I wish I could say there was one life-changing experience that caused me to be a vegetarian for twenty-three years, but really, it just happened. My father, who is what we’ve always called a “sort of vegetarian” (meaning he eats fish), first had the idea to raise me and my sister on a no-meat diet. My mom, herself a carnivore, protested at first but eventually agreed, assuming it wouldn’t last anyway.
She was wrong. By the time I was six, I’d entered what my mom referred to as a “rabid phase of animal rights activism,” adopting staunchly anti-factory farm viewpoints, which I still maintain, and becoming passionate about animal rights. In my backyard, we raised a flock of chickens, and in my front yard, we maintained two large vegetable gardens. I was literally surrounded by an awareness of where food came from, and I wanted no part in supporting the suffering of any animal.
But by March of this year, I had decided to start occasionally eating chicken and fish, though not without mixed feelings. As an aspiring food writer, I recognized how limiting my vegetarianism would be, perhaps destined to forever scour over menus in search of the one tofu dish or vegetable pasta. Besides, I was not morally opposed to the idea of eating meat, so long as it was sustainably and humanely raised. Still, old habits die hard, and vegetarian guilt had me compartmentalizing whenever I did eat meat.
So when Evan Mah, this magazine’s deputy food editor, said he wanted to take me to an end-of-the-summer intern dinner on the condition that I wasn’t allowed to look at the menu, I was more than a little concerned. He told me to meet him at Holeman and Finch Public House and to “keep an open mind,” which is not what anyone wants to hear before dinner. Ok, I thought, I can eat a burger. I can do that. When our hostess seated us, Mah asked if we could move. “We’re going to need a bigger table,” he said.
Then came the food. Beef tartare, beef tongue with eggs, and veal brains in a black butter sauce. Chicken and fish were one thing, but lamb testicles, hot dogs, and bone marrow served still in the bone? I knew if ever I were to try these foods, there was no better time or place, and if I was okay with eating chicken and fish, logically, I realized, why not brains too?
“What do the lamb testicles remind you of?” Mah asked. “Sort of like well-done tofu, right?”
Not quite, but moral reservations and general shock aside, everything was surprisingly mild and easy to swallow. The hotdog was not so unlike the fake ones I knew, and I actually enjoyed the salty, buttery brains with capers and toast points.
That night, I came away from dinner feeling triumphant, victorious, really. If a former vegetarian could eat bone marrow, scooped right out of the bone, what couldn’t I do? The next day, I wasn’t even sick when I woke up. I actually felt good—on a protein high, perhaps.
People used to always ask me the same questions about my vegetarianism: Why and then how could I have lived my life without bacon or a cheeseburger or a steak. “Easy,” I would tell them, “I’ve never had it, so I don’t know what I’m missing.” Now, I have the freedom to find out, but I still hold tight to my veggie burgers and tofu. After all, it’s impossible to be a vegetarian for twenty-three years and adjust to eating meat overnight. Something that long-term stays with you, and it’s too soon to tell how long this meat streak will last. I still have strong opinions about the miserable conditions in many of our factory farms and slaughterhouses. At dinner, I at least took comfort in knowing that much of the meat came from White Oak Pastures, a farm in Bluffton, Georgia where owner Will Harris cares strongly about animal welfare.
Mah says he took me to dinner because a couple of weeks ago over a (much milder) lunch, another editor quizzed me on what had been the strangest thing I’d eaten this summer. “I really haven’t had to eat anything strange,” I replied.
Now, next time someone asks, I’ll have a much better answer.