Vegetarianism: The grass is as flesh, some folks say**
I'm committed to the idea of vegetarianism. Diets high in roughage and beta carotene help prevent common cancers; horticulture is a cost effective way to sustain the burgeoning human population of old planet Earth; and besides, my significant other won't sleep in the same room with me when she detects meat on my breath. Although she's a successful, professional vegetarian, I have to report that my commitment remains fairly theoretical--a firm commitment to the idea, as I said. I've found I can live without veal, but ply me with a nice coq au vin and you can play me like a violin, especially if you set aside an extra glass of burgundy.
But I keep trying and I think I'm making progress. Two years ago, for instance, it would not have occurred to me that I would be writing checks to organizations that send me alarming broadsides with blurry photos of men clubbing baby seals; now I look forward to the next issue. And consider that for our last big party I made a quadruple batch of meatless "chili." We ate it for six weeks and a vat still lurks in our freezer. (Hint: To save money when entertaining a large number of carnivores, cook a traditional dish using delicious and undetectable substitutions such as tofu for chicken or bulger for hamburger. If you have twenty people coming, you need only make enough for seven; if you have ten people coming, make enough for three; if you have five coming, don't bother to make anything at all because they'll say they aren't really hungry once you tell them what's in the chili.)
When I went to a week-long conference in Dallas a couple months ago--remember, this is Dallas, home of the longhorn cow, which is not a dairy animal--I told the organizers I would prefer vegetarian food. Night after night a bevy of tuxedoed waiters swept into the dining room burdened with trays of sizzling fajitas, juicy tenderloins and scampi the size of your thumb. And at the rear of this entourage would totter the chef's bibulous brother-in-law, recently paroled and sniggering beneath a load of pasta primavera which he'd roughly deposit in front of me before disappearing forever with the extra steak and shrimp. I was caught in my own lie and in the end I could only swallow my pride and my crucifers.
But I remain a kind of gormless vegetarian dilettante. Ask a Real Vegetarian why she's given up the pleasures of the flesh and you're likely to get a disingenuous answer such as "I like animals." Oh, you've met these people. They have didjeradoos on the stereo and recycled toilet paper in the john. They bake their own dog biscuits using ingredients from their pesticide-free gardens. When you stomp down their cellar steps to help them move a table, they cry out, "Be careful! You almost crushed that brown recluse!" and begin rummaging for a broomstraw with which to usher the chummy arachnid out without undermining its self-respect.
One thing Real Vegetarians do not do these days, thankfully, is live on white rice and tepid water. We met one not long ago, a shy innkeeper in the mountains of western North Carolina who really knew how to cook. His phone number somehow shook loose from our network of herbivore friends who gather periodically over lettuce leaves and vials of echinacea. A rumpled, delightful mutterer and--surprise!--former Duke academic who shuns publicity, he lives in a funky old Victorian mansion with a casual clutter of dusty chinoiserie, musical instruments and, here and there, a mildewing zafu. Thirteen of us were served family-style, but before we could properly address our dinner we had to pass a kind of test and tell everyone what work of art we would choose to be were we not human. The answers seemed to satisfy him: a Bach chorale, a Renaissance madonna, a Coltrane improvisation, a road-kill opossum (this last from a sixteen-year old). Then came the entree, which he laughingly called an "Appalachian focaccia," stuffed with his homegrown tomatoes, basil, peppers, onions, rosemary and asiago. And the fresh bread and salad and a trifle too much trifle. Oh dear, I gorged. I wallowed. In desperation I vowed to become a vegetarian.
I tell you that here in the Piedmont we need such men as the mountains afford--ex-hippies, Buddhists, robustious cooks who like animals. Despite their scarcity, and with much rationalizing and backsliding, I creep forward with the help of friends who raise a concerned eyebrow when I am about to order lunch. For which, if you are reading this, I thank you.
Of course there is still that freezer full of "chili."
Paul Baerman is a University employee.
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our editorially curated, weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.