How A Lapsed Vegetarian Returned To A Meatless Diet
And a delish recipe that may help you do the same.
I was almost 15 when, in 1991, I decided overnight to become a vegetarian. Like most angsty teen girls from the 1990s, I was a Dr. Martens-wearing, alternative-listening, Sassy magazine-reading, opinionated kid doing whatever I could to elicit eye rolls and sighs from my parents.
We had been at the St. Patrick’s Day parade downtown when a group of similarly angsty-looking teens — who gave off the edgy aura of the cool kids I wanted to hang out with — passed along the parade route handing out pamphlets for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the radical animal rights activist group.
By the time we got to the restaurant serving our annual corned beef lunch, my head had been filled with images of suffering animals in cages being raised on factory farms for our consumption — and my decision was made. I told my parents (after they had paid for the overpriced buffet) that I was becoming vegetarian that very minute and wouldn’t be eating corned beef — or any meat, for that matter.
What I remember most about those days wasn’t exploring all the delicious meatless alternatives to be enjoyed, but more just trying to avoid meat. So it was a lot of cereal, PB&Js or pasta with butter for dinner, because my family wasn’t going to change their eating style to accommodate some crazy whim of mine.
Going to a barbecue meant I got a hamburger bun with pickles, lettuce and a slice of American cheese on it. There were very few books on the topic of being vegetarian — most of them old copies the likes of Diet for a Small Planet and the Moosewood Cookbook that my parents had from their hippie years.
In the 1990s being a vegetarian, especially a teenage one, was something of an unusual thing. We didn’t have the myriad ready-made vegetarian freezer meals or meat substitute options that we have today, and we didn’t have the internet — so there weren’t the gazillion cool vegan and vegetarian blogs out there now.
By the time I got to college, I had at least figured out how to make a few meatless dishes like spaghetti with homemade tomato sauce and various types of eggs. By the time I got my first apartment I had taught myself a few recipes from Moosewood like Gypsy Soup and Zuccanoes.
It was, however, when I bought a copy of Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone that I truly fell in love with not only the vegetarian lifestyle but also cooking and eating. The recipes in her book were not just omitting meat or finding some sorry substitution, they were elevated — gourmet even — and could stand on their own. And they were absolutely delicious: goat cheese enchiladas with sweet corn and golden raisins; mushroom turnovers wrapped in puff pastry; 10 different, not-at-all boring ways to prepare tofu; and not a single weird, quasi-gross recipe that tried to emulate its real-meat alternative.
Working my way through the recipes from cover to cover, I learned how to taste and how to really prepare good, delicious, satisfying and guilt-free food. Eating and cooking vegetarian went on this way until I was almost 30 and met my husband-to-be. It had never really bothered me to date someone who didn’t share my eating style — being vegetarian was still surprisingly uncommon, even in the 2000s.
It was easy enough to handle when dining out, as most restaurants had several options to choose from for both of us to be happy, and I was used to cooking my own food at home. But when I met his parents for the first time — in Argentina, the land of beef — and we were sitting around the dinner table and his parents started questioning my decision to be vegetarian to my face, I realized what a challenge it was going to be.
Looking back, I wouldn’t say I was pressured into eating meat, exactly. It wasn’t as if we had any big fights over it or anything, but as kids came into the picture we definitely would have if I had suggested being vegetarian during pregnancy or raising the kids as vegetarians.
At the beginning he would be in charge of preparing the meat because, frankly, I didn’t even know how to (and still don’t know a lot about cuts of meat and preparations), while I would make the sides. By the time we had kids, I was a stay- at-home mom and he was working long hours. We were both dog-tired, and getting some semblance of a meal on the table that was also edible for children was the main objective — meat or no meat.
My son didn’t really even question what meat was or where it came from until he was about 7, and even learning about it didn’t seem to bother him. For what it’s worth (at least that was what I told myself), we made an effort to buy and eat meat that was humanely raised and not factory farmed — a small consolation to myself.
By 2015, for lots of other reasons not involving our eating style, we were divorced. I moved in with my mom for financial reasons, and we started to eat more or less the meals I was raised with — a typical American diet.
So we would have meat at least twice a day — deli-meat sandwiches at lunch, meatballs or burgers or fried chicken for dinner. I was too weary and miserable to get creative in the kitchen, too tired to fight my kids, and too worn out to make a separate meal for myself.
Years passed eating this way — until several months ago when I was making yet another dinner I didn’t want to make. (I still really dislike the process of preparing anything with meat.) I just had this epiphany reflecting on everything since my divorce that has gone wrong, everything that has slid downhill, and everything I’ve had to settle for or give up on or sacrifice that was once important to me: like living in my own place; living in a part of town I want to live in; raising my kids the way I wanted to; doing the things I want to; taking care of myself; being independent; not having a vitriolic, contentious relationship with my ex-husband … basically everything that meant being happy to me. We’ve all made compromises. And I just thought: “You know, I really, really, don’t like the way I’m eating. Like, what the f*#$ am I doing? I hate eating meat, I hate preparing meat, I think it’s gross, and I don’t want to eat this way.”
I thought if I have to compromise on so many other things about how I’m living (as we all do, because … adulting), I’m at least going to eat what I want to and how I want to (which I realize is a privilege I’m lucky to have).
That very night I talked to my family about how we need to cut back on eating meat, not only for health reasons but also for ethical and environmental reasons. They were surprisingly open to the idea.
So we started with meals that were meat-free yet familiar — like spaghetti with tomato sauce, pizza without meat toppings and even breakfast for dinner. We watched food-related documentaries about healthy eating, and talked about the reasons eating less or meatless was important.
Being vegan is a thing now, too (which it definitely wasn’t in my angst-ridden teen years). We’ve been discovering all the fantastic modern resources that give would-be vegetarians or vegans tools for success. There are ready-made meatless meals we love; meatless alternatives like tempeh, tofu and jackfruit; great vegan alternatives to cheese, deli meats; even yogurt made from pea protein and milk made from oats.
There are myriad online resources like blogs and a whole section of vegan cookbooks at the library. All in all, I’d say our transition thus far has been a success. I’m still making some meat dishes for my kids, and I’m not discouraging them from eating the way they want to. I’ve noticed they question what’s in something I’m making and that they get excited when they find out something is vegan or vegetarian.
And they still enjoy hamburgers and fried chicken, and that’s OK with me. For myself, I haven’t craved or missed meat one bit. It was surprisingly easy to give up and not look back. In fact, it has been something of a relief.
I’m loving taking a little extra time on a Sunday to prep what I’ll need to be ready to eat for the week so I’m not too hungry to make something quickly. My freezer is full of things I’ve made and frozen in individual portions — like red curry tofu, and I’m enjoying discovering new recipes that excite me
Instead of mindlessly eating — or eating something I really don’t want but am having because I don’t want to rock the boat — I’m delighting in planning, preparing and eating my meals. I’m comfortable not attaching myself to an eating style but choosing to eat vegan or vegetarian when I can have control over that (which is most of the time).
I’m teaching my kids that we have a choice, and that our choices impact other lives and the planet. I feel healthier and am enjoying more variety of flavor. And I’m confident in saying that if joy comes on a plate, I’ve found what makes me happy — and I’m pretty sure it will stay that way this time around.
Potato and Sweetcorn Croquettes
When the sweetcorn is in season, make these easy croquettes. Fresh basil makes them extra summery!
Servings: 10 croquettes
Source: Robin Asbell, chef and author
1 pound Yukon Gold or other waxy potato
2 medium ears of corn kernels removed
1 cup fresh basil, divided
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup panko
oil for frying
1/2 cup avocado mayonnaise
1. Boil the potatoes in their skins until very tender, then drain. As soon as they are cool enough to handle, slip off the skins and mash or put through a potato ricer. Put in a large bowl and let cool completely.
2. Set up a large skillet and a large plate lined with a double layer of paper towels for draining the croquettes.
3. To the potatoes, add the salt, corn kernels, and half of the basil. Stir to mix well. Form 1/4 cup portions, shape into patties, and coat with panko. Place on a plate and chill for at least an hour, or until time to cook.
4. Place the large skillet over medium-high heat and let heat for a few seconds, then pour in oil to 1/4-inch deep. Let the oil heat to a “shimmer” and place one croquette in the pan. If it sizzles, add as many as you can fit without any of them touching. Cook, using a metal spatula to carefully turn them as they brown.
5. Drain the finished croquettes on the paper towel-lined plate.
6. In a small bowl, stir the mayonnaise with the remaining basil.
7. Serve croquettes with basil mayo.