Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Day I Stopped Eating Meat

Let me start by saying this: I never really liked meat - even as a child. Some of my early food memories have to do with not wanting to eat the main dish and just wanting the sides. Thanksgiving for example - I hated turkey but LOVED mashed potatoes. Things have not changed much. When I was eight years old, my mom went back to school to get a nursing degree and somewhere in her first year, they dissected a fetal pig. She decided then and there to not cook pork and I remember being relieved that I would never have to eat pork chops again. Surprisingly (or maybe not), the place where I said goodbye to meat was in France.

For middle and high school, I attended a wonderful school in Seattle that had many things going for it, one of which was a foreign travel program. We all had the opportunity to spend spring trimester of either our junior or senior year in France (for those studying French), Mexico (for those studying Spanish), or somewhere else interesting. Since I studied French, I opted to spend the spring of my junior year on a bike, camping and eating my way through that beautiful country.

I would like to say that that three month trip is when I fell in love with food. I would like to say that France is where I learned that I wanted to cook, and dream about cooking, and write about cooking. But instead I can only say that France (that trip at least) is where I gained 15 pounds in spite of the fact that I was riding a 60 pound loaded bike all day almost every day.

All in all, we ended up riding about 1500 miles around five different provinces. As amazing as it sounds (and it was amazing), it was a very difficult trip. To start with, I was only sixteen years old. We had only one adult teacher in our group and she was a disaster, so the inmates were essentially running the asylum. There were a lot of logistics involved in getting from place to place and none of us really spoke French all that well. There was a lot of down time as we waited for the slow riders in the group to catch up (I was one of the slow ones) and as we tried to reunite as a group each time someone got lost. What was there to do during these hours of waiting? Well, eat.

Again, I wish I could say that I was taking advantage of the incredible food on offer to us in the wonderful provinces we visited but for the most part, we were eating out of supermarkets. Whatever was fast and cheap is what we ate. We did have cooking stoves and there were those in the group who actually cooked at night but I was too starving all the time to wait for even water to boil for pasta. My appetite quadrupled in the three months I was there and I am amazed today, even having been through two pregnancies and having nursed two children, by how much I ate.

Breakfast was at least three pastries and a whole baguette was consumed durning the course of a day. If we were to stop at a creperie for lunch, I would have a savory one, a side of pommes frites, and a dessert crepe to top it off. Snack was a giant chocolate bar - like one of those baking sized ones. Can you wonder how I gained 15 pounds?

One of the things that kept us all going on our endless bikerides in terrible weather was the fact that we had homestays scheduled throughout the three months in various locations. These were three day respites from sleeping in tents, arguing with each other, and getting lost. We were able to eat in someone's home and perhaps most importantly, we got mail from our families and friends. My homestay mothers were all a little horrified by what we were doing and they let me soak as long as I wanted in the tub and fed me copious amounts of food. I ate whatever they put in front of me, so grateful was I to be eating something that someone cooked for me instead of something I essentially scavenged from a supermarche.

Approximately halfway through the trip, we boarded a boat in Marseilles and sailed for Corsica, an island in the Mediterranean just north of Sardinia. After a long month of rain, freezing rain, sleet, and snow (not to mention injuries, countless flat tires, and lots of in-fighting), the prospect of two weeks of sun was most welcome. Corsica remains one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen and at the time, it was still unspoiled. We didn't ride many miles each day because the terrain was very difficult and the roads were not in great shape. Several times each day we had to stop to allow a herd of goats to cross our path. As much as I hated climbing the mountain pass we did each day, I almost preferred the climb to the descent because of all the potholes - I was terrified of falling off my bike. But endless days of sunshine make up for a lot.

Our homestay in Corsica was in the magical town of Calvi. It is quite a tourist destination, but in late April, it was nice and quiet. My wonderful friend Jen (with whom I am still close) and I had the ultimate luxury; we got to stay at the same house. It was a good thing too because this family was a little on the crazy side. They were kind though and excited to have Americans staying with them. The last night we were there, they had a celebratory dinner and brought a delicacy for us - foie gras. I took one look at it and knew there was no way I could eat it. And so as not to hurt their feelings or appear rude, I told them I was a vegetarian. My friend Jen glared at me (she didn't want to eat it either) and the family seemed to think there was something seriously wrong with me, but I didn't eat the foie gras.

And I have never had meat since. After declaring it at a family home in Calvi, Corsica, it just became so. I had never liked meat and so I just stopped eating it. Even now when someone asks me why I am a vegetarian, my first instinct is to say, "Because I am". It's like being right-handed. Of course I don't agree with the slaughter of animals (although I wear leather shoes), and I am horrified by the environmental impact of all those cows (although I drive an SUV), but more than anything, it has just been so many years since I ate meat that it doesn't even occur to me anymore.

I ate fish for a few more years after that and, ironically, my last fish dinner was with Jen as well. I took her out for her 21st birthday to the Dahlia Lounge, a great local restaurant that is still around these many years later. I ordered salmon as I almost always did in restaurants in those days. It came, it was delicious, but I thought to myself, "I think I'm done with fish now". And I was. In these many years that I have lived as a vegetarian, I have cooked and eaten some delicious things. I am looking forward to sharing many of those with you.

Roasted Potatoes and Onions with Wilted Greens
Adapted from Gourmet Magazine
Serves 4

I love anything with potatoes, especially if they are roasted. This is a great way to combine a starch and a green for a two-in-one side dish. I imagine it would be great with meat of all kinds. I served it with a vegetable frittata and cherry tomatoes that I sauteed with garlic and herbs.

2 lbs small red potatoes
2 medium red onions, thinly sliced
2 tbsp. olive oil
1/2 pound spinach
4 tsp apple cider vinegar

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

Cut the potatoes in half or quarters if they are large. Try to have the pieces be of uniform size. In a shallow baking pan or sheet, toss potatoes and onions with olive oil and season with salt and pepper.

Roast potatoes and onions in middle of oven, stirring occasionally, until lightly browned and tender, about 25 minutes.

Place spinach in the bottom of a large bowl. Transfer hot potatoes and onions to bowl, sprinkle with vinegar, salt and pepper to taste, then toss until spinach is wilted.

Serve warm or at room temperature.

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