Saturday, June 4, 2016

Slouching, very slowly, towards Vegetarianville

After nearly 44 years together Stew and I have developed an instinctive telepathy. While on vacation in Granada, Spain, ten days ago, a dinner at a restaurant triggered in each of us reflections about our eating habits that resurfaced during a conversation yesterday.

At the Estrellas de San Nicolás restaurant the cuisine was what I would call faux haute cuisine, or piss elegant in the vernacular. The menu was a bulky, leather-bound tome, and the entrées printed in a fine, curlicued cursive type that was nearly illegible, and seasoned with lots of French that had me going from Spanish to English and back again, trying to figure out what to eat. The prices were certainly haute, culminating with desserts for 12 euros, or 15 dollars, and up.

Worse, most of all the food was mediocre, falling far short of its pretentious billing. The one compensation was the view: The panoramic and unforgettable sight of the Alhambra at sunset.

What dawned on us yesterday was our unspoken but similar reactions to the menu. For a variety of reasons we wouldn't touch most of the items offered. We don't eat lamb, veal, or God forbid, suckling pig, or snails, clams, octopus or fish served whole with its head intact, one eye looking at you pleadingly, or pretty much any animal-based dish that too closely reminds us of the original. And those are just a few of our dietary objections.

Yesterday Stew and I agreed that we could be in the middle of yet another one of our vegetarian epiphanies, which in the past have been brief and predictably thwarted by the appearance of an irresistible dish, like Cuban-style pork roast or Southern fried chicken.

Say "no" to soy bacon. 
An awful meal also can shove us off the vegetarian wagon. Some forty years ago, during a visit to their home in Minnesota, Stew's brother and his wife served us for breakfast a soy-based imitation bacon, with perfect bacon-like stripes, microwaved to a crisp perfection and then sprayed with brown coloring meant to give it a more realistic appearance. Hmm. It triggered in Stew and me a post-traumatic, anything-but-vegetarianism reaction that lingers to this day.

More recently, a friend here in San Miguel invited us to dinner without warning us that, in a fit of concern for all living things, she had embraced veganism just a couple of nights before the engagement. It was a disastrous, rice-based concoction that triggered the lamest of compliments: "Gee, that was interesting!"

Veganism is out of the question. It's a noble aspiration, very close to sexual abstinence, and it would take a lot of research and development unless we hire our own $100,000-a-year vegan chef as Ellen DeGeneres or Bill Clinton have done.

But another stab at vegetarianism is an idea that keeps coming back, reinforced by childhood memories and recently, living in a small ranch in Mexico.

Stew's uncle Harvey and my dad each imprinted in us our deep love for animals, which of course conflicts with killing and having them for dinner. Customers at my dad's printing shop in a small town in Cuba periodically brought live gifts from the farm, such as ducks, rabbits, chickens and even kittens and puppies.

Once a chicken arrived at home and duly given a name, it was hard to kill it and eat it, though there were exceptions. My maternal grandmother Herminia, a short, stern character with her gray hair always tightly collected in a bun—and who was a phenomenal cook—would prepare arroz con pollo when we visited. Nothing would do but fresh chicken, the kind of freshness that required a live bird that, shortly after arrival, would let out a shriek reminiscent of a bris, on its way to be plucked in a bathtub of hot water.
Arroz con pollo anyone?

When arroz con pollo arrived no one talked about animal welfare. Even my dad tried to assuage his own feelings by explaining that the business with the chicken, ahem, was quick and painless, nothing to get weepy about.

Reading and watching shows about animal welfare have compounded our carnivore qualms. "Milk-fed veal" involves the confinement of a very young calf to ensure its meat is tender. "Suckling pig" means offing a piglet before it even knows how to oink. To get fois gras you need to force feed a goose to abnormally enlarge its liver. And so on; perhaps too much information.

Stew and I find other dishes just repulsive. Octopus tentacles with the suction cups staring at you? Sucking the innards from snails? Brains, liver or tripe? No thanks.

In fact, the end of our lamb-eating days came in a farm in Scotland when we arrived in the middle of the lambing season and the kelly-green landscape was covered with hundreds of the meandering little buggers, cute as bugs and innocent and dumb as rocks.

Right now our ranch here is surrounded just-born lambs and goats and veal-grade calves that remind us of our dietary misgivings. Our gardener Félix, an animal softy himself, has a more agrarian view of things. They run around grazing and whatever, he says, until they are killed and eaten. It's silly to go around naming one's individual lambs or goats. For his wedding blast his in-laws contributed a whole cow and someone else a pig.

Stew and I have talked about some carnivore alternatives that respect our concern for animals. But that is a difficult rationalization to follow in Mexico where the animal rights movement hasn't even left the barn. Range-fed beef, humane slaughtering, free-range chickens and other Whole Foods niceties are not on the table. Pigs and cattle are "processed" at a city-owned slaughterhouse and you don't want to even think what goes on there.

Maybe gradual flirting with a vegetarian diet is our most realistic approach, like one or two days a week. Pastas, vegetarian chili and other meat-free dishes.

It's going to be a long, arduous road though, to give up roast pork, ham or fried chicken.

Plus Stew and I are pushing seventy: We'd better find the exit to Vegetarianville pretty soon.

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7 comments:

  1. I've been a vegetarian for about 30 years. It started visually - as I looked at the fish on my plate I saw it swimming... when I looked at a piece of meat I saw a cow with a chunk cut out of his hip, bleeding. Now I just can't imagine eating anything DEAD. Ugh. I probably would if I was stranded in the outback I guess but still I'd be more likely to dig up tubers and find berries.

    I think it's hard to go back once you really start thinking about the implications of eating meat. I wish they'd call it dead pig instead of pork and dead cow instead of beef.

    Have you seen Cowspiracy? The environmental impact of the world's love of meat and fish eating is mind blowing.

    Nancy in Mazatlan

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    1. Hi Nancy: My imagination is not quite as vivid as yours, but we're close. Our little ranch here is surrounded by sheep and lambs and I can't imagine killing one of them for dinner.

      The "problem" Stew and I have had with a vegetarian diet is one of breaking old habits, of expecting a chunk of animal of some sort as the centerpiece of a meal and feeling something is missing is there isn't one.

      I'd never heard for Cowspiracy but will send away for it from Netflix.

      Thanks for writing.

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    2. My husband Paul has always eaten meat although he would saute up something to go on veggie pasta, that kind of thing. About 6 months ago he decided to just eat what I eat at home. He still eats meat or fish when we eat out. But I like peasant food - soups and crunchy bread, big salads with roasted (hot) portobello mushrooms on top, open faced portobello/kale/swiss sandwiches, big bowls of peruano beans topped with avocado, homemade pizza with arugula and swiss, great kitchen sink smoothies with homemade kefir, etc etc. As we are older too we eat less and have our larger meal at mid day and a grapefruit or piece of toast and some nuts at dinnertime. Good luck to you and greetings from the coast.

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  2. A life wthout bacon??? Say it isn't so!

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    1. Or rib-eyes or fried chicken either...

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  3. My last attempt at vegetarianism was a bust. It was to impress a woman. The bout with vegetables was over sooner than my relationship with her. Neither one was a big loss.

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  4. I agree completely that the centerpiece of (especially) a big meal is meat/fish/chicken with some veggie side dishes, and without that centerpiece the meal seems somehow lacking. Soooo, don't know where to go from there, when you're faced with a serving of Southern fried chicken....

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