Confessions of a Lapsed Vegetarian

Published in The Southwest Review, 2008


“Now that men are saturated and penetrated, as it were, with love of pleasure, it is not an easy task to attempt to pluck out from their bodies the flesh-baited hook.” 
            – Plutarch’s Morals

I was ignorant about meat, but today I roasted a chicken.

The recipe said to gently wiggle my fingers under the two sides of the breast, between the muscle slab and the skin, to break the connective web and create two open gunnels for stuffing. Before that, I mixed slices of lemon peel, cilantro, basil, and some butter to fill the holes.  In the picture in the book, the final chicken—roasted, tied up with a string—looks poised and content, the stuffed part a dimpled double chin.

I can’t place the dissembling code words for animal parts, like shank and rump. The words remind me of human body parts, but not quite, like the double chin, so it’s hard to grasp exact geographies. I’ve never tasted a steak. I’ve never basted. I have tasted meat a few times in my life before now – a French quail with a balding uncle, a few rotisserie chickens, bologna sandwiches traded in elementary school – but I’ve left most of the meaty world unexplored. 

When I was growing up in California, being vegetarians differentiated my mother and me from normal, held us away from the masses. It is luxurious now to turn ignorance into knowledge; when most of the usual territories are conquered, meat is still new to me, something precious lost and then found, barely used, years later.

Of course, my first time roasting, I made mistakes.  I was brazen today, chopping the herbs and the lemon peel.  I applied the rough force needed for plant skins and forgot to be gentle with the gunnel-making, wiggled too hard and broke the chicken skin on the left side. It drew back, split apart and ran like a stocking ladder, exposing a pink translucent breast. I stuffed the other side gently then and covered the tear with a slab of prosciutto, a bloody bandage with a white fat edge.

The man who cut the prosciutto for me that morning in Clerkenwell, London, where I live, is also American.  He has acquired an English accent by fragments, the way my grandmother acquired a wardrobe, piece by piece – here a sharp t, there a long a, sometimes a quite.

He wears his wish to belong here on the outside, obviously. He cut the meat too thick, like bacon. Prosciutto should be thin and let light through like stained glass. Even I know that. But to shave thin required that he remove the safety guard and sidle up to the round, whirling blade of the machine. 

“I mean, one little mistake and there’s your hand, gone,” he said.  “There ah-re no second chances.” 

But there were, at least, for me. I wondered if there were risks here, too, like the spinning blade – whether eating meat, becoming the type of person who eats meat, would rupture something special I’d created by denial. Would I fade into the mass of meat-eating humanity? What would I be without my title and my small, strange group? For now, though, I wasn’t used to meat, so I would see it with a beginner’s mind. I would draw connections.

Today, just before I put the chicken into the oven, I rubbed the rest of the butter and herb mix around the skin. It felt like massaging my boyfriend’s shoulders had felt the night before, lukewarm and greased, both giving way and resisting, the skin slipping then catching on the muscle, the muscle slipping then catching on the bone. My boyfriend is not familiar with the vegetable world – one vast side dish to him – but he knows about meat.  He is tall and thin boned, and what else, I wonder, besides meat, could have spindled him up to his towering height? He asked me then, as we anticipated the next day’s feast, with all of the organic produce and meat waiting in the dark kitchen below our room, “why do you buy organic?”  He wondered whether, for me, organic symbolized an idyll, where everything was picturesque and animals roamed free. He itched to disavow me of the notion. 

I know that organic farms can be industrial, and just as large and impersonal as conventional farms.  Sometimes the free-range chickens aren’t even allowed outside and so they cluck-walk packed tight in a dim lit barn. But organic farms use fewer chemicals. And they’re not mainstream, not yet.  I imagine that they try to capture some ideal—verdant, beautiful, sustainable, wholesome—floating somewhere above the real—even if they do not reach it. It’s the gap and the reaching that I am attracted to, the idealism. But my boyfriend is disillusioned by the difference between what the farms are, and what he hoped they’d be. 

In her memoir Meatless Days, Sara Suleri writes about feeling disillusioned when she discovered that the “sweetbreads” she ate during childhood in Pakistan were, in fact, goat testicles.  The vague name, unassuming texture, and perhaps also an unconscious desire to remain ignorant, blinded her to their true provenance. The new knowledge threw open the deceits and approximations of childhood and language, suggesting that other foods, taken for granted in innocence, might also have been guises. I’ve had no such revelation, except once, in my most fervent vegetarian years, in high school, when I found a grey chunk in the brown sauce of a Chinese steamed broccoli I often ordered for lunch. In that moment I realized that the brown sauce was, in fact, a beef sauce, and that was what made it taste otherworldly, and why I’d always eaten it so rapidly, as if I’d somehow known that it would betray me, and had wanted to eat as much as possible before it did. Scarcity inspires speed.

But if food does not often betray me, language does; my ideal thins the closer I am to writing it down. No matter how fast I am, or how careful, it often stays just out of reach, catching new gusts at each of my attempts to pin it down.  The result is almost always less than the hum of what I felt it could be, in its perfect form, hovering just above me.  In Meatless Days, Suleri also mentions “writing’s way of claiming disappointment as its habit of arrival, a gesture far more modulated than the pitch of rapture.” But if the rapture is unattainable, it does, at least, spur one on.

My mother told me that in India the beggars are surrounded by an unattainable food source, the cows. Cows roam the streets as holiness embodied, as lumbering grace.  Since before 1,000 BC, Hindu culture venerated animal and plant life, and drew boundaries differently than the West did. When she was in India, my mother watched an emaciated and legless beggar, smiling and pushing himself around on a rolling board, give a portion of his food to a cow.

“Why didn’t the beggars try to kill the cows?” I asked her then, “and eat the meat?” I schemed for others, and for myself; I was a vegetarian but I held it loosely. Above all, I tried to be practical.

“Because the cows are sacred,” she said. My kind of practical was short sighted, apparently.

I learned recently that thousands of years ago in India, seeds were planted in the footprints of the cows, one seed per print. The indentations sheltered the tiny, fragile seed shoots. Perhaps that is one reason the cows are considered sacred: they stirred life in their wake. It makes sense, then, that it’s better to chase after them, to follow in their path, the way I searched for words and sentences, the way I imagined the organic farms reaching for an ideal.

My mother knew about the cows because she traveled around India for a year before I was born.  She rebelled against her parents’ beef and potato culture, and all the food that stayed in the gut and stuck to artery linings, and a pilgrimage to India was part of that rebellion. Meat “deepened the plane,” – the interaction with the material world – because it made one heavier, made one sink heartily into the place where one was, she thought, and muffles the rest. If the intuition speaks in a small, thin voice, it has to be sheltered, like the seedlings, to be heard.

To talk of food is to talk of mothers, at least for me. She has flavored everything. Our diet was her choice, and so it is the root of this story. Without her I would have been initiated into the meaty world; without her I might have stayed, once placed, in the meatless one. We bought our groceries – our puntarella, quinoa, celeriac, carob-covered nuts – in yeasty-smelling stores where the women didn’t dye their hair, but let the grey strands grow in with the brown, and where the dried fruits were drab shades, too, not sulfured bright.  But we sometimes tasted foreign treats.  A few times we bought a hot, seasoned chicken from a gourmet shop with rows and rows of chickens turning on spits, and ate it in the car from the foil-lined paper bag with our fingers. We still called ourselves vegetarians, though, because we were, mostly.

I tried to categorize and assemble, to find the rules that we could stick to always; she wanted me to unplot. Her recipes were flexible too, I found later when I tried to replicate them, spirited assemblages of vaguely remembered quantities. Her diet wasn’t about rules, it was about breaking them, finding clarity. To be a vegetarian in the days when vegetables were “rabbit food” meant to re-invent, to live outside approval and family and culture. I noticed that she was different from the other mothers – a crisp autumnal wind was blowing at the time of life when the wind should have been a distant breeze, or stopped altogether – and it embarrassed me then, as our diet did, but later gave me solace.

She told me the story of the orange and the Kumba Mela, a two-week spiritual festival that happens once every 12 years in a different part of India. Her stories made sense of reality. When I first heard it, I believed that she might be blessed, and that I was too, by association, so that our differences, and our diet, were justified, even important.

The festival that she went to took place at the confluence of the Ganges and Yamuna rivers. People saved rupees for a lifetime, she said, to go just once.

She found herself behind a crowd gathered around one guru. There were women, too, in bright and swaying saris. My mother was far back — if she put up her fingers to measure the guru, he was only an inch and a half tall, lying on a parapet eight feet above ground, propped on his elbow.  This man, they said, would fast every fifty years and live another fifty, and he was 225 years old. (She could see his long hair, cascading over his body and the cushions, hanging over the space below his perch.) Men handed him fruit, which he blessed and threw into the crowd. She was young and American; she wanted everything, and a blessed fruit, too.  But there was a sea of heads in front of her and she didn’t have any fruit and, even if she had, she wouldn’t have been able to elbow through the crowd and reach the long-haired man. All of the other oranges seemed to land only twenty feet away from the source, at most.

But just then she saw the guru throw an orange, saw it hurling towards her – impossibly far but growing larger, oranger, as if it was a Hollywood special effect.  She’d seen no other fruit reach her distance, not even halfway. Large men were jostling around her to line up for the catch. A moment later, the orange hit her, right above her left breast, and bounced off. After the pain subsided she thought to grab it, to keep it, but a tangle of men pounced where it fell. 

Later she thought that owning the orange was probably not important. It hit her in the heart. That meant she was unique; the collision with produce meant she was important, and so worth the effort it would take to adhere to her ideals.

The connotations of being a vegetarian have changed since my mother’s time, though, from strange to chic-strange. It no longer takes great energy and rebellion to adhere. Modern health food stores are clean and bright. Maybe that’s why I’ve held so tightly to my title: it has some cache. 

Being vegetarian extends beyond food, to life-style, and further, to character. I would tell people, I’m a vegetarian, and someone would ask whether I was raised that way. When I said yes, people were always surprised. Combined with youth, it implied a precociousness that I felt tingling inside of me and that I wanted to see reflected back from the world.  The title became less and less about the food.

I grew up, left home and traveled farther and farther from California to the East Coast, then to England, then to Italy. I slipped through holes in understanding and language: in Boston one can be vegetarian and eat fish; in England a vegetarian may also eat fish, and rarely objects to the meat that flavors a dish; in Italy una vegetariana may sample everything, as the population is perplexed by the concept of meatlessness; little exceptions seem unavoidable. 

I absorbed the excuses and ate. I strayed as far as I could safely stray into the universe of flesh, emboldened by anonymity, right up to the point when I would be questioned, and then stopped.  And if I was troubled by the difference between what I said I was, and what I ate, the taste of the tender, flavorful meat seemed absolution enough, as if the spiritual problem was mitigated, the animal suffering alleviated, the question of my identity (a vegetarian? who eats meat?) obfuscated by my pleasure.

Before she returned from India, my mother met a woman who was eating meat and who’d been raised vegetarian. My mother asked her, how could she, given the final solution at the start, relinquish it? The woman explained, “I just like meat.”

I thought of this woman recently, when my mother wrote to me in an email, “I ate meat today. I had a chicken sandwich. God was it good! Grilled chicken, with great cheese on a toasted baguette. It was so basic, such perfection, every bite, and I don’t want another one for now. I’m sated. I think I blame all my lameness in life on not eating meat.”

It’s not possible to have the final solution at the start, as my mother assumed in India with the lapsed vegetarian. As I assumed with all my rules. Beyond the confines of the merely given is the alchemy of what is done with it.

That’s why I am reaching back to find what I am, and what I eat, and how they intersect. I’ll resist neat category. In Meatless Days, Suleri’s mother said, “Think what you will liberate – your days to extraordinary ideas – if you could cut away the sentence with which you wished to be liked.” To liberate ideas the way a roasting oven releases scents around a house, I’ll have to wind back to when I am a vegetarian became insufficient, a thin description, like pretty or nice – even if I didn’t know it yet.

First, there were my friend Felisha’s bologna sandwiches in the third grade. They had the taste I’d longed for without knowing it before, with salt and sweet – a taste that didn’t arc towards other tastes, but had already arrived, round and complete.  It was not found on yeasty shelves.  Her sandwiches had two pieces of pink bologna and sweet, white mayonnaise spread on soft white bread. Each element was a regular, proscribed thickness, and retained its original, intended color. Nothing bled.

My sandwiches were not so self-contained; they were microcosms of what I was ashamed of in life, what made us different. My hand sliced wheat bread held the organic cheese, lettuce and organic mayonnaise that turned pearly white by midday and saturated the lettuce into dark greasy strips. Even after Felisha and I had decided to swap lunches, I was shy to give my sandwiches to her, as if she hadn’t fully realized her request and might draw back in disgust. But she never did. I’d found a market, and a friend, and shame became symbiosis. Perhaps there was nothing wrong with our desires if they led us to complementary destinations. We ate in silent bliss.

A year later, in dance class, after a string of my wilting pirouettes, the dance teacher yelled, “You’re dancing like a vegetarian! Where’s the beef?” I wondered whether the beef eaters danced differently. Did they have more energy, more spirit to keep them straight? I would try to dance as if I had all the advantages. I would turn what I had, I hoped, into strength. My father did that.

He was a more extreme vegetarian than my mother and I, and sharp focused. We experimented, commented, dabbled; he honed and perfected. He believed that great harvests came from arid sources, pleasure from restraint. He knew the equations that most people didn’t know: things led to their opposites. Most people thought that things led to more of the same, so they took what came, and missed out on larger, more significant gratifications. They ate, drank and reveled. He didn’t, but he reveled later, on a larger, more permanent scale that would not deflate or sour, and that was his alchemy.

I didn’t live with him, but he would stop by our house some days, a deity among us for a few tingling moments or hours. One day he spit out a mouthful of soup after hearing it contained butter. With him, one ate a variety of salads.

But once he took me with him on a business trip to Tokyo, where we went to a sushi bar in the basement of the Okura hotel with its high ceilings and low couches, like a Hitchcock set. He ordered great trays of unagi sushi, cooked eel on rice. On one tray the pieces were topped with salt as fine as powdered sugar, but wet, and on the other tray the pieces were coated with a thin, sweet sauce. Both were warm and dissolved in my mouth. He ordered too many pieces, knowing we wouldn’t be able to finish them, but that we didn’t want to feel they would run out. It was the first time I’d felt, with him, so relaxed and content, over those trays of meat; the excess, the permission and warmth after the cold salads, meant a once inaccessible space had opened.  He was less rigid with himself, even human under the great ceilings with the little chairs, with the meat, and me.

Later I thought of that evening like the ending lines of George Herbert’s Love (III), when Love persuades a contrite soul “guilty of dust and sin” to be forgiven and love again.

“You must sit down,” says Love, “and taste my meat.”

So I did sit and eat.

Meat warmed us, bridged gaps between us.

But the event was not self-sustaining, the way I imagined it was in the poem. We went back home to salads. They satisfied me less, now that I knew the alternative. In our search for dietary purity we’d lost some love, I thought. There were too few lapses; the equations were too tight, too perfect, for love. Those thoughts came at the beginning of my teenage years, when I carefully avoided meat and butter, and thought badly of people who didn’t – when I was most critical of what I most wanted. I felt how the delicate scale between lack and plenty can tip, how unswerving asceticism can turn back on itself and become a kind of substance, a satisfaction. I felt a little better about cold food when I could judge others for their gluttony and imperfection – and my fast became a strange kind of feast.

In an essay, Why Do I Fast?, Nigerian playwright, novelist and essayist Wole Soyinka writes about fasting while in prison, the thin line between the pain and pleasure. His fasting becomes euphoric after awhile; through denial, he seems to expose his more essential inner core, an exquisite energy sustained by nothing: “The body achieves, of course, true weightlessness. I am blown about by the lightest breeze, by the lightest lyrical thought or metaphor. The body is like an onion and I watch the flesh peel off, layer by layer, layer by layer. And this is the risk, it is this condition that begins the danger of self-indulgence. For by the fourth day the will is no longer involved. I become hungry for the show-down, the moment when I must choose between death or surrender. I resent even the glass of water and begin to cheat.”

He started to love his deprivation so much he would have died for it. But that kind of morbid indulgence defeats the ascetic intention. To avoid this risk, I’ve told myself, one should chase but not always catch, not proclaim oneself perfectly something, not give up entirely, or follow rules too closely – not become attached to absence. Learning to detach from the senses and the world is a main tenant of Buddhism. Attachment breeds unhappiness. I read that the Buddhist monks, when they become beggars – part of their training in humility – must accept everything they are given, even meat, with gratitude, even though they are vegetarians. This lenience appeals to me, the fact that one belief (diet) doesn’t snuff out others (humility).

Some philosophers wrote that transcendence in other realms, religious and intellectual, requires not eating flesh. In one ancient text, De Abstinentia, or On Abstinence From Killing Animals, from the end of the third century AD, Porphyry of Tyre writes to an old friend, Firmus Castricius, and tries to convince him to become a vegetarian again. Years before, the two philosophers were vegetarians together in Rome – ascetic rebels amidst the pagan revelry – before they parted ways. Castricius moved to his farm in Campagnia and let his vegetarianism lapse, and Porphyry stayed in Rome to think and write. 

I’m interested in these two men because I have in me both sides of their ancient feud. Porphyry, the vegetarian, was dedicated, most of all, to his work. He claimed that an ascetic life is essential to the philosopher; it’s impossible to combine philosophy with the fat gut of politics and scandal and dinner parties. In Rome, he lived a Spartan life, took care of his two adopted children, and wrote. He gave up chief earthly pleasures like sex and meat.

At the same time, miles away, Castricius was capturing fireflies on summer nights in his olive groves after meaty dinners with friends. After the two friends parted ways, Porphyry wrote – but Castricius lived. Or so it seems. None of Castricius’ writings survive. Like Porphyry, he was also an author and scholar, but his work, whatever it was, would be temporary, like the candles flickering at the end of the party.

InDe Abstinentia, Porphyry condemns Castricius scathingly. The book begins, “I’ve heard from visitors, Firmus, that you had condemned fleshless food and reverted to consuming flesh. At first I did not believe it, judging by your temperance and by the respect we had shown for those men, at once ancient and godfearing, who pointed out the way… I thought the proper return for our friendship [was] to declare from what and to what you have descended.”

The tone of the passage is almost delicious; there’s a thrill to sanctimony. I wonder, reading this, whether Porphyry derived his most intense joy from writing and thinking – from passages like this, rolling towards the bite – perhaps equal to the joy that Castricius found at his feasts on his fertile land. If so, Porphyry didn’t give up, he exchanged: he substituted the joy of the palate with the joy of the intellect, and the sweet whiff, however feint, of immortality that words can bring.

Porphyry is intent on what divides him and his old friend; I’m interested in what unites the vegetarian and the flesh eater, and on the limits of his preaching.

One of the arguments Porphyry uses against eating meat in De Absentia depends on the assumption that animals have souls. If one conceit of the modern world is that acts can be divorced from their beginnings – like plastic-wrapped meat in city shops – Porphyry is arguing that cavalier consumption can have profound, ill effects. Even his title, De Absentia, has a nuance lost in translation: the full title is On Abstinence from Animates or, in Greek, peri apokhes empsukhon. This is difficult to translate into Latin, or English, but apokhe means ‘holding back,’ and empsukha are not just living creatures (zoia), but creatures with souls. Killing animals harms them, according to Porphyry, because it wrongly appropriates their souls.

But Porphyry is cavalier in his own way, I notice, with souls and beginnings and ends. The text is full of citations that prove his anti-meat eating points, but he isn’t true to them; without warning he sometimes takes over the first-person narrative from a source he’s transcribing.  He makes unacknowledged modifications, short or long omissions, and he adds phrases, sometimes altering the effect of a passage. He makes omnivores into vegetarians.

In a sense, he takes the soul of his sources (many dead, unable to argue) and distorts the flow of their meaning and narrative, contorts them to fit his message. He bends their stories to fit his own, in a literary version of the way he claims meat-eaters appropriate animal souls. I felt, reading De Absentia, that I was freeing the authors from centuries of misinterpretation, unfastening them from false shapes, even if I don’t know what they’d meant to say.

I felt unfastened, too, roasting the chicken today, eating it at night with my boyfriend. It wasn’t my first time eating meat – but it was my first time eating meat as a meat-eater. It was moist with crispy skin and there were vegetables, too, cooked in the juices in the same pan: beautiful white beets with red veins, shallots with burnt and twisting stems, sweet potatoes – all upstaged, though, by the flavorful meat that sat between us, glistening. It collapsed the space between us, brought us closer, I think, with comfort and normality; it also collapsed time, made the vegetarian years fade. But it was awkward, too. I was repulsed by my boyfriend’s fleshy promiscuity. He dove in; I picked.  Who was this woman, I wondered, roasting a chicken as if she had always roasted chickens, eating a chicken as if she had always eaten chickens? I was living less by the rules of the past, it meant, feeling my way more patiently, but falteringly around the dark room of the present. Meat was not the only reason for my willingness to examine old rules, to explore the contraband, but it was the means. It is a coming-of-age story over a chicken.

I thought of the importance and also the limitations of meat. Walking through the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco with my mother, many years ago, she’d pointed to Stanley Spencer’s painting, Double Nude Portrait: The Artist and His Second Wife. In the foreground is a large leg of mutton and behind it are the two naked figures, Stanley and his wife. The mutton chop looks like the wife’s thigh; she’s stretched, odalisque-like, behind it with her legs open and a tuft of pubic fuzz in-between. Spencer is crouched over her, looking at her body, impassively. His penis hangs down behind her hip, and her white breast falls to the side, crinkled like the skin on boiled milk.

The couple had just had sex, my mother said, and the painting captures the moment afterward: only wrinkled bodies, shadows of their lovemaking. I was fifteen then, and looking at the painting with her, I wondered what making love was about – I’d never done it – that it could transform two people so beyond taut youth, elevate the flawed and imperfect. My mother said the painting was about how love is impossible without flesh, but then it transcends the flesh.

I thought of my boyfriend, how it would be easier with him now, when rules were more negotiable, less rigid; the past will crowd in on the present less. The meat won’t transform our lives so much, of course, but it will, a little. And from now on, when I look at a menu or a grocery store aisle, I know I’ll have a fluttering sensation, of fear and joy – of being alive – with nothing to exclude or chastise, no better perfection.