Tomemos has just written a post that, in an alternate universe, I might have written myself. Honeymooning in Mexico, he decided that since it was so difficult to eat satisfyingly as a vegetarian there, he might as well permit himself to sample some of the local carnivorous cuisine. I have just returned from a vacation in New Orleans, which is also no picnic for us veggies — its chief cuisines include cajun, which is full of seafood and sausage, and barbecue. It also features a bunch of upscale restaurants run by famous chefs such as Emeril, Paul Prudhomme, and Susan Spicer, none of whom have any vegetarian entrees on their menus. For the first time in years, I began to experience “meat ideation,” in which I would picture myself stealing a bite from my brother’s plate of lobster with no intention of actually doing so, in much the way a depressed person crossing a bridge might picture herself jumping.
I did not succumb to these temptations. Unlike Tomemos, who says he’s “never been one of those vegetarians who is appalled by the thought of eating meat unknowingly,” I once wept openly in an airport food court upon discovering that the burrito I had been happily eating contained shrimp. It was embarrassing, and I wish I could be a little more relaxed about it, but I just felt so bad for those poor shrimp. (It was kind of like this.)
A high school girl that I tutor in writing recently told me that she’s trying to go vegetarian, but keeps falling off the wagon. I told her that she shouldn’t try to impose an absolute prohibition on herself, but rather to think of herself as trying to eat less meat. That way, eating the occasional hamburger doesn’t become a sin that makes her want to give up her whole project. I was interested to read that Tomemos’ carnivorous experiments actually reinforced his convictions:
In the end, though, I think this experiment ended up strengthening my vegetarianism. The fish tacos tasted good; they didn’t make me feel like I had been missing out on something amazing for fifteen years. At one point during our trip, I had a vegetarian tostada, and that was as satisfying a meal as anything else I ate in Mexico. Taste is possibly the most transitory aesthetic experience: even if you eat a meal that you remember for the rest of your life—and I’ve had one or two—it can’t make you want to live a different way. My feelings on eating meat are unchanged: for me, it is a moral issue, but not a moral absolute.
This was immensely reassuring, because it appeared that amazing things were happening on my family members’ plates and I was a little bit jealous. I’m sure they were great, but the truth was that I managed to eat pretty well. Most decent restaurants will fix you a vegetarian plate even if it’s not on the menu, something I didn’t learn until I’d been one for a few years. At first, I hated having to order them — I felt like I was being a nuisance, and I resented the restaurants for putting me in that position in the first place. Over the years I’ve gotten used to it, but it wasn’t until this trip to New Orleans that I began to actually appreciate the experience. You see, ordering a vegetarian plate gives you a unique relationship to the chef. Some will just give you a collection of their side dishes, which can be a bummer, but some will look around at their kitchens, see what’s on hand, and improvise something special for you. If taste is the most transitory aesthetic experience, it is also one of the most intimate, and I am grateful to all the chefs who have ever taken extra time to consider my needs. While my family members struggled with difficult choices, I would be sitting serenely with a closed menu, waiting to see what delightful thing the chef would do for me. I didn’t feel restricted — I felt more free.
One summer in college, I lived in a Buddhist monastery in Japan. One afternoon, I was assigned the job of sweeping out the spider webs from the temple’s windows. “But won’t that kill the spiders?” I asked. The monk responded, “We avoid harming other creatures when we can, but sometimes we have to. It’s not our intention to kill the spiders, but we need to clean our windows. You should bow to the spiders, say ‘Omitofo,’ and pray that they get reborn as humans.” This seems like a sensible attitude to me, certainly more sensible than crying over a few accidentally-eaten shrimp. We should honor all creatures, even and especially when circumstances beyond our control require us to harm them.
I apologize, again, for my extended absence. A personal crisis has kept me out of the blogosphere and firmly entrenched in the real world, dealing with practical matters. Things should be settling down soon, though, and I promise to return with gloriously eloquent thoughts on Modernist novels and Korean monster movies and all of the other important things in life.
Today I am pleased to introduce you to a new online publication that has been created, designed, and edited by Matthew T. Marco, a good friend of mine: The Never-Ending Noodle. It’s a food blog, sort of. Rather than focusing on recipes and reviews — though it may eventually come to contain things like that — it’s site that features interesting writing for food people by food people. From Matt’s publisher’s note:
Ultimately, I founded this periodical on this concept, to refract our lives’ experiences through a prism of culinary metaphor, because it’s a metaphor that is very nearly universal. The first three articles here are a start in that direction, the primi piatti of a feast of verbage that deeply investigates the relationships between palettes and personalities, between cultures and comestibles.
I have written one of these inaugural articles: “It Ain’t Easy Being Green: Memoirs of a Veggie Cowgirl”. It’s an account of the ass-backwards way in which I became a vegetarian, and it features a snappier writing style than I generally get to use here when talking about weighty literary matters. To whet your appetite, the first paragraph:
I became a vegetarian reluctantly. My two best friends in high school were vegetarians, so for years I had no choice but to champion the life of the carnivore. While Kate and Jessica wrinkled their pretty noses, I was the girl going out with the boys for all-you-can-eat ribs at Big Ed’s Barbecue. I believed in the food chain, meat was delicious, but also—and not unimportantly—eating meat marked me as a different kind of girl, one who made dirty jokes and drank hard liquor and just might be talked into a ride on the mechanical bull in the back corner of Big Ed’s.
It’s about ethics, it’s about gender, it’s about food snobbery, and I like to think it’s a pretty good time. Matt has written an article on metaphor and noodles and new beginnings, and Nikhil Moturi rounds out the first issue with an article on the role of Dosas in his transition to a new life on the other side of the country. I recommend both of them highly. And if you, too, are a person with a deep and personal relationship to food, we are looking for new writers and would love to have you on board.