Confessions of a fair-weather vegetarian

I guess you could say I was destined to be a meat-eater.

Every morning for the first 13 years of my life, I would breakfast as my dad prepared his lunch for that day of work. While this may seem a normal, all-American ritual, dad’s lunch was not your standard salami and cheese. Instead, he carefully cut thick slices of uncooked tofu and slid them onto a piece of multi-grain bread.

For well over a decade, the ritual never wavered. Each morning at precisely the same time, the self-described flexitarian (vegetarian with the occasional foray into poultry and fish) would slice pieces exactly 3/4 of an inch thick off a cake of tofu. The chunks would then be arranged precisely on the bread and squirted with yellow Plochman’s mustard in a pattern that almost resembled the word “cheese” in cursive. A single leaf of hearty green lettuce was placed atop the soy curd and mustard and a matching piece of multi-grain topped the whole works.

When I explain why tofu is still the one food on the entire global menu that I can’t stomach, my friends are curious. “What do you mean?” they ask. “It’s totally without flavor. You can’t even smell it.”

On the contrary, I remember the mildly tart odor of the white, still wet slabs commingling with my bowl of whole grain cereal and skim milk. (Thank God, soy milk hadn’t made it into the mainstream.) During my bully phase, I remember force-feeding my kid brother a slippery piece of the white stuff. Instead of smacking his lips, he writhed and squealed, fighting it like poison. And I remember bidding tofu adieu at age 13 and taking a job at a working cattle ranch on the other side of the county.

There I entered the forbidden world of grain-fed beef and the exotics like elk, venison, pheasant and goose. I dabbled in chorizos, jerkies and varying colors of gravy. There I had my first multi-meat meal, a feast including up to three different varieties of as well as my first red-meat before noon in the form of steak and eggs. And while I haven’t continued with the same vigor, I’ve eaten meat ever since until a major misstep roughly eight weeks ago.

After a day at the office, I was pushing the pedals and cranking the bike home, when I passed a north Main Avenue eatery. A pair of long-bed pick-ups were parked outside the restaurant’s main plate glass window and in the ultimate surreal twist, an enormous, bloated, skinned and headless cow sat in the bed of each truck, their stiffened legs pointing heavenward. However, the customers inside the restaurant provided the ultimate twist as they sat there in plain view gorging on steaks and hamburgers. Forks and knives dissecting their handy cuts and patties all neatly dressed with grill marks, they seemed oblivious.

At that moment, I made a proclamation—I was done with meat.

Unfortunately, it was easier said than done. The following afternoon I made a trip to another local restaurant, perused the menu and was forced to ask, “What are your vegetarian options here?”

The waiter responded, “We’ve got the lentil soup. We make a pretty awesome veggie burger and you can get the nachos without meat.”

“I’ll take the veggie burger.”

Four days later, I was on my sixth veggie burger and was experimenting with the subtle nuances and differences between the black bean burger, the portabello pattie and the traditional garden burger. My not-so-subtle discovery was that they all become palatable only when a large hunk of cheese is melted on top.

Refried beans stepped into the picture as a good meat surrogate until I realized that their excellent flavor comes from the most sinister of all meat products – lard. Desperate for protein, I lamely tried mixing lentils, beans, rices and various legumes hoping for the right combination. Instead, I discovered a stomach choked with carbohydrate and breakfast consisting of eight presses on the snooze bar.

Worst of all, I soon found that inside my new community of meat-free acquaintances, I was a bigger failure than I’d been as a meat eater.

“Fish and seafood!” one woman exclaimed. “Those are living animals too. If you’re going to be a vegetarian, you don’t eat any flesh.”

In an academic tone, another said, “I just can’t stand the people who claim vegetarianism and then go gorging on dairy products. Have any of them seen the inside of a dairy farm? It’s positively medieval.”

Yet another took the most radical bent of all, informing me that honey was an animal product and could not be consumed.

Meanwhile, my pep was lagging and my bike commute went from 20 minutes each way to a near doubling. Trying to get a protein boost out of coffee beans, I was cruising around with low batteries.

“You want to go for a road ride?” a friend would inquire.

“No thanks,” I’d reply. “I’m too beat from work. I think I’ll lay low this weekend.”

“We’re going skate skiing – you up for it?” another would ask.

“Too much to do around the house. Thanks anyway,” I’d reply through a yawn.

Nearing total desperation, I explained my protein dilemma to a middle-of-the-road veggie friend and she replied, “Oh that’s easy. Just go and buy some yummy tofu.”

That advice ringing painfully in my head, I rolled home to a pair of chicken breasts simmering over a pot of red beans and rice.

“I don’t care if you eat it,” my wife said with an air of defiance. “I’m making myself some chicken.”

Casually poking the piece of free-range flesh with my fork, I thought, “One little bite probably won’t hurt.” After a long look and a hefty sniff through my nose, I promptly dropped the one little bite down the chute. Five minutes later, the chicken was gone, and a mere month after my proclamation, I’d fallen totally off the wagon.

That night the aftermath struck, not in the form of toilet time or a stomach twist, but in a Herculean burst of energy. Laying in bed, I could almost feel the strength returning. My muscles seemed to be twitching as my eyes darted around the room and my body radiated heat. After doing roughly a dozen laps around the house trying not wake up the wife and baby, I realized I was reborn.

Now that the experiment’s over, I offer my apologies to those two cows, a brace of chickens, a few bison and an elk or two. I gave it my best shot and didn’t have what it takes. I guess I can blame it on the tofu.

-Will Sands




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