August 2017, I am 25
This time, it begins with Peach Rings. I find them in the candy drawer, which on an average day is full of cast-off heart-shaped boxes from Valentine’s Day, protein bars coated in chocolate, and fruit-flavored energy chews. Occasionally a bag of Reese’s peanut butter cups will take up residence in the drawer, but generally the candy drawer isn’t so much a place you go to get candy to eat, but a place you go when you’re desperate enough to eat the candy that lives there. Finding a tub of peachy goodness means this is no average day!
So I’m reading a book while happily munching away, licking the sweet grit of sugar, chewing the peachy ring. I’ve probably eaten half a dozen rings before I pick up the container lid, a long list of ingredients affixed on top. I begin to read them, another Peach Ring already pressed to my tongue.
The first line of ingredients is innocent enough: Glucose Syrup, Sugar, Dextrose. Basically: sugar, sugar, and more sugar. Then the second line begins: Pork Gelatin. Not simply Gelatin, but Pork Gelatin.
I immediately remove the Peach Ring from my mouth, return it to the container, and close the lid.
Now, isn’t like I didn’t already know what gelatin is. It’s one of those quintessential gross-out facts of life that kids love to be the first to share with other kids.
gelatin. (jěl’ə-tn) An odorless, colorless protein substance obtained by boiling a mixture of water and the skin, bones, and tendons of animals. The preparation forms a gel when allowed to cool. It is used in foods, drugs, glue, and film.
I used to love being the one to break the news at family gatherings: “Do you know what Jell-O is made from?” I’d ask my cousins. They would lean forward, anxiously awaiting the answer, because of course they didn’t know. And I’d deliver the news: “Crushed up bones and hooves!” Their eyes would widen with fascination just before their expressions collapsed with disgust: “Ew!”
And our parents would chide us, “Not at the dinner table!”
Girl Scout Camp 2003, I am 11
I’m at Girl Scout Camp with my friends Wendi and Bre. More specifically, we’re at bike camp. At this point we’ve left Camp Tanglefoot in Clear Lake, Iowa, and now we’re at a public campground somewhere in Minnesota. I’ve been calling myself a vegetarian for the past couple of months. At school, I’d been opting for the salad bar instead of taking hot lunches even though I find salads boring. My mother is concerned about my protein intake, and the salad bar includes eggs and nuts because the school isn’t a nut-free institution (yet). At home, I’d been eating a lot of Boca “chicken” patties.
Girl Scout Camp has neither a salad bar nor any Boca burgers. Vegetarian options aren’t a thing. When I announce to our camp counselors over the picnic spread of meat, meat, and more meat that I am a vegetarian, they exchanged an “Oh, fuck” look. We’re having Hamburger Helper. “Can you pick out the meat and eat the noodles?”
“I guess,” I tell them. There’s a lot of meat, and since it’s ground beef, it crumbles, tiny specks dotting each piece of pasta. It’s virtually impossible to actually pick all of it out. But I try. I make a pile off to the side of my plate.
Wendi glares at my dinner, clearly annoyed. “Not eating it doesn’t change that it died, and now you’re just wasting it,” she complains.
She doesn’t get it.
The problem is, I don’t really get it either. I’m a sensitive kid, and eating meat feels . . . wrong, somehow. But the way Wendi puts it, not-eating it feels wrong, too. I can’t win.
An older girl watches me pick at my food and asks me, “Do you eat marshmallows? Because vegetarians don’t eat marshmallows.”
“Well, marshmallows are made from gelatin, and gelatin is made from . . .”
I sing with the other girls at the campfire that night, but I don’t roast any marshmallows.
A couple mornings later, though, I wake up famished from the combination of biking for hours each day and under-eating. At breakfast, I usher several strips of crispy bacon onto my plate. I’m halfway through a strip when one of my counselors notices and says, “Aren’t you a vegetarian? What are you doing?” And I tell her: “I need protein,” and shrug.
October 2016, I am 24
My boyfriend and I are at his college friend Rachel’s wedding in Portland, and I love Portland. It’s a cute venue, with lots of wood and fairy lights. I spend a lot of time admiring the venue, because everyone else knows each other from college and maybe haven’t seen each other since, so as soon as obligatory introductions are over, it’s all catching up and inside jokes. A few names stick, but mostly I have no idea who’s who.
Except there is one girl I absolutely know who she is. Because even though I don’t have Facebook anymore, I’ve Facebook stalked her. She’s Boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend, and she flew in all the way from Germany for the wedding. I’m prepared to be intimidated.
I don’t meet her until later. Until after the ceremony, adorably officiated by the bride’s grandmother; after the chairs and tables have been rearranged for dinner; after the pre-dinner drinks; after we’ve all been through the dinner line, which has both a meat and vegetarian option. I finally meet her when we’re about halfway through our meals.
There’s a vegetarian option on the plate in front of her, and a glass of wine in her hand. She says, “I might have to go and get some chicken.”
And someone else at her table says, “Aren’t you a vegetarian?”
“Yeah,” she replies. “But I’m like the worst vegetarian ever.” She recounts a story where she once covered her face in slices of salami and then ate them off in front of someone who asked about her vegetarianism. Someone at the table probably laughs; I don’t.
I have two good friends who are vegetarian; one of them lives in Iowa, the other in Nashville. They won’t even eat chicken broth.
Boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend downs some more wine, and then she stands up. “It’s happening,” she announces. A minute later, she comes back to the table with a plate of chicken. And it’s not just chicken. It’s like, chicken-stuffed-quail or something. A bird stuffed inside of another bird. It’s aggressively non-vegetarian.
I watch her eat the whole thing.
September 2017, I am 25
I strongly consider omitting meat from my diet.
When I visit my best friend Christine—a vegetarian who eats a mostly vegan diet—I eat meat only twice in the week that I’m there: I get pho with beef in New Orleans, and I consume a small package of alligator sticks. I also try two vegan restaurants: one in Nashville, and one in New Orleans.
Back in Seattle, I begin watching videos.
First, I watch a YouTube video about the production of gelatin candy that “tells the reversed story of how gelatine candy is actually produced. Starting from wrapped candy, going all the way back to the living pig.”
Then I start on documentaries available on Netflix: Fed Up, What the Health, Food, INC., In Defense of Food, and Food Choices, which assure me that protein deficiencies aren’t anything but a common myth.
At this point, the meat on my plate looks less like food and more like a dead animal carcass, which, of course, is exactly what it is.
Early November 2014, I am 22
I buy raw meat for the first time since moving to the Pacific Northwest. Now that I have my own studio apartment, I’m ready to try cooking that isn’t just boiling water for pasta and instant mashed potatoes. I have a recipe for pumpkin turkey chili, and I also have the leanest possible ground turkey I could find. I don’t care that it cost more.
The meat inside of the package doesn’t look like anything that ever lived, but that doesn’t stop me from apologizing to it the entire time it sizzles, browning in my skillet.
September 2017, I am 25
I go out for conveyer belt sushi with Boyfriend, and I eat several rolls and a few slices of seared tuna. It’s decadent and delicious, not gross at all. I think: Maybe I could be a pescatarian.
I join my friend Emily and her parents for a little vacation to Crater Lake. I let her know ahead of time I’m eating a mostly vegetarian diet. Her sister is vegetarian, and she was vegetarian in college, so it’s no big deal. They get it. They’re wonderfully accommodating. When we go grocery shopping for food to bring to the cabin, we don’t purchase any meat. Instead, we pick out sweet potatoes and grind our own peanut butter and fill up a bulk bag with chocolate-covered raisins.
The few times we dine out I have limited options. I consider fish, but I get the veggie burger instead. Emily’s mom orders the rainbow trout I thought about, and it comes out with its head on the platter. I think: Maybe not.
October 2017, I am still 25
I read Jonathan Safran-Foer’s book, Eating Animals followed by Ruth Ozeki’s My Year of Meats. I now know too many things that I can’t un-know about the food industry.
I begin to cook a lot, primarily using recipes from the blog, Chocolate Covered Katie. None of her recipes call for meat, and as she states on her FAQs page, “this blog can be suitable for vegans as long as you choose nondairy options for ingredients such as milk of choice.”
I already use almond milk for almost everything that calls for milk (and the almost is just there to qualify the times I use coconut milk instead). I still use dairy cheese, but only because I tried Daiya vegan cheese, and it tastes like evil if evil had a taste.
I don’t have much of a sweet tooth, so I go for her “Healthy Meal Ideas” category.
So far I’ve made:
Yellow Curry Thai (although I add a mango’s worth of mango)
Pizza Quinoa Burgers
White Enchiladas – with Lightened Up Sour Cream Sauce
Cheesy Mexican Black Bean Quinoa Casserole
Creamy Broccoli Garlic Pasta
Sweet Potato Burgers
Panda Express Orange Sauce with Cauliflower Chicken Nuggets
Fall’s Favorite Curry
Sweet Potato Chili
Every single one of the recipes turns out not only edible, but also good. To hell with salad bars and Boca burgers! I don’t eat any meat, including broth and gelatin, the entire month of October. Even though I didn’t eat much meat to begin with, I realize I was eating a lot more of it than I realized. My digestive system gets a little upset. I get a little hungrier. I lose a little weight, even though I admittedly don’t have much weight to lose.
And it feels . . . right. I feel better. Healthier. Stronger.
Who thought the month of Halloween would be the month I’d discover that I don’t need to feast on the flesh of once-living creatures to become strong and powerful?
Now it’s November 1, 2017
I haven’t been able to call myself a vegetarian yet.
But I guess that’s what this is.
What I am.