Walking the aisles of Price Chopper, I felt as if I were being led to Old Sparky. The chain around my ankles? I’d pledged to go a week with no meat.
I was the one who’d suggested the assignment in jest, but food editor Suzanne Podhaizer held me to it. Now people told me I was being a wimp. Suzanne said I was being “petulant.” I admit that was an understatement, but no one realized: I am made out of meat, and without it I will die.
Think I’m being melodramatic? I’m the girl who, at age 5, asked her father to slaughter her favorite pet chicken, then asked to play with the head. I missed Billina from time to time, but the worst part was that my mom cooked her in the microwave. All that free-range bird went to waste!
True, I didn’t grow up in a family that believed an animal must die every time someone was hungry. My mother has been a vegetarian for most of my life. I wasn’t allowed to eat meat on the bone or a steak below well done until I started cooking for myself. My brother eats a veggie burger (no bun), a head of broccoli, one tablespoon of tomato sauce and several of our grandma’s cookies every single day. He recently compared eating at a restaurant where meat has been prepared to sleeping in a hotel bed. That’s no idle comparison, since he shuns the latter for fear of infection.
I kept my brother’s gustatory asceticism in mind when shopping for the week’s provisions. Having gone shopping with him before, I knew to avoid products that contained rennet or gelatin, which entail slaughter. I purchased tofu and tempeh, hoping I’d be able to do something with them. Then I cried a little. OK, a lot.
I prepared my final meaty meal the way Mozart would have prepared his Requiem if he’d meant it as a requiem for himself. I spooned fiendishly tender beef short ribs, purchased from a Korean market in Montréal and braised in red wine, over herbed risotto with collard greens. I reasoned that I needed something rich to tide me over for the next seven days.
Lunch on Monday was a no-brainer. I am addicted to Kitchens of India frozen meals. My workweek is not complete without the pindi chana, palak paneer and naan. I started this one by trying a variety I hadn’t seen before. Half the meal consisted of a chickpea curry; the other half was an adorable pile of potato cakes called aloo tikki that resembled chicken nuggets. Maybe this routine won’t be so bad, I thought.
I changed my mind at dinner. I’d hoped to replicate the toothsome fattiness of meat with a dish I dubbed “eggplant saganaki.” Too cheap to spring for haloumi cheese, I sandwiched fresh mozzarella between fried slices of eggplant, then broiled liberal chunks of cheese on top, too. For a taste of the lemon that is used to extinguish the flaming cheese in the Greek dish, I prepared a lemon-mint sauce. It was tasty.
An hour after dinner, though, my boyfriend, James, who’d bravely decided to embark on the challenge with me, proposed we go to Friendly’s. We were hungry enough to require a five-scoop Reese’s sundae (for him) and a molten chocolate cake with mint-chocolate-chip ice cream (for me).
For our Tuesday dinner, we decided to try what many vegetarians I know consider the greatest challenge: dining out. We chose Our House in Winooski for its several appealing meat-free choices, which we’d noticed on our visit the previous week. We hopped in the car, judging ourselves too iron deficient to walk the four blocks from our home, and arrived at the restaurant. It oozed a meaty smell, even without the rotisserie running. We sat down, and the manager told us not to miss the filet mignon special that evening. A lump swelled in my throat.
That reaction was premature. The butternut-squash ravioli was delightfully al dente, covered in a garlic cream sauce so rich and tangy I barely missed the meat. Until, of course, some bacon-cheddar bread pudding whizzed past me. Fries that came with James’ grilled cheese and herby tomato soup helped feed my fat jones. So did my second molten chocolate cake in as many days.
On Wednesday, I had the pleasure of trying the tofu curry sandwich at August First. The chewy bean curd had just the right amount of spice mix and was sweetened with cranberries. My only quibble was the price tag. Paying $8.50, versus $6.50 for my standby Bistro Turkey sandwich, I felt like I was being penalized for going veggie. Pretending to be principled is expensive.
The housemade veggie burger I tried that night at a popular Burlington restaurant and bar was not nearly so satisfying. It was made from essentially the same ingredients as falafel — chickpeas, onions and garlic — only raw. And oozing like a runny egg. On the way home, I had to work overtime not to throw up.
As I tried to sleep that night, I felt as if I were growing caviar in my gut, millions of tiny bubbles lining my lower intestines. They stayed with me the rest of the week. James, too, said his digestive system felt somehow different, as if he were always hungry and slightly unsettled.
I needed to take matters into my own hands. I love paneer so much, why not make my own?
It turns out making cheese at home is shockingly simple (see sidebar). The Indian delicacy serves as a protein substitute for millions of vegetarian Hindus. I made muttar paneer, green peas in lightly tomatoey sauce with lots of garam masala and paneer. The only problem was that I loved my handiwork so much, I regretted eating it.
The next night, I sampled the artificial antithesis of my wholesome paneer. Quorn is a substance synthesized in a European lab, not unlike the popular conception of Arnold Schwarzenegger. It is similarly meaty and similarly popular in my house — though, it should be mentioned, Quorn’s protein is extracted from a fungus. The frozen “chik’n” cutlets we tried, stuffed with goat cheese and cranberries, were a hit when paired with potato and cheddar pierogis, and green beans tossed in Cabane du Pic Bois maple vinegar.
We had found our rhythm. I realized it wasn’t meat I missed so much as fat, perhaps proving the oft-made point that if you deep-fry cardboard, it will taste good.
On the final night of the experiment, one of my favorite fast-food items — reproduced at home — served to embody that principle. Katsu kare is a home-style Japanese dish that usually consists of panko-breaded and fried pork served over rice and topped with thick, roux-based curry gravy. The crowning glory of my week of vegetarian cooking featured tempeh in its place.
It turned out the Indonesian version of tofu, made with whole soybeans, was not an acceptable replacement for juicy pork. The tempeh was slightly bitter and had the texture of freeze-dried vomit. Nonetheless, the meal satisfied me immensely, especially with salad covered with creamy Japanese ginger dressing. It was the first night we didn’t feel the need to go out for a big dessert.
Then, as soon as the experiment took flight, it was over. On Monday night, I headed to Springfield to sample numerous cuts of wagyu beef. It was heavenly. The next day, I required a bacon cheeseburger from Handy’s Lunch while I worked. It was only two days after I had returned to the flesh and my burbly caviar feeling was gone, a reminder that my body really missed meat.
Did the experience make me more understanding of those who eschew animal parts? Yes and no. I saw that it can be expensive and a general pain in the ass to be a vegetarian in an omnivorous world. I realized there are plenty of vegetarian foods I enjoy, especially if I can be guaranteed they are bad for me.
What I didn’t learn was what could make it worth the hassle. I love animals as much as the next person. James and I are unabashed “cat ladies.”
But when you need meat, you need meat. My father once asked me if I would eat “long pig,” and I had to think hard. Under circumstances that dictate cannibalism, or even if I happened on a Temple of Doom-type restaurant in some dark part of the globe, my qualms would be about the possibility of disease transmission, not the ethical issues. So will my affection for my fellow creatures stop me from digging into a breast or a leg? Never.