June 1, 2011

In the Beginning

A year and a half ago I came across an article in the local Metro daily about diet and health myths. One in particular caught my eye: A vegetarian diet is healthier; False. It continued in discussing how some people’s bodies simply cannot cope on a vegetarian diet. It struck a chord and for some reason seeing this was different.

Being a vegetarian for 15 years I’ve heard it all, especially from people who think they know better or think I deserve to hear their point of view. It was always annoying. I didn’t preach to them so why did they feel compelled to preach to me? I respected what they ate no matter how revolting I thought it was. Becoming a vegetarian was my choice, and the choice was made for me.

My mom was surprised during a recent conversation about my university days. She had always blamed the animal rights group I belonged to for my conversion. Understandably she was taken aback when I told her they actually had the reverse effect. If it hadn’t been for their constant pushing for adopting a vegetarian diet, I would have become a vegetarian much earlier. Reflecting on my meat-eating days of childhood, she could see it was inevitable. Ironically I left the animal rights group shortly after becoming a vegetarian as I had felt I no longer fit in.

As the months passed, the article popped into my head from time to time. Even though I’ve been dealing with allergies in one form or another since adulthood, I’ve never felt right. There were reasons for some (i.e. insomnia for my fatigue), but even at the healthiest point of my life I still didn’t feel healthy. This lacking has always been at the back of my mind.

Later in the fall I came across an article in Maclean’s by Anne Kingston. At first I passed by “We Love Butchers” in disgust thinking ‘I know what they do. I don’t need to read about it’. A few pages later I turned back. I pride myself on having an open mind and so I read it. It became the starting point of my conversion.

It was surprising to read about butchers who care not just about the meat people are putting on their plates, but also how the animal was raised. What the animal eats and how it spends its day directly relates to the quality and taste once its life ends. It made sense to me, but to hear it from butchers themselves was unexpected. The rise (or popularity) of Charcuterie and ‘nose-to-tail’ contradicted my ideas of meat going to waste due to the demand of prime or popular cuts. On one hand I’m pleased that every part of an animal is being used in an eco-conscious way, but on the other hand, the idea of eating specific parts makes me cringe. Flashback have occurred in the last year and a half of me opening my granny’s fridge and seeing a few pig’s feet sticking out or head cheese on a plate – a common occurrence. You would think I would have either gotten used to it or learnt to stop opening the fridge. Although I lovingly ate liverwurst thickly spread on rye, that was as weird as my meat got.

As I made my way through the article I found two vegetarians, then another two, then another. These were converts. Big time converts – 4 of the 5 were butchers. It was the fifth one, Tara Austen Weaver, who struck me the most. Weaver writes about moments in life and food on her blog Tea &Cookies. She had recently finished ‘The Butcher and the Vegetarian: One Woman’s Romp Through a World of Men, Meat, and Moral Crisis’. A born and raised vegetarian Weaver is ordered to eat meat by her doctor for her health.

Some searching ensued on the web for these five converts where I found Tara’s blog and read her bio. I got myself a cup of tea and set myself down to read. Like a great book, Tea & Cookies is easy to read, interesting, enjoyable, and I found I could relate to some of her struggles. After some thought, I sent Tara an email and lucky for me she replied. We exchanged a few emails and with some of Tara’s comments, suggestions, and questions I was able to sort out some of my thoughts and set out a flexible path.

One decision I made was to incorporate meat into my life. At the time I didn’t know what this meant. I began experimenting, but wasn’t having much success – I had no idea what I was doing. I needed to educate myself and so I pulled out Joy and read about chicken and beef. Thankfully Rombauer provides plenty of background information. I was beginning to feel a little overwhelmed; however, not intimidated. When I began eating fish 10 years ago it was similar; something totally new and going through a learning process. Ironically it’s not unlike working with food allergies. When The Butcher and the Vegetarian was released in Canada I bought it and began to read (a follow up post will eventually appear). I was amazed with Weaver’s gusto, even when she was feeling so ill. That gave me the courage to try.

The first step was to read up and learn something. The next was to venture to a butcher shop. I haven’t had any issues going into butcher shops in the past – to pick up some smoked bacon for the Honey’s weekend breakfast or for my students to see something front and centre during a food-themed week. It’s never felt odd because I wasn’t there for me. But this time it was for me. I’d be up close and personal to a variety of meat.

Rhonda at Saslove’s agreed to show me the ropes. She listened to my concerns then began showing me through the store. We started off on the right foot with some laughter and I instantly felt at ease and could ask anything that came to mind. When she asked what I wanted to know I responded with ‘Everything. I know absolutely nothing!’. Given how new I was to the world of meat, Rhonda explained things to me simply without making me feel dumb. She made suggestions on what to start out with (which cuts and/or meats) or items to avoid due to another allergen on my list. Never once did I feel pressured to become a meat-eater or ‘switch sides’.

My teacher gave me a new insight into meat and butchers themselves. I had always assumed they were 100% meat all the time and Rhonda mentioned she didn’t eat veal or lamb and didn’t understand the allure of it (then a colleague piped in that she loved it and why). As we began wrapping up my lesson Rhonda, again, put me at ease telling me to ask anytime I had questions and if I was really stuck, I could bring in my recipe and get some help. This made sense and I’m sure many customers that go through their doors take them up on the offer.

It’s been a year and a half and where has it led me? I’ve brought meat into my diet. My health has improved and while meat is not the sole reason, it’s one of them. Like much of my cooking, there are many new experiences, recipes, and opportunities. Much like salad, the possibilities are endless. While I still call myself a closet meat-eater, more people are becoming privy to my secret. I don’t consider myself a true omnivore yet, but meat has become a mainstay in my life. The experiment is not over in my eyes. I have purposely been limiting my options, partly so I can learn and partly out of fear. As 2011 continues so will the dishes that make their way through my kitchen.


Pearl said...

Interesting and comparable journey.

I've been vegetarian-leaning since early childhood and full vegetarian for about 10 years? (12?) I wondered if meat would improve my health but its pretty repulsive stuff. Even seeing the words for it puts me off my appetite.

Pickles said...

It's been quite the process and I'm still not that comfortable with it. Most of the time my health is battling with my mind and heart. We can only see where this journey goes.

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