When I was twenty, I decided to become vegetarian. This came as something of a shock to the then Lovely Boyfriend, who had fallen for me in part because of my relish for a rare steak. But I stuck to it for ten years, only relapsing when I was pregnant with Big Girl and had a host of dietary restrictions imposed on me that made it almost impossible not to go back to eating meat.
Here are some things that I learned in those ten years. Just so we’re clear: this entire post is an extended metaphor for recovery from alcoholism.
You can’t just take the meat off the plate and expect the meal to remain satisfying. If you envision a typical Anglo meal of meat, a carbohydrate and some vegetables – let’s say, a steak with fries and a tossed salad, or grilled chicken wings with buttered corn and crusty rolls. Take away the meat, and you’re left with a completely inadequate meal. Green vegetables and high GI carbohydrates won’t satisfy anybody for long, and you’ll get hungrier and crankier and more miserable, until one day you’ll walk past a McDonalds, crack, and order three Big Macs and a Coke. You need something to replace the protein and iron that you lose when you lose the meat.
There are a lot of alternative sources of protein out there. Lots. Lots and lots. The options for good vegetarian protein sources are far greater than for meat. Tofu and other soy products; pulses and grains; dairy and eggs (if you’re a lacto-ovo vegetarian. This is a metaphor, remember. Please don’t start debating vegetarianism, I’ve already got a headache). If you talk to other vegetarians, and explore other cuisines, you’ll start to realise how many non-meat meals there are out there.
Vegetarianism requires a little bit more effort and a little bit more creativity, but will reward you no end. Before I gave up eating meat, my cooking repertoire was pretty basic. Tuna mornay, spaghetti bologanise, broccoli soup. My spice rack held salt, pepper and paprika, because I also knew how to make a paprika chicken dish. Once I gave up meat, however, my cooking exploded. I have an entire set of shelves devoted to spices now, and another set crammed full of cookbooks. I can cook five course dinner parties catering to almost any dietary requirement, or themed to tie in with sporting events, or honouring an ethnic cuisine. I’ve catered large groups on a budget and persuaded my children to eat lentils more times than they’re aware of.
Because vegetarianism pushed me out of my comfort zone, I had to find other ways to fill the nutritional hole left when I stopped eating meat. And what I discovered was that I was happier, healthier and more fulfilled with the alternatives. After a very little while, it became more habit than not; I would go to a party, see a range of foods, and automatically discount the ones that I didn’t eat, because I chose not to eat them. It was fine. It was more than fine, actually. It was great.
Some people will have opinions. I was a low-effort vegetarian, just as I’m a low-effort recovering alcoholic. I served meat to guests, went to meat-heavy restaurants and tried not to mention that I didn’t eat meat except when I needed to let a host know. Despite that, there were always some people who felt like the decision was about them, rather than me. They’d get defensive. Try and engage me in ludicrous debates about how did I know that a carrot didn’t have feelings (because science) or what about if I was alone in the woods with a gun and no supplies (I would probably starve to death, because I don’t know how to work a gun. But, sure, if it’s eating meat or dying of starvation, I’d eat meat. Obviously). I got very good at coming up with a quick one-liner explanation and then changing the subject. Usually, though, I wouldn’t have to have the conversation twice. Still not eating meat? Nope! Job done, move on.
It’s much harder to go back after a relapse. In writing this, which is all true as well as being a Very Clever Analogy, I’m wondering why I don’t go back to vegetarianism. The excuses are very near the surface; it’d inconvenience my family, everything in moderation, maybe one day I will again. But really the truth is just that I don’t want to go through the adjustment period again. Relapse sucks.
Maybe one day I will eschew the steak again, I don’t know. But I do know that giving things up only works if you do it by choice, and if you’re prepared to work to replace them with other things. If you do that, though, the rewards are innumerable.