Saturday, July 14, 2012

All in good time

This past school year, one of my good friends was considering becoming a vegetarian. She had already made up her mind that this was a goal she wanted to accomplish, so it wasn't convincing she needed. What she wanted from me was advice - how to get started and how to keep steady and true to a dietary plan that has the potential to be one of the most difficult transitions of anyone's life.

My first response was to say that I didn't really know what to say at all. My transition into vegetarianism started in childhood because I was around my dad so often and he didn't eat meat. So it's difficult for me to fully comprehend the transition for someone who doesn't get to go home and have a hassle-free meatless lifestyle. If I was going to give her some of my most fundamental advice, it would be to be born to vegetarian parents. But we don't have much control over that aspect of our lives, so that would've been an unreasonable request.

So I thought a bit more and I came to a more reasonable starting off point for vegetarianism: go slow.

It sounds absolutely intuitive, but it's actually one of the furthest things from your mind when you're trying to go off meat cold turkey (pun intended). Because when you've decided, after living a life with an unrestricted diet, to go off meat, you're usually doing it because you feel pretty strongly about the choice.

Whether that's because you've just read a book about the horrors of factory farming (part of why I officially decided to go veg was because I was reading the book Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer) or you've been dared to go off meat for a year or you happened to drive past a truck carrying a bunch of pigs piled on top of each other to the slaughterhouse (one of these two events also occurred in my life, but only after I'd been decidedly vegetarian for more than a year), usually once you've decided you want to go vegetarian, it's a decision you don't feel comfortable backtracking on.

It's like telling your hairdresser you want a short haircut and then in the middle of the appointment, when only half of your locks have been clipped, changing your mind and asking to reattach the strands that have been removed. Once you've gone vegetarian, it can be awkward to decide that animals are okay to eat again. You can't return when you've already severed your options.

But for me, there was also a bit of personal turmoil that made a slow transition necessary.

I'm half Japanese and as anyone who hails from a proud ethnic background knows, food is an incredibly important aspect of familial culture. Even when you know nothing about the country your ancestors came from, you probably have some idea of what they ate. And if they were from a country that ate well, then you've probably partaken in quite a bit of what they ate as well. And you probably enjoyed it. As did I.

Unluckily for me, my Japanese culture is known very much for its fabulous (and meaty) cuisine. This is the country that created sushi, teriyaki, tempura and hundreds of other wonderful dishes that non-natives and the Nihon-culturally-unaware perhaps don't even know about.

This looks nowhere near as good as my grandma's sukiyaki.
Almost every weekend for the first 11 years of my life, I visited my Japanese (maternal) grandma's house. Among the many jobs she's held throughout her life, one of her proudest was as a cook in a sukiyaki restaurant. My grandma makes some pretty stellar sukiyaki (which is a Japanese dish that might look like a stew to the untrained eye, but is actually more like a skillet with various vegetables, tofu and meat (unfortunately) simmering in a very yummy broth. Every weekend that I stayed at her house, she'd make some tremendous feast. We'd start with miso soup and then came a tray with a bunch of small dishes with sides and the all-important main course in the center. Sometimes it was her sukiyaki, other times it was salmon or tonkatsu or udon or soba. I could go on, but I won't because I don't want to make myself hungry.

I loved having my grandma's food every week. Since I was so young, I didn't quite appreciate the restaurant quality of her cooking, but in retrospect I can understand why it was such a treat to go over to her home all the time.

So becoming a vegetarian meant I had to look myself in the eyes and say "I'm going to accept that I'm losing much of the culinary offerings of my culture."

It just so happens that my first trip as a supposedly full-fledged vegetarian was to Japan with my grandma. It was the first time I'd been to Asia and the first time since I was seven that I'd traveled for longer than three days with my grandmother. I knew that arguments would be plentiful, so I decided that as for food - I'd concede to eating meat until I came back from Japan.

On that trip I feasted like the most abominable anti-animal activist. The only time I had a meal without meat was when I was over at my Japanese relatives' houses and my grandma insisted on reminding them I was vegetarian, meaning I couldn't partake in any of the main courses and instead I was given practically a whole loaf of bread to eat with homemade blueberry jam (it sounds like a punishment, but that jam was literally the best spread I've ever had in my life).

I think the only reason I had little remorse for reverting back from vegetarianism was that I knew this would be my last hurrah with the food I'd grown up with.

The truth is, most vegetarians wouldn't go vegetarian if they felt that giving up meat was an unfathomable life choice. If you don't have the mindset to believe that animals as food are expendable, then you're not going to sacrifice them. It's part of human nature to only stretch your limits as far as you can reach.

But the truth also is that even the best, most devoted vegetarian probably has something about meat that they miss. My dad, who has been meat-free for a few decades, still admits he misses the corned beef sandwiches he had growing up.

What keeps us away, though, is stronger than our desire for the food of our childhood or of our ancestry. I don't know why, but I know how.

For most of my life I dreamed about sharing my culture with people. When I was in first grade there was an Indian boy in the class who always brought ethnic food in for lunch. The other kids made fun of him (they were idiots), so his mom decided to bring in party platters of her homemade samosas so that everyone in the class could know they were being numbskulls. Or to make them more ethnically conscious, but I like to believe it was more the former.

After that boy had his mother bring in Indian food, I remember going over to my grandma's house and telling her I wanted to do the same with Japanese food. "We could bring kamaboko and senbei!" I said. The first are fish cakes often served with ramen and other noodle dishes, the second is a type of cracker covered in dried seaweed.

I dreamed of being grown up and sharing my grandma's recipes with my own family. I wanted to cook tonkatsu and go shopping at the local Japanese market. The idea was so appealing that the last meat-y meal I ever had was probably at a Japanese restaurant (though I'm not 100 percent sure).

But the reason I told my friend that it's important to take the transition to vegetarianism slow is absolutely simple: if you give up the things that matter most, like your cultural heritage of food, then you're never going to stick with it, even if vegetarianism is your number one priority in life.

If I had gone off meat absolutely cold turkey, if I had never considered having a piece of salmon again at the drop of a hat, then maybe I would've looked back a few weeks, months or years later having decided it wasn't worth it to lose that aspect of my identity.

But because I paid those final moments of respect to the food that defined my childhood - and defines my culture too - I was able to look at my choice objectively and realize that going vegetarian didn't mean giving up my Japanese identity after all.

The truth is, I still go out to Japanese restaurants fairly regularly. My grandma still makes me homemade Japanese food and I still learn her recipes so in a few decades I can turn around and teach them to my kids. I may not have my favorite Japanese dishes (salmon teriyaki and tonkatsu) because I've made a life choice that keeps me from them, but because I decided to move slowly and think clearly about vegetarianism, I managed to figure out a way to be happy with all of my constraints and all of my options.

So if there's any piece of advice I give to anyone - for those trying to be vegetarian, or even those just making a difficult life choice that requires a lot of reevaluation and rational thinking - it's that the key to a smooth transition is taking time to reflect, to ease yourself in and even to cheat if that's what you need. Without those things we may never think clearly, and without thinking clearly we may never make the right choice.

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