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The Brave Tales of a (Ex) Vegetarian

ECUADOR | Wednesday, 21 November 2007 | Views [1442]

After five years dedicated to vegetarianism, or really vegaquarianism but in reality flexitarianism, I hereby confess my newfound carnivorism. Yes folks, its true, I eat meat.

I won't be so brazen as to fully embrace the term "carnivore," but I must admit those darn animals are tasty. This is nothing new to me, as I was nourished by my Italian mother on cow tongue and tripe. I also recall thoroughly enjoying sucking the bone marrow from the remnants of my ox-tail soup and devouring ribs with mamma's "special sauce," grinning with a sticky, rouge face when my belly was pleased.

I prefer to use the term "flexitarian" to describe my food journey over the past half decade since I have incorporated several experiments, political statements, and circumstantial concessions into my diet.

During my first year at the University of Maryland, a plump, happy freshmen nourished on beer and dining hall figures and flavors designed to imitate food, I stopped eating meat. At the time I was working in a calzone shop managed by a pair of hippies who could be found sleeping on a makeshift cot in the "office" most evenings. Our ingredients arrived prepackaged and processed by Sysco, and our ravenous college clientele and employee base ate the various order-by-number concoctions by the dozen. Work hours ranged between 5pm and 2am, and often ended in an alcoholic toast to closing time, which did little to compliment my diet. Ironically, I began to read "Fast Food Nation" during this uncharacteristic phase of my life. As new chapters coincided with workdays, I became highly perceptive and skeptical of the "food" I was eating and serving my peers. I finished the book, quit my job, and banned meat from my diet.

Though seemingly rash, my decision developed from sound political and economic rationale. Psychologically (and physically) I was unable to support an industrial meat-producing system that destroyed the environment and rendered meat products void of nutritional content due to highly systematized, inhumane, and chemically induced animal rearing practices. I was vaguely aware that there were hormone-free, pasture-raised meat products available though this didn't strike me as a feasible option on my measly college stipend. So I began dining primarily at the university coop among Mother Earth's adorers.

Six months later I was in Peru, where Dimity and I had chosen to pursue volunteer work instead of academic careers for a semester. We lived in a communal volunteer house with a cook who catered to dietary preferences. Dimity and I were the only two vegetarians, accompanied by a vegan. Hence, all of our meals for one and a half months were vegan. Combined with religious morning runs, an alcohol-free lifestyle, and gratifying work, I reached a physical and spiritual peak of health, serenity, and contentment. I maintained this diet through my subsequent volunteer site in Costa Rica, and for my first semester at the University of Pennsylvania. Eventually, cheese got the better half of me. A year later my boyfriend, Bobby, introduced eggs back into my diet, which was shortly followed by a delectable spoonful of yogurt from a local dairy farmer and that was it, I was back in the vegetarian game.

In Philadelphia, I became profoundly involved with the local food system, and my dietary habits were increasingly regulated by the season. In an effort to support my local farmers, I would sometimes nibble at Bobby's meat-dish in a local-food restaurant, though my sense of adventure ceased here.

Other exceptions manifested themselves in cultural experiences. In Kenya, my Chinese aunt prepared Dimity and me for fieldwork in the bush with homemade pork dumplings. When we arrived in the bush, however, our host family ate little meat due to Khadija's (our host) heart condition and inability to process meat proteins. Thus, we were spared. In India, my grandmother's friend Ismail invited Dimity, Bobby, and me to dine at his house. The majority of our chicken curry ended up on Bobby's plate while Ismail sat cross-legged on the floor preoccupied with his massive tobacco pipe.

This brings me to Ecuador. My first evening in the country, I advised my family that I was willing to try meat if they were certain of the animal's sane and sanitary history. The following evening a cutlet of chicken appeared before me, and with all eyes glued on me, I took a brave nibble which proved to be a tasteless morsel of the agro industry. In subsequent weeks I found myself eating guinea pig on two occasions; with a local Riobambeñan family and in an indigenous farming community. According to the books, these were cultural instances of flexitarianism. However, two months later my ecua-family brought a chicken from the campo and therefore I had to try it. I willingly accepted and, my oh my, what savory sweetness. I eagerly slurped the rich chicken soup that followed, and smiled coyly at my immediate and extended family members, who were awed by my recent audacity.

Word of my altered eating habits must have reached my abuelito Don Carlos, who on the subsequent day took the liberty of serving me two pieces of fried ham. I investigated thoroughly to verify whether they were the two remaining pieces of my soy ham…I didn't recall my mock meat curling at the edges and bearing a grotesquely pink hue. Somehow, Don Carlos and my 9-year old ecua-sister Michele assured me that it was soy ham, though in retrospect, I am certain that my hunger impeded any proper understanding because when I took a bite the flavor was associated with an entirely different category of food which resounded: meat. And so, my conquest of meat began.

The very next day I was at an eight-hour long funeral, during which extended family members treated me to lunch. The father of the clan ordered me a typical almuerzo including ox-tail soup loaded with floating bits of fat that were attracted to my spoon and a hefty leg of roasted chicken. The following weekend I went with my family and Martha's sisters to a popular restaurant in Cumbaya called Mr. Chancho's. Chancho means pig. You could likely guess that they are famous for fritada, however their main specialty is yaguar locro, a creamy potato soup with tripe and a dried blood and avocado garnish. Of course each plate comes with chocolo, queso, and a several other tasty bites, but the place serves a roaring trade for their typical meat-based comida. Of course, I ate it all. Ramiro was gloating with pride and Martha provoked me for a reaction; "Y, te lo gustó?" To which I nodded enthusiastically and replied; "I'm not sure what I was thinking for the past five years." Laughter and appreciation, after all, it was Ecuadorian food that did it.

Though I do not cook or eat meat in my house, I have since had meat in various forms almost every day for the past two weeks while traveling to Cuenca and Riobamba. In Cuenca, while dancing in the streets to a cumbia-techno talent show warding of the cold with canelazo, I shared meat and platano on a stick (well various sticks) with several friends. In Riobamba, my elderly hosts served me several plates of chicken stew for every meal (of course followed by rice and fish, colada, and fruit). And so forth…

I still retain my political and environmental apprehensions about eating meat, though I am fairly sure that the majority of my meat indulgence has been sourced from the campo. My energy level seems slightly higher, though not in comparison to my vegan chapter. My curves seem slightly rounder, though I would also venture to say this is a side effect of norms in Riobamba and the campo that require eating the equivalent of three meals in one meal, three times a day. So there you have it…

Tags: Food & eating

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