Where’s the Beef?


I am not a very good vegetarian anymore. There, I said it. Sure, I still like to veg out. Be still like vegetables. Lay like broccoli. But I used to be an exemplary vegetarian. A few years ago The New Yorker ran a cartoon of one woman explaining to another during a meal: “I started my vegetarianism for health reasons, then it became a moral choice, and now it’s just to annoy people.” Four people sent me that cartoon, including my parents. Who faxed it to me. At work. I grew to accept that my refusal to eat anything that once had the will to crap was funny for others. As part of my acceptance, I had to laugh at veggie jokes that were never very funny. The upside was I got to have (vegetable) stock answers prepared for queries about my diet.

For example: Most of your shoes are made of leather or suede. Why is that?

“Because I’m not going to eat my boots, that’s why. There’s a big difference between stepping on something and making it a part of you. I’m not going to eat sidewalk either.”

What do you mean “no meat”? No chicken? No lobster?

“Just venison.”

The problem now is I’m not sure I have the right to slyly defend myself in this manner, not anymore. What follows is a roughage exposé, if you will.

The first thing to understand is that being a vegetarian is actually a pretty private matter. I am still taken aback by the question “Then what do you eat?” and am embarrassed as I struggle to produce the week’s food diary. It’s not that I’m ashamed of what I eat, but it’s none of anyone’s business. I imagine I would have a similar feeling counting up how many pairs of underwear I went through in a week (OK, nine). It’s strange to be interested in something so basic that I barely register it as an activity. The only reason opening someone’s refrigerator is more socially acceptable than opening someone’s medicine cabinet is that people keep beer in their refrigerator. (And what’s really socially unacceptable is drinking alone.)

In this way—something once between a select few now coming out of the freezer—being a vegetarian in this city is not unlike being gay. Vegetarian restaurants and options abound. I have the same number of veggie friends as I do gay friends. Because it’s so common and sometimes even hip to be a vegetarian, it’s become socially acceptable to poke fun of us. Being a vegan, of course, is more like the dietary equivalent of being a transsexual. Acceptance isn’t quite as contagious as it should be.

I tried being a vegan once. Six months of tempeh and kale and I cracked like a rice cake and inhaled an entire box of fluorescent mac and cheese. It was just too hard for me to keep up the charade of a dairy-free existence. The surprising part was how easy veganism was to enter into. You read enough books that make The Jungle look like Goodnight, Moon and you wake up one day to find yourself a recycled-paper-card-carrying member of the tofu mafia. And I knew which books to read, all right.

My own private Idaho potato went like this: When I was a teenager a renowned South African acupuncturist moved in next door to my parents. He and his wife (who pronounces lime like lamb, thus leading to the infamous pie recipe debacle) are still the hippest couple my parents know and single-handedly responsible for introducing them to Whole Foods and the Fugees. One day I told the acupuncturist I wanted to be a vegetarian. I wish I could remember why I wanted to stop eating meat, but this was high school and I also wish I could remember my motivation for drinking Zima and wearing flannel in public. I met with a nutritionist in the acupuncturist’s office on Fifth Avenue. She took my whim far more seriously than I did. She talked about tahini, how to cook vegetables properly, and the semi-apocalyptic idea that you could soak almonds for days to make “milk.” That I never tried. But I did buy a cookbook called The Single Vegan, not because I was single at the time but because this was the only vegan cookbook available. Looking back, I should have taken it as a cosmic hint to be less of a high-maintenance eater—the soy cheese always stands alone. Instead I saw myself as this nutritionist woman saw me: a power vegan. I juiced things. Lots of things.

For a while anyway. Damn you, delicious powdered cheese.

So that’s my story of how I became a veggie—because I couldn’t hack it as a vegan. Except the problem now is I can’t hack it as a vegetarian either. What can I say? New York is sushi city, and sushi is the one thing I’ve consistently craved over the past decade (besides the secret craving of every vegetarian: bacon). My education about the moral and environmental impact of eating meat is thorough, but my response to all the statistics has developed a major fissure called “sashimi.” At first I started with gateway fish: salmon and tuna. I think it’s because when I pictured them, they were in massive schools where, going against the current of every crunchy article I had ever believed in, I reasoned: Would they really miss just one? Probably more convenient with one less car on the road. And wham: Now I’ll eat eel.

In my lame defense, it’s very hard to be a girl and say you won’t eat something. Refuse one plate of bacon-wrapped pork rinds and you’re an anorexic. Accept them and you’re on Atkins. Excuse yourself to go to the bathroom and you’re bulimic. Best to keep perfectly still and bring an IV of fluids with you to dinner.

I tell other vegetarians that I started eating sushi because I developed an iron deficiency. This is a total lie. But it’s a lie that works. Contrary to popular belief, vegetarians aren’t holistic Nazis or New Yorker cartoons. They will accept medical betrayal. What they won’t accept is that I got lazy, that I decided fish were yummy and didn’t have nervous systems complex enough to register pain, that Edward Furlong is a freak for trying to free the lobsters and David Foster Wallace thinks too hard about our acquaintances of the sea.

So what’s to become of me now? Like anything that begins on the fringe, vegetarianism is dominated by older adherents who will kick you out of the veggie club faster than you can say “grilled vegetable terrine.” With raw and organic food available in every zip code, we have it easy compared to them. Back in their day they had to walk five miles, uphill both ways, until their Birkenstocks were bloody, just to get a slice of polenta. They are quick to judge and would rather break bread with a veal eater than a nouveau fad vegetarian. I eat with the fishes so life is easy for me all of a sudden. Thus I have kept my mouth shut about my dirty sushi secret until now.

The truth is I’m not particularly sure why I don’t eat meat anymore. Any well-educated carnivore could easily thrash me in a debate on the subject—but not dissuade me. Meat (cows, pigs, Bambi) is the final frontier and I can’t bring myself to cross it. Alas, I will continue to attend weddings where I have to politely pull the waiter aside and explain my situation. Without fail the exact same plate returns 10 minutes later—a couple of string beans rolling in the juicy outline of a steak. Yes, my proclivity for the chickpea has staying power. And why? Habit. Habit and a penchant for snarky anti-carnivore comebacks.

Except now I have to be careful not to make them in the company of hardcore vegetarians. I still consider myself a vegetarian, but after this little confession the tofu mafia will cast me out. It’s more acceptable to tailor your own religion (see this first-date classic: “I don’t believe in God, but I do believe in something bigger than ‘us’ “) than it is to tailor your own vegetarianism. My one hope is that if vegetarianism really is some urban faith, this is me throwing my hearts and my palms together and renewing my vows to vegetables. The words are secondary to the sentiment. Praise be to wheatgrass. Artichoke me with okra and baptize me in beet juice. Juices saves.

That’s what counts, right? It better be . . . or else my fellow vegetarians will eat me alive for it.