It was 15 years ago today on June 21, 1994, I made a decision that, while seemingly innocuous at the time, has become one of my proudest moments as a human being.
My orchestra had just come back from a ten day tour in Japan–a tour that was mostly funded by the Japanese government, meaning there was a bit of pomp and circumstance around our visit. As soon as we arrived in Tokyo and started bussing across the country, I discovered that Japanese cuisine was mysterious and thus not very appetizing.
A few days into our tour at a fancy hotel in western Japan, the main course of our luncheon banquet included a skewer that had four super-fresh baby octopuses on them. The horror! The horror! As my table was being served, my friend Bonnie was paralyzed with fear because one of her octopuses was still twitching a little from being freshly skewered. When another tablemate took a bite, he found the suction-cup octopus legs were sticking to his tongue and hard to swallow.
I requested a vegetarian plate.
The rest of the tour wasn’t nearly as culinarily traumatic. I was lucky enough to be surrounded by people who could explain what was in each dish, enabling me to avoid anything that was beyond my threshold. Like the soup with the fish head in it at a host family’s house.
When I landed back in Portland on June 21st, 1994, I decided to conduct a little experiment and try not eating meat. Months before the trip to Japan, I had been on a Paul McCartney kick and had been introduced to the idea that you can choose what you eat based on your personal belief system. The seed had been planted, and as time wore on there grew a little voice in the back of my head starting to point out the discrepancies between my love of animals and eating hamburgers. The trip to Japan had just planted that seed in some Super Miracle Grow, where it developed and blossomed over the course of ten short days.
At home, I kept my meatless experiment to myself. Our family has never dined formally, so I could take my dinner in stealth and eat alone. Because I was on summer vacation, I was the only one home for two meals a day. It was easy to be in the closet as a vegetarian. At first.
One fateful day, though, 24 days into my meatless experiment, the dinner of the day was to be steak and baked potatoes. My mother had called upstairs to me, “Heather! Come get your food!” but when I came down, my parents were still in the kitchen. Eventually I attempted to gingerly put a baked potato on my plate and scurry away when my dad said, “Have some steak!”
When I didn’t reply, he innocently pressed, “Don’t you want any steak?”
“What’s the matter? Are you vegetarian now or something?”
My 16-year-old brain couldn’t take that kind of pressure. I emoted, “I haven’t been eating meat for 24 days! And I like it! And I don’t want steak!” I was panicked. Perhaps my dad was joking, but this was the first time ever I was making a clear departure from my family’s value system.
And that, dear reader, is how I “came out” as a vegetarian. : )
It all ended up fine–in fact, my mother decided to go vegetarian for a while as well. In those first few years, together we navigated the world of health food stores, TVP, Stripples, and the like. Linda McCartney’s Home Cooking was our bible. Gardenburgers, then still made in Portland, were a staple, but tofu was a taste I would not acquire for about ten years.
During that summer, I read The Jungle as required for my honors program, cementing my belief that I had made the right choice.
In the time since, as my personal beliefs have departed more from the value system I was raised in, I look back on the moment I “came out” as a vegetarian and see the first step in a series of choices that make me very proud of who I am.
Today, I count myself beyond lucky to live in a city that has grown from mere vegetarian friendliness to a mecca which includes a vegan mini-mall, a vegetarian/vegan internet cafe a block from (ex-)work, and for a period even a vegan strip club. When a group meal order happens, the presence of vegetarians and vegans is assumed–no drama, no tears, no hungry people. Being vegetarian in Portland is a complete non-issue: it’s just what I am, and I don’t usually think about it day-to-day.
There are a few exceptions. When I order from certain restaurants, I usually ask questions to make sure there are no “hidden” animals, like rice made with chicken broth or pulverized bacon bits on the cheese bread. My closest call was when I stopped into a vegan bakery on my way out of town in March and ordered the turkey sandwich. My brain apparently thought I was at Backspace, and I’d get a sandwich of the finest soy turkey available. It wasn’t until I had my mouth open, poised to take the first bite, that I realized the turkey was real. I traveled about 20 minutes out of my way to give it to a coworker, then silently grumbled during my whole six hour trip to Canada, asking myself what kind of vegan bakery would sell real turkey sandwiches!
Additionally, when I have taken trips outside of my little utopian bubble, I have been faced with a bit of culture friction as well. A friend who lives in a ranching town regularly quizzes me about my choice and exclaims that he just needs meat, and you just couldn’t survive in his town as a vegetarian. As if my personal choices were threatening him in some way.
Dear reader, it’s not my concern if you eat meat. If you want to become vegetarian I’d be more than happy to lend encouragement and assistance, but if you’re a fan of Voodoo’s bacon maple bar, you won’t hear any lectures from me.