Hold the carcass and pass the salad

It all started in about sixth grade when I saw the movie “The Elephant Man.” After the show my family and I went back home and started fixing spaghetti. As I pushed around little wedges of ground beef on the skillet and watched the juice sizzle and fly, all I could think was, “It’s the elephant man’s head all chopped up and I’m about to eat it!” Since then I never thought about meat in quite the same way.
I didn’t really act on this aversion, though, until high school when we had to dissect fetal pigs in science class. My teacher at South High in Minneapolis — Mr. Canham, I believe — wasn’t having any of my whining. Either I ripped the baby piggie apart with my knife or I flunked the class. (What can you expect from a guy who kept his lunch in the fridge alongside dead-animal parts?) So slice away I did. Boy, was that gross. Not only did it make me want to avoid meat — I couldn’t eat pickles for about a year because of that formaldehyde smell. (Actually, we were lucky we got the pigs; some classes had to dissect cats. Poor little kitties! But I digress. …)
The evolution into vegetarianism was a gradual one. For a while I only ate meat that wasn’t obviously a dead animal — like ground beef in tacos. Chicken was definitely out. How could I pick up a leg and start gnawing on it? It was barbaric. Then at some point I guess I went cold turkey, or cold tofu, and just stopped eating the flesh of animals altogether.
The other day I was reminded of what a pain in the neck this diet change has been. I was out to dinner with my dad at one of those chain restaurants you see advertised on TV where the people and menu items are all dancing around. Pretty much the only thing I could eat was the salad, which isn’t such a bad deal. But, much to my dismay, when the waiter brought it out there were big chunks of bacon all over it. Not just artificial bacon bits, but real-life, fat-dripping pieces of dead pig all over my leafy greens.
So of course I had to ask the waiter, an all-too-perky jokester, for a new salad. Then I got all paranoid that the cook would just take off the bacon and bring me the same one and I’d taste bacon juice all over it — but that fear didn’t come true. Oh, the trauma that is my life.
It occurs to me that since my switch to vegetarianism, it’s been nothing but apologies (mine) and weird looks (largely, my family’s). I never even know how to tell people for the first time. (What am I — coming out?) If I say, “I’m a vegetarian,” it seems like I’m trying to be defiant. If I explain, “I don’t eat meat,” I’m afraid people will hear, “I don’t eat meat, you stone-age freak!” But that’s not what I mean at all. Go ahead, eat meat; I couldn’t care less. I wear leather; I’m no saint. (But I still think fur is bad because it’s not part of the food chain and can’t be rationalized like leather can. Ah, there’s nothing like a good rationalization to get you through the day.)
Going to the relatives’ is like navigating through a mine field. They do things like serve me beef stew and say I should just pick out the meat. Yeah, how about if I give you human-head stew and tell you just to eat around it? Or it’s, “Well, Krisie here doesn’t eat meat so we made a special chicken salad for her.” The thing is, I don’t want them to fix anything special for me. Just give me some of that salad and a roll and I’ll be fine. It doesn’t have to be such a big deal.
Then come all the questions. “What are you, some kind of tree hugger?” or “Oh, are you one of those animal-rights activists? Are you going to throw red paint all over me now?” Then we have, “So, I guess you just eat seaweed and bean curd all day, right?” and “Are you sure you’re getting enough iron and protein and staying healthy?”
Actually, I’m sure I’m not. Although it’s entirely possible to be a healthy vegetarian by eating rice and beans and the like, I don’t do this nearly enough. But I figure it’s kind of a trade-off; I catch colds a lot but at least my cholesterol level is way low. And there is an added bonus when I floss — pieces of dead animal don’t come flying out from in between my teeth.
Going out to eat is another ordeal that can bring me to the verge of tears. Knowing that those salad incidents are just waiting to happen, I often ask if it comes with bacon on it, and the waitress usually looks at me like I just asked her if it comes with a side of dead babies and says, “No! Jeez!” (Well, the jeez is usually just implied.) And it almost never fails — if I don’t ask, it’s one order of swine-laden tossed salad coming up.
Mexican restaurants are always tricky. At first a bean burrito seems safe, but is there lard in the beans? Last summer, Boyfriend and I were in Austin, Minn., home of Hormel (which, by the way, is pronounced “HOR-ml” not “hor-MELL”) and we checked out a Mexican place in the mall.
“Do you have lard in your beans?” Boyfriend asked the big strapping host.
“Oh, yeah, yup, definitely lard,” he replied comfortingly. “Yup. You just let me know when you’re ready to be seated.”
It makes no sense to me that so many restaurants don’t have at least a couple of vegetarian selections on their menus. I know I’m not the only one out there. Countless times I’ve been relegated to the side-salad-and-baked-potato meal. The well-meaning waitresses often say something like, “Are you sure that’s all you want, honey? Don’t you feel like something a little more substantial?” (Well, yes, I do, but I’m not up for the prime rib or the fried chicken so just give me the damn potato.) I just smile and say I’m not that hungry.
But at least this sad state keeps the “I-don’t-know-where-do-you-want-to-go?” conversations relatively short. Restaurants with such appetizing names as “Mr. Steak,” “Cattle Company” and “Red Lobster” are obviously out of the question. Every time we find a new place with a large vegetarian selection I get jubilant. Or, man, put me in a totally meat-free place like the Mud Pie and I get as giddy as Ronald Reagan in a jelly bean factory.
As disgusting as I find meat, it doesn’t bug me when other people eat it. (Except for when my grandpa eats the turkey gizzard at Thanksgiving; that’s just not something I want to see.) The last thing I want to do is sound like a militant ex-smoker or a preachy, born-again Christian. Just because I order the veggie burger doesn’t mean you’ll get a lecture when you order the bacon cheeseburger, even though it does mean you’re eating two kinds of animals at the same time. But, hey, I say nothing!
Kris Henry’s column appears in the Daily every Thursday. She welcomes comments via e-mail at: [email protected]