Tofurky and Quorn and Sauerkraut Oh My
For Christmas, my 17-year-old daughter bought me a T-shirt featuring a cornucopia and the words, NOBODY LIKES A VEGETARIAN. So far, no one has thrown a tomato at me or told me it's in bad taste. It's not that I don't like vegetarians, I just don't like the way they eat. Why anyone would voluntarily forgo bacon and rib eyes, prawns and bluefish is beyond me. And do I feel glee when one rejoins the team? Yes I do. When an employee of my husband's recently broke a ten-year meatless run by eating a pastrami sandwich, I was giddy; it was as though he had not merely announced he was back, but back with a bullet.
My zeal could be atavistic; a subconscious command that tells me, He who eats meat doth survive. It could just be that I like to feed people, without restrictions. It could have something to do with a baking obsession I've had since childhood, which results in the daily production of pound cakes, shortbread and pie, plied on family, friends, the UPS man, anyone who comes near enough to be given a cookie.
Anyone, that is, except my daughter's boyfriend, who last year abandoned a two-year flirtation with vegetarianism for full-on fidelity to veganism. This is utterly baffling to me, like taking a virginity pledge that never ends.
My daughter insists he's a vegan for political reasons; that Aidan-a tall, rangy high school senior who thrashes guitar in a band called Wolfgang Williams and the Punk Rock Faggots-doesn't believe in cruelty to animals, and wants to "support the environment." Mm, okay. And aside from the dietary constrictions, I truly like the kid; he's polite and funny and genuinely cares about my daughter. Because he's constantly riding his (non-polluting) bike or skateboard and thus burning what must be 5,000 calories a day, I also have a mother's concern that he eats.
"Is there any dairy in it?" my daughter asked, eyeing a dish of freshly mashed potatoes, as Aidan lingered in the doorframe, looking leaner than the last time I saw him. And I really wrestled; I thought, is he even going to know there's milk and butter in there? I sighed, and said, yes, there was, and watched them trudge upstairs, unfed.
(Not that my daughter's having any sympathetic leanings, her one weeklong solidarity-stab at veganism lasting all of nine hours, when she came home from school looking contrite and said, "I accidentally ate some ham.")
Because she and Aidan spend time together, they often eat together, including this past Christmas, a meal for which I planned to make chef Suzanne Goin's beef short ribs braised in port. Would, I asked my daughter, Aidan be cool with us eating meat in front of him?
"Mom, he doesn't care what we eat, he just doesn't want to eat it," she said. Okay, but what does he like? She considered. "Today I saw him eat a sauerkraut sandwich."
Which is when I realized I was on my own, and thus found myself staring into the freezer case at my local natural foods market, at Tofurky and quorn, meat substitutes made of tofu and edible fungus, respectively. Looking like shoe inserts in Cryovac, they just did not say "Christmas" to me.
"Okay, Aidan, here's the deal," I said, as we sat down to dinner. "I made the orzo without butter; there's only olive oil in the chard, and we're having pecan pie for dessert, but you get blackberry sorbet."
"Thank you," he said.
"With non-dairy topping," I added, and we proceeded to eat, and all had seconds.
Did he bat an eye when I shredded that fibrous sheath off the rib bones with my teeth? He did not. Which is when it occurred to me that, contrary to Anthony Bourdain's literary reference to vegans as the "Hezbollah-like splinter faction" of vegetarians; and despite a journalist friend receiving death threats from vegans after he wrote about slaughtering a lamb; maybe, just maybe, cooking for one might prove exotic, like visiting another country. And this idea was borne out, when I searched for some vegan chocolate to give Aidan on his 18th birthday, and found an excellent bittersweet bar from Ecuador.
I really thought it was all going to be okay; that I might reconsider my intolerance of other people's eating intolerances, until Valentine's Day rolled around, and my daughter decided to bake some vegan cookies. From a mix.
I tried to tell her that vegan pastry was an oxymoron; that there was no, no, no, no way she'd be able to, without eggs or butter, bake a decent cookie. I couldn't watch as she melted margarine and pulled the tab on a carton of soymilk....
"Mom?" I heard her call, plaintive, hesitant. "I need help."
We peered together into the concrete-colored batter, which the box said at this point should be rolled into balls. We stirred in more flour. No change. More sugar; no go. I suggested we go get some of that vegan chocolate, but my daughter demurred; dumped the whole thing in a cake pan, baked it, cut it into a big heart, and smeared it with pink decorator icing. And was Aidan touched? Yes he was. But, I later asked her, did he like the way it tasted? She considered.
"You know, mom, most of the stuff he eats is gross," she said. "He loved it."
Nancy Rommelmann is a columnist and feature writer for the Los Angeles Times, the LA Weekly, Bon Appetit and other publications, and a frequent contributor to Portland Food & Drink. She is the author of several books, including Everything You Pretend to Know About Food And Are Afraid Someone Will Ask, and the recently completed memoir, Leaving Los Angeles. Her personal blog can be read here.
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