I was raised by a Czech mother who was a fabulous cook. Her repertoire included pancake soup, dumplings with goulash, pork roast so tender it melted in your mouth, Weiner schnitzel, thin beef rouladen stuffed with pickles and mustard. Almost every dinner we ate for my entire childhood, with the exception of creamed spinach and mashed potatoes, had high quality, home-cooked meat in it, often bought from the local German butcher since American supermarkets did not have the cuts she wanted. Sometimes when my father wasn’t home, we had fish sticks with ketchup, but that was really an aberration. We were old-fashioned carnivores of the bourgeois Eastern European variety.
At the age of 18 I spent a summer in Europe, including a three-week stint with friends in Germany. At one point the father of the house was turning 50. Germans take major birthdays very seriously: many of the guests arrive carrying birthday cakes. The birthday girl or boy is expected to put on a large and varied buffet with beer, schnapps and wine to enhance the experience. In preparation for the party, at which roughly 150 people were expected, I had to make a trip to the butcher shop with my sister. They told us, “Tell the butcher you are there to pick up the leg.” I assumed that I misunderstood them, my German is ok but not perfect and I often get the context slightly wrong. We arrived at the shop and, sure enough, there was a cow’s leg neatly wrapped in butcher paper, tied with a convenient string carrying-handle at the top of the thigh. It was much longer and heavier than my leg; cows are big. We had to carry it with our arms raised so that it wouldn’t drag on the ground. I don’t remember which of us carried it, but I do remember it repeatedly bumped against my leg as we walked. By the end of the short trip home we had both become vegetarians. Dismembered body parts just did not seem all that attractive as food items.
I remained a vegetarian for more than six years, my sister is still a vegetarian. But foreign travel ruined my resolve to stay away from meat. At the age of 24, I went to Nicaragua to work on a graduate research project. The people I stayed with made me the Nicaraguan national dish; nacatamales. These may be my least favorite food: masa laced with lard, with a lump of fatty pork in the middle, wrapped in banana leaves and boiled for around three hours. I took a bite and thought I would vomit. But instead, with all eyes watching me, I smiled and ate it. “Delicioso,” I lied. It was the first meat-like thing I had eaten since Germany.
I can’t imagine insulting people from another culture by not eating the food they prepare for me. If I went to China and someone put a plate of spiced dog in front of me, I am sure I would eat it. My father once went home with his interpreter in Turkey; they picked the sheep’s eye out of the stew for him to eat as their honored guest. He ate it, trying not to look down. They gave him the second sheep’s eye when he finished the first.
At home I am a participant in my family’s non-vegetarian dinners. We make chicken, we make fish. I would rather not make either, but I love my family so I eat with them and cook the things they want to eat. If I go to someone’s house and they make meat for me, I eat it. Eating is social.
There are many good reasons to be vegetarian. For me, the most convincing is that a vegetarian diet is less resource intensive than a meat-based diet. Every time you convert energy by going a step up the food chain, you lose 90% of the energy in the food. That means it takes around 10 times as much farmland to raise cows to eat as it does to raise plants to eat. The farmland you save is the wild land you let lie for the birds and beasts and bacterial masses to do their thing. It is forest not cut down for pasture in the Amazon. It is seas left unfished.
That said, I won’t say no if you hand me a bacon wrapped scallop because to do so puts you in a position of discomfort. Being loving and non-judgmental toward people is more important to me than being pure or right or defiling the temple of my body. I am by nature neither loving nor non-judgmental, so this is something I have to work at. While I have trouble with the wholesale slaughter of sentient beings, I prioritize my concerns. At least at this point in my life, I pick people first.
My mother was originally quite distressed when my sister and I became vegetarians. She didn’t know what to feed us. Never mind that she always had delicious and plentiful side dishes to go with her meat-a-thons, she wanted to give us main dishes so that we wouldn’t starve to death in front of her eyes. After I stopped being a declared vegetarian, I was able to go home and eat her goulash. It gave her great pleasure. And it was fabulous.
I don’t have a recipe for this post. But I will describe the weirdest meat dish I have eaten in a foreign country in the last few years. I went to a restaurant in Banska Stiavnica, Slovakia last May. We decided to order something local, so I ordered a dish called “Eye of the Miner.” It turned out to be a breaded, pan fried, boneless pork cutlet in a mild horseradish sauce, topped with a canned peach half and sweetened whip cream. You’ll have to invent the recipe yourself. I don’t think I would order it again, unless the only alternative was a nacatamale.