As a kid I was one of those people who always ate what I liked the least first, and saved the best until last. I still try to do anything that way even today, although procrastination does tend to get in the way sometimes. In any case, I still remember quite clearly chopping up meat or fish into small pieces and shoveling it down my throat as fast as possible so as not to have to taste it or even chew it. It didn’t matter if it were steak, burger, salmon or squid; it was rare that I would actually enjoy anything that had to do with meat or fish. The only things I can actually remember being OK with were mincemeat (ground beef), canned tuna and chicken breast (as long as there were no “black bits” in it). In our house growing up you finished your meal whether you liked it or not (pretty common procedure back then), so I just sucked it up. The idea of eating ribs still conjures up nightmares and the texture of those little octopi in my mouth will never be forgotten. Oh, and we lived above a butcher’s shop for a while. I still remember the smells.
I suppose it came as no surprise when I suddenly decided to become a vegetarian at the age of 17. My sister used to laugh at me and talk about “delicious bloody steaks” in a loud voice around me (she was a really annoying 15 at the time so that was to be expected), but my mother seemed to release a huge sigh of relief and most of my friends didn’t find it to be very weird. To be honest, I think I just said it out loud one day and decided to stick with it to save face. And I say that not because I didn’t want to be a vegetarian, but that becoming a vegetarian at 17 in France in the 1990’s wasn’t an easy feat. It meant that I actually had to start thinking about what I ate a little more, and making sure that whatever I ate didn’t contain any meat or meat by-products in it.
My mother had been vegetarian for a few years in her youth and gave me some recipes to try. She even started to make things separately for me on Sundays when we had a roast dinner or other family meal. Sundays were the only days that we actually made time to eat together as a family at that point, as work, school and friends seemed to get in the way during the rest of the week. It’s only now when I make different meals for everyone that I really realize how much of an effort she made to make sure that I always felt included during those meals, especially during special occasions like Christmas and Easter. At restaurants my go-to meals would be “a salad without the bacon, ham or tuna please”, or ravioles (still one of my favourite dishes), or an “omelette au fromage”, or just a simple baguette with Brie. There were many times when I had to send something back because it still had meat in it, or I had to pick around something because I was too embarrassed to say anything. I went to visit a friend in Blois for a week and we ate lunch at the same restaurant every day… On the final day, after ordering the same salad minus any meat the chef came out and asked me if I was vegetarian and reprimanded me in the nicest way possible for not saying anything. He had so many meal ideas that he would have loved to make me! From that moment onwards I decided to be more confident and while I still had the odd “oh my gosh I thought I was clear about being a vegetarian” moment, I ended up eating some amazing meals. Just because a country appears to have a very meat-heavy menu, it doesn’t mean that a vegetarian cannot eat well and healthily. You just have to think outside of the box a little and not be afraid to speak up.
I never actually missed meat. Around the age of 19 I suffered from a bout of severe anemia, most likely due to growing pains, too much running around working and playing and a bad diet of pains au chocolat and ramen noodles. People advised me to go back to eating some steak, but I couldn’t stomach it. The anemia disappeared once I settled down into a healthier routine for myself, and never came back. My iron levels have been stable since then, even through two pregnancies and tandem nursing children. For me that is proof enough that we don’t NEED to eat meat, our bodies absorb nutrients from a varied diet, and I am pretty sure that it is healthier for us to not have to digest meat or meat products…
It’s been over 20 years now and since I became vegetarian I have tasted meat exactly twice. I was drunk both times and thought it would be funny. Once I took a bite of bacon. It was disgusting. Another time, I tried a cecina (salted beef) taco. It was gross. Nothing has changed for me: I still can’t stand the taste or texture of any kind of meat, fish or seafood. I’m a real texture AND taste eater, so if anything resembles or tastes like meat or fish I can’t eat it. You know how smoked cheese can smell like bacon? It tastes like bacon to me and I can’t eat it. Or if a meat replacement product has exactly the same texture as meat I have to push it aside. I like the idea of these products as it’s a great way for those who actually like meat to cut down on their meat consumption, but they aren’t necessary for me. It’s easy enough to replace meat in dishes like chili or shepherd’s pie with beans and chunky tomatoes. I’ve been using a little bit more of these products recently in dishes, just so that my other half doesn’t feel like he is missing out, but during most of my vegetarian years I have done without.
I will not handle or touch meat or fish. It honestly makes me want to vomit, the idea of eating it, the texture, the smell, so I refuse to have anything to do with it. This therefore means that as I cook most meals for the girls they also have a vegetarian diet for the most part. I say for the most part as I am a little hesitant on the subject. They have both eaten meat before, from their father’s plate, but it’s been a rare occurrence, and Luna isn’t a fan (but she isn’t a fan of much anyway). Aurora seemed to enjoy it, but she enjoys most things, so that wasn’t much of a surprise. They do eat the same diet as me, which is a bit of everything outside of meat, fish and seafood, and it’s important for me that anyone ask me before giving the kids anything to eat (I had to grit my teeth when a shopkeeper gave an 8 month old Aurora a lollipop once; and realised too late after the fact that my sister had fed Aurora meat without checking with me first, and I ended up not saying anything because it was hours later – please people always ask parents if you can feed their kids something before you do, you never know what kind of allergies or intolerances they may have. I don’t blame my sister because she was just having fun feeding things that Aurora obviously wanted to try but I obviously still need to learn to be a better advocate for my beliefs). Long story short, the girls will choose what they want to do when they are old enough to make the choice, but in the meantime we will offer them a variety of what we eat at home, which will rarely include any meat unless Cesar is cooking it for himself.
I’ve toyed on and off with the idea of becoming vegan. I like the idea of never eating anything “animal” again, but at the same time I love cheese, and appreciate other dairy products and eggs. Then again, eggs have to be fully cooked all the way through, especially the white part, and I can’t eat certain types of yogurt due to their texture. But I also can’t find anything that actually replaces the amazingness of cheese, and to be honest I don’t really want to either. So I have been thinking about reducing my dairy consumption, maybe halving it, and would love to start buying milk and eggs directly from local farms, or even own our own chickens at least. Even the dairy products labeled “organic” and the eggs labeled “free range” aren’t as cruelty-free as we imagine them to be. It’s hard to navigate through all of the products available, the prices ranging from dirt cheap to outrageously expensive, with labels full of words that make them seem fresh and organic, but don’t actually state “how” organic or fresh they are.
Aurora has not yet really been introduced to cow’s milk yet, because whenever she has a couple of sips it goes straight through her within minutes. She sometimes has yogurt, and often has cheese because she loves it (and she is my daughter), but I feel like she has an intolerance, and probably has tummy ache at times that I have possibly interpreted as teething pains (although there are a lot of them too). So I have decided to remove all dairy from her diet for a couple of weeks and then doing the Milk Ladder which is one of my allergy mum friends is using (you can check out Ally’s awesome blog for allergy-mum related articles and recipes). If things aren’t any better by her 15 month appointment in November we will see what the doctor says. I suppose this is as good a time as any to cut down on my own dairy consumption then. I shall not be changing anything in Luna’s diet as she only ever eats when and what she feels like anyway (and that’s a whole other blog post).
I do want to add that a vegetarian diet isn’t immediately healthier than a meat-eaters diet. Being a vegetarian doesn’t just mean removing meat and fish from your diet and continuing along your way. It’s important to know what you are putting inside your body and aiming for as varied a diet as possible. In my opinion this isn’t just because of nutritional needs, but also because it’s easy to get bored when you have no variety. I love an array of colours and always try to create colourful dishes. Green, red and orange always add wonderful pops of colour to anything, and as I don’t like dark leafy greens (no kale here thank you very much), there are always peas and carrots, red peppers and mixed greens in the fridge. I love lentils, beans, chickpeas, tofu, root vegetables, pasta, fruit, most vegetables, all kinds of food deemed “healthy”, and they are naturally a large part of my diet. But I also love chips and fries and candy and if I didn’t have to worry about making sure I remain somewhat healthy I could also live off of that for the rest of my life… It takes work to eat any kind of a healthy diet, and vitamin deficiencies can appear with any diet if it is not varied.
Several completely unrelated items spurred the writing of this article. One being several people raising their eyebrows when I state that I would like my kids to be vegetarian (no, I don’t think I am depriving them of anything). Another item is the mere idea of killing off huge amounts of beautiful wild horses to create space to build places to kill huge amounts of cattle makes me feel physically ill. And last of all just because I look back at those days in my youth where I wanted to vomit and cry, but forced the food down without showing any of my repulsion, and remind myself to take the time to listen to my kids when they say that they don’t like something. It’s enough proof to me that we all have different tastes even before we can talk.