Forty years ago, I became what I laughingly called a "closet" vegetarian. Although no feathered or furred creatures tempted my palate, I ate fish and dairy products and eggs. These days I don't picket the harvesting of baby lima beans ripped from a (sobbing?) mother plant, or the farming of oysters, or unborn fiddlehead ferns (the edible coiled tip of a young fern frond — delicious when dipped in flour and fried). I don't assist old salmon swimming upstream with their last breath. I have my limits.
I am totally loyal to the lives of cows, sheep and buffalo, and I'm opposed to hunting. I draw the line at those who raise calves in cramped, tiny spaces where they are fed only milk so they are tender when served as scallopini. It's okay with me if a lake is stocked with fish if I don't have to watch them being caught.
How did I become this strange "almost" vegetarian? Forty years ago I drove with my children past a stockyard. The smell — overpowering, terrifying — was of fear and death. I pulled off the road and cried, scaring my children, until I explained to them what was happening inside that terrible place. I told them that we would no longer buy or eat red meat. Three worried faces looked at me. "But what will we eat?" they chorused.
When we arrived at home, I explained what we would eat and how we would be able to help starving people in the world. Another chorus: "How can we do that?"
I told them how much grazing land it takes to feed one cow and how many people could be fed by turning that same piece of land over to vegetable protein.
"Couldn't we just bring one cow home with us and let it eat our grass and never kill it?" my youngest asked seriously.
I explained why that wasn't possible even though it was such a thoughtful idea and that they would see that our dinners wouldn't change too much and all would be well. I cooked the last hamburgers we would eat that night.
We became, in a sense, ecological vegetarians — those of us who see this way as the most practical method of expanding the world's arable land and maximizing its usefulness. I taught the children that the 8 pounds of grain that it takes to produce 1 pound of chopped beef (animal protein) can stretch the world's food supply eight times if the land is used directly for people. The children asked interesting questions; we drew cows and sheep and rice and soybeans, and we borrowed books from the library.
Our newly evolved dinner habits went swimmingly; fish, lots of different quiches, chicken (occasionally), large portions of veggies (many we had never eaten before) — that is, until I gradually removed fish and chicken from our menu. Instead, I substituted such "exotic" fare as Mushroom, Tofu and Pine Nut Lasagna, Armenian-style Rice Stuffed with Chopped Pistachios and Raisins, Curried Lentils with Rice. One night I served Cheddar Cheese and Lentil Loaf. Delicious, I thought — well worth the effort. I waited for a reaction as my children munched.
"Well," the oldest said, making a face.
"What's really for dinner?" the second joked.
"I'm not really hungry," my youngest noted, sadly pushing his plate away.
My children called a family meeting. They didn't invite me. They closed their door. I could hear them talking seriously, with only occasional laughter. I was slightly alarmed when they reappeared 90 minutes later, holding a large notebook. The mood of quiet revolt was palpable. I could hear their stomachs growling, as my oldest child read:
"We, your children, have voted and are now on strike at dinner until you, our mom, can cook food that we can eat. We think it's cool to save hungry people in the world by not eating any red meat but we no longer want to eat tofu, or lentils or lima beans."
"Or tofu pudding. I hate it," my youngest piped up.
The reading continued.
"We have also written a letter to Julia Child because we know you watch her. We asked her for some recipes without red meat. We thought about asking her to adopt us for a little while, but we wanted to give you another chance because we love you."
Three faces looked at me expectantly. I felt tears in my eyes and took a deep breath.
"I'm very impressed that all of you used the democratic process to make your decision, and I will honor that decision. From now on, I promise to include more chicken and fish in our dinners. Will you do something for me, too? Will you at least taste the other stuff? If you don't like it, you won't have to eat it."
They conferred. "We could try," they said in unison.
My children are grown now, with children of their own. All are excellent cooks. One eats no red meat at all; the other two eat it only occasionally. I still eat tofu but only in Asian dishes. I no longer call myself a "closet" vegetarian; I am officially an environmental vegetarian. It has a nice, save-the-planet ring to it, I think.
Rachel Pollack is a freelance writer who lives in Denver.