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Breaking Down Breaking Vegan----vol. i

I've had a call for submissions by ex-veg folks for months now and they are starting to come in. While the eventual plan is to compile these for publication, I've decided to share them as they trickle in. I think that actually reading some of these essays will inspire more to write in. I am also leaving the call open indefinitely so as to gather the widest range of experiences. If you were vegetarian or vegan (no pesca-) for 3 years or more check out the past posts for the original call and submit an essay!

My life without meat
-- by Andreae Prozesky

I spent most of my youth as a vegetarian. When I was a child, I was just picky; I would eat chicken and turkey and fish (“fish,” in Newfoundland, meaning cod, and only cod), but, as I would explain, “no quadrupeds.” In any form. I didn’t eat hot dogs (making me a great annoyance at birthday parties), I didn’t eat hamburgers, I didn’t eat local delights like Maple Leaf Vienna Sausages (a lunchtime staple at my school) or fried bologna sandwiches (a lunchtime staple at my house). I didn’t eat sausages or bacon or anything else that would once have trod the earth on four feet.

Aside from some sort of delicate sensibility, I have no explanation for this aberrant behaviour. My mother admits that she was a vegetarian for some time before she had me, but it was the seventies, and so were all the hippies. One theory is that once, as a toddler, I ate cubed ham with such gluttonous abandon that I made myself ill and could never eat pink meat again.

Another factor might have been that my father had a small hobby farm where he raised chickens and ducks and geese, some of which he slaughtered by sticking their heads through what was called “the killing cone” before lopping them off. In retrospect, I can guarantee that the lives and deaths of these animals were as humane as could be, and I would pay a great deal of money to be able to go out and buy chickens who had been given the same treatment, but at the time I found the whole affair appalling.

When I was maybe twelve I began my serious attempts at vegetarianism, which lasted right up until my early adulthood. I lived primarily on canned kidney beans and whole wheat toast, peanut butter and jam sandwiches, and instant Alfredo-style noodles. My mother, though sympathetic (and an excellent cook), was a working mother of two, short on cash and time. She did her best to balance my diet for me, making cheese sauce for me to eat with my French fries, and introducing me to a world of curries – channa masala and samosas, primarily, those most entry-level of Indian foods.

When I was a teenager, all my friends became vegetarians, too. I ran with a crew of activists and do-gooders, and I could often be found hanging out at the Peace Centre or the Youth for Social Justice office, writing letters for Amnesty International. We organized rallies against ecologically destructive municipal planning and for freedom in East Timor, against domestic violence and for fair trade. Against Nestle and for better resources for refugees. Against oil dependency and for bike paths. Whatever the leftist cause was, we supported it, sometimes blindly, but always enthusiastically.

Part of the leftist cause package was environmentalism, and part of that was animal welfare. How could any of us believe in a better world and still continue to enslave hens and cows and bees? How could we eat candy with insect-based shellac? How could we wear leather boots and still hold our heads high? This last one was a very difficult one indeed in the age of Doc Marten. Somehow we rationalized it, probably because we were all sixteen and hadn’t paid for our own boots. The awful things our parents did with their money would be on their karmic records, not ours.

I didn’t convert to veganism right away. I didn’t want to have to explain myself to my parents. St. John’s, Newfoundland had one health food store at that time, and it was expensive. Also, I hated tofu. When I got to university in Montreal, though, I was the boss of my own kitchen – at least, my third of it – and I decided to give the vegan thing a go. I’m still not entirely sure of the reasons, but I think it was mostly just to prove to myself that I could. It wasn’t about fitting in; I was miles away from the vegetarian crowd back home, and I hadn’t made any new friends in Montreal yet. Maybe it was about self-control. I’m not sure, but I went into it whole-heartedly.

It was at this time that I really began to learn to cook, and I’m glad I did it while I was living under dietary restrictions, even if those restrictions were self-imposed and arbitrary. I think this is what makes me such a versatile and intuitive and creative person in the kitchen. When you don’t have the standard array of ingredients to choose from, you’re forced to think of foods as more elemental. I think I’m a better cook for never having seen dinner as a matter of meat and two veg.

But I was also getting fat. And tired. And eating things like dairy-free spreadable margarine called “Canoleo.” There were a lot of other things going on at the time that could have made me feel crappy and chubby, like being in university and reading a million books at a time under fluorescent lights. My diet, though, was certainly a large part of it. Despite my best efforts, veganism did not agree with me. After two years as a vegan, and of driving my friends and family quietly insane, I decided to go back.

I started eating dairy and eggs again, and that helped. But I was also sneaking off to a local greasy burger chain where only francophones ate and where I would be sure never to run into people I knew. I would order chicken burgers, no fries, nothing to drink, and I would inhale them. I also would pick up a half dozen of the creamiest, most obscene pastries I could find at any given bakery (not difficult in Montreal), and I would take the most meandering alleyway route home, stuffing them in my face until the box was empty. Clearly my relationship with food was a little skewed.

A couple things happened to help me reevaluate my diet, and to eat meat and dairy and eggs again without guilt. The first of these was a trip to Germany and Poland with my friend Anna. Anna is Polish, and we stayed with her family in different parts of Poland for a month.

When Anna and I first got to her family’s homestead in the southern part of the country, her relatives had prepared all kinds of meaty dishes. These were people with little money, but they had a vegetable garden, some chickens, and they had access to local meat of all description. Her people were woodsmen, hunters and such, and they understood all about the relationship between people and the animals they eat. If I knew then what I know now about food, if I had felt the same way that I do today, I would have been inquiring as to where I could get my hands on some boar sausages, but no. Anna tried to explain to her family that I was a vegetarian – if there is a Polish word for vegetarian, nobody at the table knew what it was. “In Canada,” she explained, “Andreae doesn’t eat meat.”

“Oh,” Anna’s doting aunt replied, with a look of surprised pity. “She must be very poor.” And with that, I was given the largest piece of meat at every meal, despite my objections. No matter how I felt about eating animals at the time, it would have been unforgivably rude to have turned the meal down. So I ate it. A lot of it. And it was quite delicious.

I returned to Montreal after my trip to Europe, not quite a jolly omnivore, but one who could eat rotisserie chicken from the Portuguese shops without hiding behind a dumpster to do it. At least now I had an explanation for my lapsed veganism: I had been to Europe, I had eaten the delicious, delicious cheeses and meats and I wasn’t looking back. But I still wasn’t eating those troublesome quadrupeds.

After I finished my university stint, I moved up north. Way up north to Yellowknife, in the Northwest Territories. Think diamond mines and grizzled prospectors. Up there, hunting is a way of life (as it is, in fact, here, but I had rejected that as part of my leftist package of values). Big game hunters from the US and Europe fly in, all decked in camouflage, toting enormous rifles, to be taken up in airplanes in order to shoot caribou, buffalo, muskoxen. The aboriginal people and established white folks who make up the population make much less of a show of it, and their freezers and pantries are stocked with wild meat. Everyone also wears slippers made of smoke-tanned moose or caribou hide, which smells exactly like lapsang souchong tea. It’s a marvelous place.

I wasn’t a rabid carnivore up there, either, for the first little while. I ate caribou burgers (often over-barbecued to a hockey-puck-like dryness, due to the fact that caribou meat is very, very lean). I ate fish, pulled daily from the Great Slave Lake and the other lakes around it. I worked at a restaurant that served grilled caribou medallions with wild berry sauce. Once, and only once, I tried muskox jerky. And whale blubber.

Then, one evening, I went to a party with some friends, where one of the hosts had roasted caribou tenderloin in a crust of rosemary and hot chili flakes. He had started it out at blast-furnace hotness, and then turned the oven down to almost nothing while the meat cooked, gently and juicily. I still think about that dish all the time. It was absolutely phenomenal.

About that time, I got pregnant with a child who, there was no doubt, would turn out to be a meat-eater. I was so hungry for meat that no moose or caribou would have been safe walking past my rustic – and yet adorable – backwoods shack. At the music festival that summer, I hung out with all the other pregnant ladies at the so-called “cultural area” (but jokingly referred to as “the calving ground”) where people cooked all manner of meat over two giant fire pits. Whitefish? Jackfish? Burbot? Yes, please. Caribou, bison, elk, and bighorn ram flown in by someone’s cousin in Alberta? Bring it on!

When I left Yellowknife and returned to the more genteel ways of Montreal, I was too poor to eat meat for quite a while. And, since it had all been farmed and not shot unawares on the barren tundra, it didn’t taste quite right when I did have it. But I got used to the blandness of factory meat after a while. When I moved back to St. John’s a year and a half later, I was eating a pretty standard diet of vegetables, grains, and the occasional roast chicken. My daughter was happy with that, and so was I.

Then I fell in love with an unabashed meat-lover. Raised in a family where meat formed the focal point of every meal aside from macaroni and cheese, my husband can’t wrap his head around vegetarianism at all. He likes his steaks bloody and his turkey dinner submerged in gravy. He enjoys a good pot of moose stew. He makes a mean hamburger.

After two years in the House of Meats, I’m an omnivore in earnest. I’ll be thinking about meal plans for the week (the sort of thing you do when you’re a housewife and mother of two), and I’ll say, “you know what I could really go for? A ham.” Me! Eating ham! Truth be told, pork was the final frontier. I know that, for many ex-vegetarians, bacon is the gateway meat, but not me. It wasn’t until last year that I ate ham for the first time. I’ve only been eating pork chops and stuffed tenderloin and what have you for a few months, and I’ve still never picked up a piece of bacon and eaten it, although I cook with it all the time.

All this meat-friendliness makes feeding a family much easier. Children, and husbands with unnaturally high metabolisms, need a lot of fuel. Pretty much everything we eat is cooked from scratch, and, let me tell you; it’s a lot easier to throw a piece of meat into the oven than is it to assemble an adequately nutritious vegetarian casserole. My daughter can’t eat gluten, which is the backbone of almost all quick-fix vegetarian meals (and, given my suspicion of processed foods, I’d take a high-end, all-beef frankfurter over a scary wheat-and-soy-product veggie-dog any day of the week). I don’t mean to sound like an advert for the meat producers of Canada, but I will say this: meat makes my day easier.

Unfortunately, where I live, the accessibility of humanely and sustainably raised meat is limited. As I said before, many people hunt here, and I can usually track down a moose roast or some stew meat from someone over the course of the year. There is a lamb farm close by, and I am in the process of finding out how I can get involved with them – a friend had mentioned the possibility of going halves on a lamb this spring, and I’m all over that idea. I know that there is someone raising ducks in a community about forty minutes away, but I haven’t been able to make contact with them yet. There is one grocery store that sells local meat, but it’s just outside of town and I don’t have access to a car, so there’s another impediment there.

I have two local-meat goals for the next year. First, I want to develop a taste for rabbit. It’s one game food that’s easily found – if you can borrow a car and head out on the highway in the fall, chances are you’ll find someone at the side of the road selling hares by the brace. People in Europe go nuts over wild rabbit, and I’m lucky to be able to get it. I just have to get over my emotional prejudices against it. You know, cute little bunnies and all. And skinned rabbits look like cats, and that freaks me out just a bit.

I also plan to eat seal meat for the first time. The north Atlantic seal harvest is probably one of the most controversial animal hunts in the world, but the controversy is unfounded; sealers hunt conscientiously and efficiently. The perception that the seal hunt is conducted entirely for the sake of vanity (read: fur coats) is a very lucrative one cooked up by the animal-rights crowd. Seal meat is eaten in Newfoundland and Labrador, and while it’s not a mainstream food in the cities, it’s considered a delicacy by many, especially people of the older generation. Seal flipper pie is the most common use, and flipper dinners are held every spring by church groups as fundraising events. Flipper pie has become a rallying point, a symbol for local sensibilities in the face of international interference. It’s our slow food and this year, for the first time, I’m having my in-laws take me out for a nice flipper supper.

If I had to name a favourite meat-based recipe, it might be the simplest: a nice, rare steak, grilled over an open flame. In the woods, by someone you love. With some decent red wine and potatoes cooked in the embers. What lentil loaf could possibly beat that?