"IF THE GOOD LORD had wanted us to eat only vegetables, He wouldn’ta made cows outta sirloin steak,” bellows the voice in my head.
It’s a big manly Texan voice, and if it weren’t for the dearth of big manly Texan men in my childhood I would swear it was an early memory. Instead I’m forced to conclude that it’s the voice of my subconscious, which would be horrifying if its sentiments weren’t in full accord with my conscious mind, the requirements for my job as a restaurant critic, and my daughter’s appetite. “I LOVE MEAT!” was the first thing she wrote on her Facebook page.
Which is simply to say—I didn’t see this coming.
“Mom, big news!” she crackled through the cellphone from music camp in California last summer. “I’ve decided to become a vegetarian!” Do not react strongly, I told myself. Do not sign her up again for anything in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
Turns out she’d been consorting with vegans all week, supercool teenage vegans, whose healthful propaganda turned her carnivorous little head. Here I must point out that I have nothing against herbivores; I am live-and-let-live about people’s dining choices (even if I’m not, apparently, about the destinies of cows and sheep.) Vegetarians are fine; I just don’t want to feed one. I didn’t want to prepare her separate meals any more than I wanted to graze at her feedbag. It was hard enough making sure she got enough nutrients within her picky 12-year-old’s repertoire; even if she wasn’t going all-out vegan, taking away the obvious protein anchor of every meal seemed nuts. Literally. She’d have to eat so many nuts.
But I also knew that a power struggle would not go well for Mom. No, this would require stealth. By the time she returned from camp, I had devised a four-step plan to lure her back to the slaughterhouse—of her own volition.
And so Step One: The most objectionably vegetal welcome-home meal I could stand to prepare. The strongest brassicas, the stinkiest cheeses, a big, nasty mushroom-tofu fry-up. All cleverly designed to simultaneously convey my loving support of her new food lifestyle and gross her the hell out.
Fail. “You know, tofu’s impossible to hate because it doesn’t taste like anything!” she warbled, helping herself to seconds. Yes, she left the mushrooms in a little black heap on her plate, but when she gamely took a second bite of her first-ever Brussels sprout, I knew I had a dangerously backfiring strategy on my hands. Time for Step Two.
“I made an appointment with your doctor so we can make sure you stay healthy,” I told her lightly, envisioning the bottles of supplements, the disapproving nutrition lecture.
Instead her doctor clapped her hands in the air and beamed. “I love it when kids take charge of their own nutrition!” she said. “Vegetarianism can be perfectly healthy when done responsibly. My daughter’s been a vegetarian since she was about your age.” Her daughter, I learned, was 22. “A prenatal vitamin will supplement your iron just fine,” she said, and with a few further directives sent us on our way.
“Wow, so the same vitamin pregnant women take,” I remarked on the way to the car, certain that would send her tweener self-consciousness into a spiral of mortification. “I know,” she sighed happily. “I’ll be healthy as a newborn!”
I wanted to scream. Where was Little Miss Medium Rare? Had all those stupid vampire books taught her nothing?
I didn’t even wait to get home before launching Step Three. “Vegetarian enchiladas tonight—but only if you help me make them,” I declared. Mandating help with the increased prep requirements of vegetarian cooking, a kindred mom had clued me, would wrap this up handily. “Sure, Mom!” she chirped. “Beats algebra!”
I laughed nervously, applauded her willing spirit…then watched as the weeks unfolded and chopping vegetables really did begin to beat algebra. Between the nonnegotiables of school and homework and sleep we already shoehorned in the extracurriculars she loved; practically speaking, when was all this new kitchen work going to take place? Apologies, Madame, but our daughter will have to miss ballet this afternoon, as there are carrots to chop, had a nicely medieval ring, but wasn’t going to fly off the tongue. Neglecting algebra wasn’t going to fly, period.
Back to the chopping block for Mom.
And so I went crazy. Crazy enough to bring on Step Four; a step so cruel and unusual it’s hard for me to admit to in print. Let’s just say that somehow a big, greasy, freakishly aromatic bag of Ezell’s fried chicken wound up in the car when I picked her up from school. “Dad’s and my dinner tonight,” I said mildly. “There’s some leftover quinoa bake for you.” The longing I could see in the rearview mirror—Ezell’s fried chicken was her annual birthday dinner—nearly broke my resolve, but I needn’t have worried.
By evening it had broken hers.
By the time she returned from camp I had devised a four-step plan to lure my daughter back to the slaughterhouse.
“Mom, Dad,” she began formally, her fork flattening her quinoa into a landscape feature. “As you know, I took on this vegetarian experiment three months ago out of a desire to be healthier. I believe this has been accomplished.” As she ticked off the self-improvements—she now liked more vegetables, took a daily vitamin, had learned more about cooking, strengthened her willpower, taken charge of her own nutrition…I was startled to realize that this annoying little experiment, so revealing of my worst, had brought out her very best.
Including wisdom beyond her years. “So it’s in the name of good health that I’d like to maintain all my new habits and bring back the food that brings me joy,” she concluded, eyeing a golden drumstick.
I passed it to her and she took a bite, and I watched a blissful smile break across her face. Vegetarianism didn’t win this one, but, I had to admit, neither did I. She did.