When I was seven, I wanted to be a veterinarian. My oldest brother was a high school rebel at that time, and he came home one day and told me he was a vegetarian.
“That’s what I want to be when I grow up,” I said.
“No no. A vegetarian is a person who doesn’t eat meat,” he explained. “Meat comes from animals.”
“Well, I love animals. I’m a vegetarian too.”
That night I was four bites into a hamburger when my mom said, “Hey Anna, I thought you were a vegetarian now.”
I looked down at my partially eaten meal, realizing for the first time what I’d be giving up. “I’ll start tomorrow,” I declared.
It was the last hamburger I ever ate. Although, how could I have known the difficult road ahead of me?
The trouble started right away. Being a third grader, I was constantly surrounded by some of the meanest people I’d ever meet: other third-graders. This meant that I was the oddball who’d usually wind up sitting next to turkey eaters at lunchtime. They’d make gobbling sounds and flap their sandwiches in my face while we ate.
Later in life, the problem was at parties. Everyone would order meat pizza, and I had to get over my quirks and learn to pick off pepperoni and pretend I didn’t taste meat in order to give my beer a base to slosh around in.
I also had problems with work. I worked at various sandwich shops where I had to touch meat, serve meat, and slice meat. Most of my managers liked me and didn’t force me to slice meat too frequently. However, one day my boss asked me to slice 16 turkeys. I was on about number 13 when a bit of turkey freed itself from the spinning blade and landed on my lip. I exploded in a fit of anger. I flung my gloved hands into the air and spat out every curse I knew, until I realized that my tallest, quietest co-worker was looking down at me and laughing. I smiled. It was pretty funny. Gross, but funny nonetheless.
Vegetarianism was also difficult when I went on dates. I always tried to warn the guy before we went out, but often it created an awkward moment. Like, I’d order a cheese quesadilla and so would he. “You can eat whatever you want, you don’t need to skip on the meat because of me,” I’d say.
“Oh, make that a chicken quesadilla,” he’d say. And secretly, despite his good intentions, I’d judge him for pretending to be someone he’s wasn’t. No relationship should start like that.
I also had been on dates where the entire menu was meat. I’d order two small appetizers and be completely satisfied, but I’d have to deal with my date spending our entire dinner explaining to me what I was missing as blood leaked from his steak across his plate. Third grade all over again.
Aside from those minor troubles, being a vegetarian was rarely a problem for me. Every restaurant had vegetarian options, I worked in restaurants with cooks who enjoyed challenges, and I was open minded to new foods, as long as they weren’t full of mushrooms.
Yes, sadly the one vegetarian staple that I never liked was mushrooms. They tasted like dirt and eating them felt like chewing on flesh.
Yet I never regarded my diet as a handicap until I started traveling, and even then, it was a somewhat tolerable difficulty.
When I went to South America, I was warned not to drink the tap water, and to stay away from vegetables, as they were washed in the tap water. Well, I was fine with buying bottled water, but I’d be damned if I would go a month without veggies.
At restaurants, I had to re-learn Spanish. However, one time when I was out, I saw “mini bruschetta” on the menu. Satisfied with the easy choice, I ordered it. Out came shish-ka-bobs made of beef and mushrooms. Apparently bruschetta is different in South America than it is in the US. So I learned how to order food, sin carne, sin pollo, sin pescado.
The next time I left the US, I went to Uganda. Most of the food was vegetarian, but locals always wanted to treat us well, and so they always served us meat. I’d fill my plate up with mushed up bananas, cabbage, potatoes, and peanut sauce, and then I’d thank them and pass on the meat. Most people looked more confused than offended.*Uganda*
A girl who was volunteering with me in Uganda was a pseudo vegetarian. Sarah was an animal lover, but she still ate chicken. “Chickens are ugly,” she rationalized.
An older couple we stayed with had recently married off their oldest daughter, and they’d received many gifts in the process, including two chickens, a mother goat and her kids. Having raised chickens and goats myself, I loved being around these animals. Every morning I ate fruit for breakfast outside and handfed the scraps to the goats.
Sarah watched the animals with me sometimes. At first she’d been freaked out by the chickens, but gradually she realized how gentle the rooster was, and she had to admit she liked him.
One day the hen was missing. “She flew away,” the couple’s son told us. Days later she was walking around the yard again. “She flew back,” he explained.
When the rooster went missing, we were concerned. “What happened to that chicken?” Sarah asked me.
The son overheard us, and spun to face us. “We ate him,” he said.
Sarah’s face dropped. The night before she had commented on how good the chicken soup had been, but she hadn’t realized it was the meat from a chicken that she liked. I held in my laugh, happy to be a full-blown vegetarian.
Again, I returned to the food-easy world of Milwaukee. I started dating a carnivorous man, and even learned how to cook bacon for him, though choosing bacon at the grocery store took a baffling ten minutes before I finally asked a store worker for help.
And then I moved to Korea.
I had never in my life encountered such a vegetari-hell.
Koreans eat communally, usually around a grill where they cook mass amounts of meat. Side dishes are plentiful, but typically are white rice (a nutritional zero), lettuce (for wrapping the meat in), various mushrooms, parts of fish, and kim-chi (fermented cabbage: a Korean staple). Basically this meant that I would spend my time in Korea cooking at home.
Choosing to do this caused more problems. Though I’d try to go to the local veggie markets, I still wound up spending way too much money on over-priced produce. Unless they were in season, watermelons were over $20. One avocado was between $3 and $4, a bag of eight tomatoes would range from $5 to $17 (I’m not kidding), yet the mushrooms were always cheap.
I also discovered that I despised the taste of seaweed… another staple in Korea. The grocery stores had a larger selection of dried seaweed than pasta.
Even when I ordered vegetarian soup, I’d often stir up a few crab legs or anchovies. Sometimes I’d buy cheese ramen and find squares of dried ham packaged in. Also, many snacks were squid flavored. One fellow vegetarian friend ordered veggie fried rice when she went out, and she got rice with spam. “It’s not meat, it’s spam,” the waiter explained.
And so, after nearly 20 years of not eating meat, I realized how much I’d handicapped myself at age seven. While living in a coastal city on a peninsula, I was officially a fuss-a-tarian in vegetari-hell. *South Korea*
(written in 2011)