GOING VEGETARIAN

Being a vegetarian in the 1970s meant that you were either crazy or a hippie. Probably both. But today being vegetarian is commonplace. When I was in my early 20s and working as a chef, the standard refrain when we got a request for a vegetarian dish from a waitress was something like, “You ever see the bumper sticker, ‘I love animals. They’re delicious’!” My chef friends and I would laugh hysterically, and then we might dramatically eat tender pieces of slow-roasted chicken that had been marinated with rosemary and thinly sliced garlic, the unctuous juices dripping down our fingers and chins.

By the time I was in my 30s, after receiving my Ph.D. in biology, I had been convinced through years of scientific indoctrination that to place human emotions onto animals (anthropomorphizing) was frowned upon and would be suicidal to a career in science. My scientist friends and I would shake our heads when some non-scientist would say such things as, “Hey, look at how happy that dog looks today,” believing that these sorts of statements were not only naive but also harmful to the “correct” view of science.

But then when I hit my 40s my wife, kids and friends started sending me videos on Facebook and YouTube. Most of the videos were of cute animals doing funny things or exhibiting behaviors that appeared almost human. About the same time we also got a dog named Sam. We’d had dogs in the past, but Sam was, well, Sam was what you might call sensitive. This slow drip of information added to the cracking of what had been up to that point impenetrable carnivorous armor.

Below is a representative conversation that my wife and I had as we transitioned to 100 percent vegetarian over the last few years. (Note: The Panchatantra are fables from India that provide insight into the human condition using animals to represent certain states of being or emotions.)

“Tim, did you see that turtle video I sent you?”

“Honey, I’m a scientist.”

“It wiggled its bottom under a stream of water from a hose.”

“Only response to stimuli, Lynn.”

“So cute.”

(I was ranked first in my graduating class. Technically second. But MaryAnne, the first, was injured in a skateboard accident two days before graduation, so it looked to everyone at the ceremony that I was first. I’ve started to believe it.)

“How about the one where the dog rescues his friend?”

“You are not being objective.”

“So you didn’t see it?”

(The food on my plate reminds me of an algae version of Nuit Etoilee).

“Maybe.”

“This dog braves rush-hour traffic to save his dog friend that got hurt in the middle of the road.”

“In the academy’s parlance, we’d refer to that as ‘anthropomorphizing.’”

“And when he finally saves his friend, they hug out of happiness and joy.”

“Animals can’t be happy. And they certainly don’t hug.”

“Elephants hug.”

(Did one of the Panchatantra refer to elephants? Turtles? I can’t remember, but when I was 20 my memory was like a steel-jaw trap.)

“Lynn, I saw a bumper sticker today. It read, ‘My favorite animal is meat.’”

“Nuts are a kind of meat.”

“But they’re not animals.”

“That’s my point, Tim.”

“What’s your point?”

“That YouTube is creating vegetarians every day.”

“That is impossible to verify.”

“Impossible? Tim, have you ever seen a slow loris?”

“That’s your verification?”

(She looks at me, owl-like.)

“Our daughter sent me a video today. It was of a slow loris eating a rice ball — sooo cute. Little hands, big sad eyes.”

“Lynn, this is exactly why there are so many problems in the world.”

“Because a munchkin with an adorable face eats a rice ball?”

“No, because no one can be critically objective anymore.”

“Critically objective?”

“Yes. Critically objective.”

“I am.”

You’re definitely not.”

“Of course I am. For example, the video about that darling little pig who misses her owner so much that she faints when they meet. Probably staged. Good acting, though.”

“Animals can’t act.”

“I beg to differ. Our cat acts disinterested all the time.”

“That’s natural behavior.”

“A natural actor, if you ask me.”

(Before I shake my head I wisely pause and instead take a bite of quinoa. It’s been sauteed with pickled pearl onions and has a bright, nutty flavor.)

“How about those horses that act in movies? Or dogs?”

“Just trained to receive a treat.”

“Like you and your wine?”

“Can we talk about something else?”

“Of course. How rude of me to focus on my interests over dinner.”

“I’m interested, I just have a big day tomorrow.”

“How’s that new class you’re teaching going anyway?”

“OK. The kids are smart, but they seem so easily distracted. Not sure how to get through to them.”

“My advice — a slow loris.”

“How would that help?”

(Lynn makes a pouty face and brings her hands to her mouth like she is eating something small. I think she looks really cute.)

“OK. I’ll look into it. Loris, like Doris?”

(She reaches across the table and takes my hand.)

“I can show you a few good videos after dinner.”

(Her skin feels warm.)

“Do we have any of the roasted cauliflower left?”

(Yams, cauliflower and mushrooms tossed in olive oil, garlic and chili flakes with a little salt become delicious when roasted in an oven for hours at low heat. Their caramelized complexity yields unworldly intensity. Objectively speaking.)

“No, Tim, we’ve eaten all the cauliflower, but there’s still plenty of curried kale left.”

“OK, honey, then pass the kale.”

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Originally appeared in the Weekly Calistogan, 2015