from allrecipes.com that gave me 20 ingredients to make 20 meals with. As the month progressed I went off the book, but a sizable list to start with helped me go from clueless to somewhat informed. There was a whole lot of green in the cart, but surprisingly not a whole lot of green spent at the cash register.
One thing I was surprised by was the fact that some cheeses also contain meat products. I’m not talking about the beef jerky and cheddar stick combos. I mean cheeses that contain the stomach tissues of a slaughtered cow. The tissues are used to coagulate the cheese. You can find vegetable rennet in some, but you’ve got to be careful to read every label. You also have to watch out for gelatin in cottage cheeses. You do know gelatin is an animal product, right? Yes, my friends, Jell-O is made from skin and bones.
One of my first homemade vegetarian meals was falafel. I had the pita, the grape tomatoes, nice crisp romaine lettuce. On the first attempt, I combined all of the ingredients, made the falafel balls and plunked them into the hot oil and they fell apart immediately into the bottom of the pan. Later, I would discover that the trick for successful falafel balls is refrigerating the mixture for at least a couple of hours before deep frying.
Being a huge fan of Mexican food, I was able to adjust the food I normally would eat into its healthier vegetarian cousin. Normal cheesy chicken enchiladas became just cheesy enchiladas. Chicken and rice burritos became black beans, rice, on a flour tortillas, topped with cheese, sour cream and hot sauce.
I tried to cheat by using some soy mixture fake meat called “Smart Ground” to add to burritos. It came prepackaged, preseasoned, and predisgusting. It ruined my otherwise good burritos. You may just want to avoid fake meat entirely. There are plenty of good options for vegetarian recipes that don’t rely on them.
Some places are easier than others to find vegetarian food. Marco Polo was by far the easiest restaurant to order from. Venti’s came in a close second, with the vegetarian meals highlighted in their menu. The hardest place was a forsaken Applebee’s trip, where I ended up with a house salad. Steakhouses are not built for vegetarians. Go figure.
Bacon is sneaky. The Applebee’s salad came with unexpected bacon on the top, which was promptly removed. Willamette Noodle’s grown-up mac and cheese, while tasty, also adds some ninjalike pork to the dish.
When going out, you’ve got to ask questions to make sure that you end up with vegetarian food. For example, Kuong Chan’s Chinese Restaurant on Portland Road has hot and sour soup that has a chicken base. They do not offer a vegetarian soup. Marco Polo’s hot and sour soup is vegetarian, but not vegan. It uses an egg base.
Fast food was no-go. It’s very hard to trust the variations in the way that chains cook food. French fries should be potatoes and oil, right? Bzzzt. McDonald’s french fries and hash browns contain beef flavoring. The options with fast food is to either overly question the worker bee at the counter about things they probably don’t know or avoid it completely.
To veg or not to veg?
It’s hard not to acknowledge the rewards of going vegetarian. The first is obviously being able to look down my nose at people who are eating flesh. I mean, who doesn’t like being obnoxious?
From a health standpoint, there is some benefit to eating vegetarian. I’ve lost a lot of weight: about 25 pounds. That resulted in going down multiple size increments in clothes. I had less calorie intake simply by removing meat from most meals. That’s not to say that I didn’t gorge myself on cheese enchiladas or a pizza.
Morally, I haven’t really felt any better. There are plenty of locally viable options for buying open pasture chickens and non-tortured livestock. My shoes are made out of leather, which means a cow died so that I can keep my feet dry. So it’s hard for me to say that karmically my hands are clean. If it were purely political or moral, then I’d step up my game and become vegan.
In the long run, I’ll likely go back to eating meat – with the caveat that I’m going to pay special attention to where it comes from. I won’t be running out to fill my freezer with hamburger and chicken immediately. But from time to time, I’ll chow down on a locally raised organic happy cow.
I’ve expanded my menu options at least fourfold and don’t feel like I couldn’t possibly eat or make a meal without animal products. That seems like success for the challenge and for my long-term health.
I’m not a doctor. Consult a doctor before changing your diet. Your mileage may vary. Void where prohibited. Batteries not included.