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True Confessions of a Reluctant Vegetarian

A Chicago dad who surrendered to a meat-free existence considers what he’s lost.

Illustration: Oliver Munday

In March everything feels like the future, like the year somehow is still ahead of you. It is during this time that I, my self-regard shuddering awake like an animal emerging from hibernation, gaze upon my naked body in the bathroom mirror and feel horrified. I know I need to eat more fruits and vegetables, but I don’t want to. I am a vegetarian who does not enjoy eating vegetables. To be honest, I don’t even like to be called a vegetarian. It feels like a capitulation, a kind of defeat.

The first vegetarian I ever knew was named Jennifer. We were in seventh grade. Jennifer was short, dark haired, incredibly intelligent, and politically active. While my friends and I were teetering between Transformers cartoons and old issues of Playboy, Jennifer was listening to the Dead Kennedys and subscribing to newsletters from Amnesty International and Greenpeace. In English class, Jennifer and I were paired on a team to debate against the use of the death penalty. Needless to say, given her off-putting stridency and my total lack of interest, we lost.

In college, I ended up dating a girl who had been a vegetarian since she was 13. She was sophisticated and beautiful, but when we went to restaurants, all she ever ordered was pancakes or grilled cheese sandwiches. It was like going out with a toddler or a senior citizen. Later the girl told me she had never liked meat, not even as a kid. She went on to say she had been eating chicken at her cousin’s one Sunday when she looked out the window and saw live chickens marching around in the yard. She never ate a living thing with eyes after that.

Eventually, the girl and I got married. In the kitchen, we would mostly cook separate meals. Everything she liked tasted brown: quinoa, couscous, things that resembled tree roots. It all reminded me of the exact flavor of being forced to eat grass by a bully. Still, she was no extremist. Sometimes—say, if the phone rang—she’d kindly stir a frying pan full of bubbling ground beef, so strong was our love. We were young, interested in books and music, and both going to grad school. We had other things to talk about when we ate.

In 2005, my appendix ruptured. Because it took me so long to figure out the cause of the excruciating pain radiating from my right side, the emergency operation had to be done without the latest laparoscopic technology. This meant the recovery time would be three months. I was 31, and I remember laughing out loud, thinking, Three months? I was sure I’d be fine by the end of the week.

Not so. I had a hard time getting out of bed. I broke a sweat walking to the end of the block. I felt like I had woken up in someone else’s body. A friend recommended I see an acupuncturist.

The first thing the acupuncturist did was look at my tongue. “Hmm,” she said. “Do you know your blood type?”

“Sure,” I said, thinking she’d be impressed. “I’m an O.”

“Hmm,” she said again. “How often do you eat meat?”

I remember answering with conviction, as if there couldn’t possibly be any other answer. “Two, sometimes three times a day.”

She nodded and suggested I try eating meat only once a day. I was stunned. Then she stuck my face full of needles.

I decided to try out the acupuncturist’s suggestion. I went from eating meat twice a day to once a day to every other day. At the end of three months, my lethargy had miraculously vanished, I got back to exercising, and I no longer felt like a stranger in my own body.

But I had become a vegetarian almost against my will. I had stark, feverish dreams about running through an open field, coming across a passel of gentle grazing cows, and lunging upon their backs like a wolf. Every time my wife and I went out to dinner, I still ran my eyes over the list of entrées, searching for sumptuous meat dishes like a jealous man stalking an ex-lover. I tried every kind of fake meat available, most of which had the taste and consistency of moist newspaper. Although my health and energy greatly improved and my weight and cholesterol were lower, I just could not get excited about the possibilities of tofu. I felt like a hypocrite. I felt like a liar.

Eventually, my wife and I had kids. Without much conversation about it, our children became de facto vegetarians. Our daughter, who’s six, seems born to the lifestyle. Her favorite drink is water. She has no interest in meat.

Our three-year-old son is a different story. We go to parties and he stares longingly at ham rolls. I feel like I have betrayed him somehow. Because he will never eat a meatball sub or a slider from White Castle, I feel like I have failed him as a father. I fear that he may hunt down some poor animal and eat it by the time he’s 12.

Really, all I want is for me and my son to share the joy of eating an average Chicago-style hot dog, piled high with peppers and sprinkled with celery salt. I have scoured the city for the most meat-like meatless foods in the last few years and recently came across Bangers & Lace on Division Street, which serves a soy dog. These are a revelation. They’re the closest thing to an actual hot dog I’ve had in a long time.

But before we could even begin to indulge, my wife told me that eating a lot of soy would give me huge manboobs. I was forlorn. On one hand, the idea of having huge boobs of my own seemed pretty exciting, but then in a larger social context, I realized it would also be humiliating. I flew into research mode and found a study from the National Center for Biotechnology Information concluding that soy had no effect on hormones in men. My son and I celebrated together by eating another fake hot dog and walking around shirtless.

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