Friday, August 8, 2014

How I Learned to Eat

At the age of six, I became a vegetarian. You know what that word means, right? You've seen it before. I stopped eating ham and halibut and chicken and any other flesh food. My parents thought my refusal to eat meat was no different than my distaste for bananas and tomatoes, which I eventually got over. For the past eleven years I've eaten through conversations like this:
"How about a no-thank-you-bite of salmon?"
"Ham is one of those meats you eat, right?"
'We took your Harry Potter book and hid it somewhere in the house. For every bite of beef, you get a clue."
They refused to use the V word. I "had a hard time with meat" the way my brother Jacob "doesn't like strawberries". They didn't let me starve, but they didn't go out of their way to feed me either. If my brothers ate pork roast I'd munch on the rolls and carrots. If the family had hamburger night, I smeared peanut butter and honey on the buns. I ate a lot of peanut butter.
The result? I was scrawny. I was a middle class American child, and I went to bed hungry. I thought the rest of the food world was like my mom's kitchen table. Get what you get and don't throw a fit. I didn't dare order a chicken and pasta dish without the chicken. No, that would inconvenience the restaurant staff. What right did I have to put in a special request?
Everything changed when I was fifteen. My brother Spencer was going to college in Berkeley at the time and we stopped by for a visit. Berkeley, land of the hippies. Berkeley, with its hookah shops and protesters. Berkeley, full of restaurants where I could eat. Spencer and his girlfriend took us to a Thai restaurant that proudly proclaimed "vegetarian and vegan" in the window.
Usually at restaurants, I skim over thirty or so menu items until I can find the one or two meals I can eat. If that doesn't work I order off the appetizers. But here I didn't need to do that.
I pointed to the pasta dish I wanted and told the waiter, "I'll have this with the tofu." Tofu. I'd had that twice before and had a vague idea of the taste.
He didn't even blink. "Are you alright with the egg?"
"If you're vegan, I can take off the egg."
"No, no, egg's alright." I wanted to laugh. I wanted to hug every Asian immigrant and animal rights activist that made Berkeley's food industry the way it is today. I wanted to move to California.
When we got home, I realized I didn't need to. I could eat vegetarian in Suburbia, Utah. I could tell the lunch ladies to leave the turkey off my deli sandwich instead of throwing it away once I left their sight. I could tell my girls camp leaders to accommadate me like they did my lactose intolerant friends instead of living off granola bars. I could tell my pediatrician I didn't want or need help from his nutrition specialist friend. And most importantly?
I could tell my parents what I didn't want to eat.
When my dad offers me steak, I don't say, "Not tonight." I look him right in the eyes and say, "I'm a vegetarian and you need to realize that." I don't choke down chicken nuggets and corndogs just to make their lives easier. My mom buys tofu freezer enchiladas. Right now, she's making a salad with avacado, leafy greens, almonds, and strawberries instead of tossing lettuce and croutons in a bowl with one other ingredient.
My parents no longer praise me as the "low maintenence child". I'm obnoxious. I'm whiny. I'm a rebel. I'm a brat. I am difficult. I have values different than theirs.
And I'm up to a hundred and thirteen pounds. The world will never open up to you until you learn to talk back. 

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