Last night, I found myself sitting in a poolside deck chair, small drink in hand, listening to and watching children jump, splash, and squeal in joy. It was a lovely experience, it always is to watch children at play. As I did, the unmistakable waft of meat on a grill filled the air, and with this I thought back to my journey of becoming vegetarian.
Not long ago, I had a conversation with a friend who reminded me that, when I first stopped eating meat products, I did not label myself as a vegetarian. Instead, I said something along the lines of: “I am not vegetarian, I just choose not to eat meat”. I laugh at this statement now and ask myself why I chose to express myself in this way. I’m not sure I have an answer to that, not a definitive one, though it may well be that I wanted to emphasize the issue of choice.
However, adopting vegetaranism wasn’t a calculated choice. I kind of fell into it through circumstance that began two and a half years ago now, when I first started eating vegetarian food in earnest thanks to my vegetarian friend. Whenever we chose to have a bite to eat, often following some outdoors activity, we went to food court type of establishments that served vegetarian food. And so, it began.
Prior to this time, I was very aware of the environmental impact of farming animals for food, but this wasn’t enough to sway me from my omnivorous diet. I was also somewhat aware of the claimed health issues surrounding the eating of meat, and of the power of farming lobbyists in promoting meat consumption. Despite my mother dying of colon cancer and my father having a pacemaker installed, however, this wasn’t enough for me to change my ways. It was a matter of fortune and the will and determination to explore.
One of the more interesting things that I think about, is that at these food courts there were meat based products available, but that I made a choice to avoid these. In doing so, I discovered rather quickly that vegetarian food was a wonderful experience. Yes, there was the taste, but also the opportunity to talk about what we were eating.
“Oh this eggplant is yummy, what spices do you think it has in it?”
Staring to eat in this way opened up a completely new world.
Flavors that had previously been hidden behind the taste of salted chicken char, erupted. Textures that, otherwise, may not have made it onto the plate, popped in my mouth. Cooking techniques that I had previously not known about took centre stage in the kitchen.
And the markets. What fun it was to shop once I became aware how expansive preparing and eating food could be. I began to see produce in a different way and the more I tasted, the more I realized what I had been missing. One thing I particularly enjoyed doing was finding produce that I had never encountered before and preparing that. Not always successfully, mind you, but always with intent.
One of the lovely things about vegetables is that you cannot undercook them and run health risks. There is no need to time to the second, no question of medium-rare, no need for a thermometer. Another joy is that the actual preparation can take many, many forms and combinations of these: slice, dice, chop, whole, julienne, spiralize, steam, roast, grill, boil, braise, saute, fry, raw. There is color and anticipation. Servings of food become paintings borne of hands at work.
One of the most enjoyable events I have experienced is the preparation of a vegetarian hotpot with family and/or friends. In the middle of the table sits a bowl of flavored broth urged onto a simmer by a burner underneath. Together we assemble noodles, eggs, and plates of various vegetables cut as we choose, and arrange these to adorn the perimeter of the bowl. And then we sit down for our meal. Judiciously, we drop offerings into the hot soup, talk with each other while we wait for them to cook, fish out morsels with chopsticks, dip them in one of the sauces on the side and pop them into our mouths. And again. It is a communal event.
Certainly, being vegetarian requires me to be conscious of the range of food that I eat. I do need to be careful to have adequate intake of the various nutritional elements that my body needs to be healthy. And so, I augment my diet with eggs, dairy, grains, and pulses. This brings with it the awareness of the broad range of such foods that exist, especially in the latter two cases. There is more than quinoa, rice and the handful of the variety of beans that we find on brightly lit shelves. I now see that is a world of food beyond the carefully prepared aisles of supermarkets.
“Teff? What is this teff? Oh it’s a grass seed that is grown in Eritrea and Ethiopia? I wonder what it tastes like? I am going to find out!”
This awareness that there is so much difference in the food that people in other places eat has opened up my eyes and hands to the possibilities of preparing food in ways that I had never considered. Plain rice, something I grew up with for example, can be cooked with cumin or fennel seeds. Rice may still be cooked plain, but it needn’t be, I can experiment at will.
And what happens when the rice turns out gluggy or otherwise unpalatable? I simply head to the fridge or pantry, pick up a tomato, cucumber, some cheese, olives, and maybe some pickles I’ve made, and arrange these on a cutting board, knife in place on the side.
You might be asking whether I feel physically better with such a change in diet. I cannot say for sure, though I can say that I do not feel like I am lacking in anything. I can also say that the physical examinations I have taken since my change have shown me to be in very good health.
I might make it sound simple or easy to turn to vegetarianism. It hasn’t been, but it hasn’t been a chore either. Rather, it has been a journey that I am still on. And, as with all journeys, there are stumbles and learning to be had along the way. And for this, I am grateful.