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I'd toyed with vegetarianism since junior high. I still have a copy of Anna Thomas's 1978 Vegetarian Epicure Book Two inscribed "Bon appetit!" by a high school friend in 1981, and in my freshman year of college, my boyfriend and I relied on Molly Katzen and the Moosewood Collective's twee Enchanted Broccoli Forest whenever we weren't eating boxed mac 'n' cheese with added green peppers or peanut butter and homemade apple butter sandwiches on whole-wheat bread.
But it wasn't until I was a married philosophy student in my mid-20s that I went all-out veg.
I was sitting in a sun-filled ground-floor apartment one morning, reading Being and Nothingness for a Sartre seminar, when I heard an infernal yowling from the alley. I ran out in my white nightgown and found a small black cat who'd managed to get her collar caught on a protruding nail. She was hanging there—it looked like her neck was broken. I ran back in, grabbed a pair of scissors, ran back out, and cut her free. Thank god, she seemed to be OK—she sped off, spooked. But I couldn't get over the moment our eyes had met. This had been a creature in mortal terror.
Sartre's argument for the existence of other minds* boils down to this: the gaze, the mind meld that in a glance shows that you are dealing with another subjective consciousness.
I had felt that powerfully, and that night, I told my then-husband that I had to be a vegetarian. An agreeable sort who ate a lot of sunflower seeds and loved avocados, he put up with spaghetti carbonara—then and now one of my favorite things—made with pathetic fake ham or Bac-Os.
I lost weight, but I can't say I was a particularly healthy vegetarian. ("You can't just eat a muffin," I remember a friend telling me in a bar.) I got on a kick, making a grilled sandwich with cheddar, grated carrots, scallions, cukes, and cream cheese as my meal for the day. When we philosophy grad students went out for pizza every Friday, pineapple and jalapeño was a hit.
Meanwhile, my mom was the type to say, "Oh, you can eat turkey," at Thanksgiving or Christmas. I stuck with my stuffed mushrooms, but on one occasion, as my dad was beginning a slow decline from rheumatoid arthritis, I made him one of his favorite foods: ham balls, from one of my aunts' recipes.
Graham crackers? Ketchup? Raw egg? Five pounds of ground ham and meat? Well, never mind—I plunged up to my elbows in the stuff and, in the freezer, left multiple trays of 60 ham balls for my pop.
I do remember being made a particularly succulent and new-for-me-at-the-time dish of chicken thighs in a coconut-based Thai-style chile sauce while over at the house of one of my professors. It was delicious. It's just as hard to turn down someone's hospitality as it is to say, peremptorily, "Oh, by the way, I don't eat meat" (or eggs, or gluten, or what have you) when someone has been generous enough to invite you to a meal.
Hence my downfall. While writing my dissertation, I was a docent at the historic Whitehall Museum House in Middletown, Rhode Island, the residence of Irish philosopher and bishop George F. Berkeley from 1729-31.** It's maintained by the Colonial Dames (an organization that predates the DAR, mind you), and one of these kind, extremely WASP-y ladies invited me to dinner, which was: chicken.
Reader, I ate it.
I still don't eat much meat, but when I moved to Chicago, I found it hard to turn down the chance to try things like the chicken boti at Khan's or the duck at Sun Wah BBQ. I don't really know how to cook serious meat—I suppose I could grill a steak, but I've never even made a pot roast, not to mention a pork loin. (I have successfully roasted a turkey on several occasions.)
I do like lamb, though, and I don't regret trips to Hot Doug's or Edzo's. But when I cook for myself, it's almost always vegetarian—the potato-mushroom soup with thyme I made last night is vegan. And I still believe strongly that animals are conscious beings who should be treated humanely and eaten only mindfully, as sanctimonious and Michael Pollan-esque as that might sound.
*And yes, laugh if you want to, but that's a perennial issue in philosophy: how do you know that you're not surrounded by animatrons, say?
**Berkeley had been blown off course on his way to Bermuda, where he intended to found a college.
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