Monday, October 17, 2011

Classic Essay: A Week Without Meat

Author's Note: I wrote this for a "social experiment" project for an advanced comp class. I have since gone back to my meat eating ways. 

I’ll start with the fact that I don’t like bacon. I mean, I really, really don’t like bacon. Just the smell of bacon makes me nauseous. On the first day of my proposed week as a vegetarian, I went out to dinner with my family. I’d gone to the restaurant thinking I would have pancakes or a salad. The first words that came into my head, and out of my mouth, as I looked at the menu were “hmm, bacon.” My husband laughed and I ordered the French toast.

My reaction to the bacon on the menu triggered a period of introspection, something I really hate to indulge in, but I got over it pretty quickly. Oh, sure, most people would have used that time to consider how many of their actions and thoughts are influenced by things they have unconsciously absorbed from their daily interactions with people, the media and advertising. But, hey, why ruin dinner? That was the last real craving I had that week but it wouldn’t be the last time my meat free week would cause emotion among my family.

An explanation is required to fully understand the scope of what I had gone into this week to accomplish. My husband, son and I live with my husband’s grandparents. My husband’s entire family is members of the Seventh Day Adventist church. This is important to the experiment only in that they are supposed to observe certain dietary restrictions. The Seventh Day Adventist religion follows the Jewish dietary laws in addition to a few of their own, including a ban on the drinking of alcohol. It is recommended, though not required, that their members become vegetarians. The first time I met my husband’s parents, I was eighteen years old and they offered me a ham sandwich and a beer.

My husband’s grandmother dislikes messes, particularly in the kitchen. To this end, everybody is discouraged from cooking anything. How does anybody eat? When they’re not eating out, they buy twenty Wendy’s or McDonald’s hamburgers at a time and refrigerate them. Occasionally, they will heat a Stauffer’s Family Size Lasagna with Meat Sauce in the oven and refrigerate it immediately. The only time I am grudginly allowed to use the kitchen is when the pastor of their church calls and asks me to make my famous Chicken Alfredo Lasagna for potluck. For the record, I don’t belong to their church and I’ve never actually attended a service or Sabbath school when I’ve gone to the building with my husband.

Knowing the resistance I was likely to meet when I tried to eat at the house, I armed myself with several recipes that I thought the other people in the house would like if I were to cook them. I would get glared at but I would survive and maybe expand my list of things I could make to take to potluck; after a couple years, I was getting tired of making that damned lasagna. In case of emergency, however, I stocked up on Four Cheese Pizza Lean Pockets. Those tasty little toasty pockets came in handy during that week.
My plan was to get up and have breakfast in the morning, make something simple for lunch then start making the family dinner in the middle of the afternoon, when there was less of a chance of everybody being home. This proved to be a bit ambitious for me and didn’t work out exactly as I planned. The first snag came when Monday morning became Monday almost noon before I managed to get out of bed. After taking my daily meds, breakfast ended up happening around lunch time. I wasn’t surprised but I was disappointed. The main reason I didn’t get out of bed until 11:30 is because I felt really hung-over. I spend most mornings feeling really hung-over, actually, even though I don’t really drink. That morning, I hadn’t had a drink of alcohol for close to a month. I managed to eat a SlimFast bar before finishing off a bottle of water and a handful of painkillers. I was mobile by one that afternoon and made an inventory of the ingredients in the kitchen.

We were missing several key ingredients which meant a trip to the grocery store was necessary. My husband’s grandmother offered to pay for dinner and we went shopping afterwards. I figured I was going to go a week without meat so there was no reason to deprive myself of good food in other areas. Whole wheat pasta found its way into my grocery cart, along with gourmet pasta sauce, ready to shred cheese, organic vegetables and fresh spices. Visions of a truly decadent breakfast sent me over to the red grapefruit. Though they would prove to be the least expensive things I would buy, it took me ten minutes to convince myself that I deserved to have something I enjoyed to eat for breakfast. When I was first reaching for the grapefruit, a voice in the back of my head said “you don’t deserve those, go get some pop tarts.”

The next morning found me bright, awake and hangover-free at seven in the morning. I couldn’t remember the last time I felt good first thing in the morning, much less that early in the morning. I ate half a grapefruit and a yogurt for breakfast. My son and I walked to the park and I wasn’t tired by the time we got there. We played until he was tired, instead of until I was tired. He actually lay down and took a nap when we got home, something he hasn’t done in over a year, and I got started catching up on some homework I’d been behind on. My husband’s aunt was keeping the kiddo for the night and ended taking him home with her when he woke up from his nap around two in the afternoon. A little later, I walked to the coffee shop up the street to meet one of my classmates and work on a group project.
My energy level was still high that afternoon and something must have showed. In the ten minutes it took me to walk to the coffeeshop, two people pulled over and asked for my phone number. I wasn’t worried about my safety but I was very perplexed about their reactions. Believe it or not, this had been a fairly common experience for me in high school, nine years and one hundred fifty pounds earlier. There was something different about me.

After that second day, I was no longer tempted by bacon. I made my pastas and sandwiches with an equanimity that would have been unthinkable a week earlier. On Thursday, my husband’s grandmother actually threw a hamburger at me and yelled at me when I told her “Thanks, Mim, but I’m making myself some spaghetti for lunch. Would you like some? It’s really good.” The contest of wills between Mim and me turned into a source of amusement for the rest of the family for the rest of the week. When I made manicotti, she declared it off limits for everybody else and bought Chinese take out from the restaurant down the street. While the orange flavored chicken smelled really good, I was surprisingly content with my cheese, mushroom and spinach filled pasta.

During that week, I went out to lunch and shopping with my mom. We talked about how much better I felt and speculated about the reasons behind my improved health. The only thing I had changed was my diet. When she got home, my mom sent me half a dozen vegetarian recipes to try. I still haven’t gotten through half of them.

At the end of the week I had set aside for my experiment, I was reluctant to go back to eating meat. The memory of waking up hung-over without the fun that should necessarily precede the feeling was still fresh in my mind, along with the contrast to the way I’d begun feeling. I mentioned my reluctance to my parents on Sunday, the last day of the experiment, and they asked me a question that I hadn’t really considered. Why couldn’t I just keep eating like a vegetarian?

My husband and father, the two men in my life who normally have nothing to say to each other, discussed ways to help me meet my nutritional requirements without eating things I really dislike, such as tofu. It finally came down to a thought that had been simmering in the back of my mind; I can’t be a vegetarian because I’m not a hippy. The minute I expressed the one thing that had really been holding me back, I felt like a complete idiot.

Very slowly, and very carefully, my dad said, “Kortnee, you don’t have to be a hippy to be a vegetarian.”

I know.

“And even if you were, your mom shops at the hippy store now. I’m sure she can pick up any hippy food you’d need so you can come visit.”

My husband snickered, my mom punched my dad in the arm and I felt much better. We all sat down and worked out a menu for the family birthday party we were having for my mom and I the next weekend. When we went over on Saturday, my mom had me help set out all the food and said “eat what you want, don’t eat what you don’t, and don’t worry.” While the boys enjoyed the steak and my mom her chicken, I enjoyed the macaroni salad, fresh fruit, corn on the cob and a wonderful day with my family.

I’ve been meat-free for two weeks now, a week longer than I’d planned, and I have no designs to return to my old eating habits any time soon. I’ve lost five pounds and have more energy than I ever remember having. I’ve even started jogging around the neighborhood, much to the consternation of my husband’s grandmother, who thinks I’m making a spectacle of myself. The pastor of the church tried the vegetarian alternative to my Chicken Alfredo Lasagna I devised and has asked me to make two batches for potluck; one vegetarian and one chicken. I guess the classics will never die but, hopefully, the vegetarian lasagna will be as big a hit as the chicken.


  1. I haven't read this essay since you first wrote it and I am curious: do you still feel hungover when you wake up now that you eat meat again? We both know I can't live without meat anyway but I have found I actually feel better on a protein diet.

  2. Actually, I don't. I think it may have ultimately been a combination of the quality of the food I ate and the atmosphere I was living in. Nothing like getting out of a toxic atmosphere to make you feel better.

  3. True! It could have been a mixture of stress, an uncomfortable environment and fast food. Glad you don't wake up like that anymore!