I hated my mother’s bunny jello mold.
She bought it before my brother or I were born, thinking that when she had kids, it would be fun to make them bunny-shaped jello. And it probably would have been, for most kids.
The mold was made of red plastic in the shape of a crouching bunny, with its head tucked between its forepaws. I remember helping her make the jello in the afternoon, setting the mold carefully in the fridge, then helping her unmold it and sitting at the dinner table, looking at the red bunny sitting on a bed of lettuce on a plate on the counter. It softly jiggled as if it were trembling with fright.
After dinner, my mom got a knife and picked up the plate. When she did that, the bunny looked like it was quaking with fear of what was to come. Then she severed the bunny’s head and slid it into my bowl, where it looked up at me reproachingly, wobbling and decapitated as if to say, “WHY DID YOU DO THIS TO ME?”
I fled the table and would not eat the bunny-shaped jello.
So much for delighting the children.
At a similar age, I can remember making a “Save the Bunnies” sign. I’m not sure why I made it – it seems like it could have been connected to seeing roadkill – but I labored over it, accompanied by my giant Tupperware of crayons, at the small table in my room, affixed it to a yardstick, and then went to stand in the side yard in order to flag down cars to tell them about the important matter of saving the bunnies. Nobody stopped; I think the best I got was waved at. So the bunnies went unsaved.
At dinner as a child, I ate my broccoli (one of my very favorite foods then and now) and baked potato, and then had to be told to eat my meat. I just liked the vegetable foods much better. One Halloween, I was picking at my dinner before going out trick-or-treating, not wanting to eat my lamb chop. We were called away from the table by some impressively costumed group of kids, and when we returned, Mitts, one of our cats, had grabbed my chop and was gnawing at it under the table. I was only too happy to have been relieved of the chore of eating it.
I recall walking through the kitchen one day as a tween, seeing my mother preparing chicken for teriyaki shish kabobs, which was a dinner I really liked, both for the marinade and the pineapple that went along with the vegetables. My mother was turning the raw chicken over in the sauce with her bare hands. I said, “Mom, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to do that.” She replied, “You will. It used to bother me when I was a kid, too, but I got used to it.” I shook my head.
My dad tried to take me fishing precisely once. I asked him how he’d feel if someone put a hook in his mouth and dragged him underwater. I thought it was horribly cruel to stick a hook through a worm; I was in the habit of rescuing worms from the sidewalk after it rained. I have a vivid memory of the sight of the poor sunfish he and my brother caught gasping out its last breaths on the weathered wooden dock.
So, relating all these experiences, it should come as no surprise that in some point in 1990, I gave up red meat. I had never liked the way it smelled when it started cooking – it made me sick to my stomach – but now eating it was doing the same thing as the smell did. I was a sophomore in high school and was deeply involved in both our school’s chapter of Amnesty International and an Ecology Club a bunch of us were starting. The people I admired most in those organizations were vegetarians, and I aspired to be a vegetarian too. I wasn’t sure if I could do it, though.
That fall, several of us went to a student environmental conference in Illinois, and on the way the several vegetarians – which was everyone in the party except me, I think – had a terrible time finding things to eat. I could still have a fast-food chicken sandwich, but they were really stuck when our van broke down in New Carlisle, Ohio. The strip mall the van was towed to was shared by a local restaurant that had, for vegetarians, approximately: bread.
That winter, at my grandparents’ house in Indiana, a couple days after Christmas, we were having our usual casual post-Christmas buffet comprised of leftover festive foods from the celebratory dinner. I put a small piece of ham on my plate. As I sat eating, I cut a piece and put it in my mouth, and the bouncy, fleshy nature of it became totally repulsive. I swallowed it, but I thought to myself, “That’s it. That’s the last piece of meat I’ll eat.”
On the way home, my mom and brother and I were at a restaurant when I ordered a salad and a baked potato, the first of many in an era where there was little but side dishes available for vegetarians. (“Uh…give me an order of fries, an order of mashed potatoes, and a baked potato, please.”) My mom was surprised when I declared that I was a vegetarian now, and asked, “When did that happen?” It’d only been maybe three days. I think she’d missed the announcement while we were at my grandparents’ house.
But from that point both my folks were extremely supportive, willing to add to dinner or shift the menu so that I could stick to my convictions. We had never eaten much meat as a family – it wasn’t unusual to divide one steak between the four of us, and the most meat I’d ever eaten at once was a chicken breast, and we’re talking 1980s chicken breasts here, not the monsters available these days – but now we ate less. My mom bought The Vegetarian Epicure, and we ate lentil soup, pasta e fagioli, falafel, chickpea curry, vegetarian chili, and refried bean tacos.
“Vegetarian,” to me, stood for the person I wanted to be: enlightened, living lightly on the earth, sparing the world unnecessary suffering. It felt wrong to kill animals for food, and having read Diet for a Small Planet, I knew it was also an environmental disaster and did it as much for that reason. I read The Jungle around the same time, and while I recognized that regulation had changed some of the details of the process, there was enough of it still in place that I wanted no part of it.
When I went off to acting school at NYU in 1993, we were still in an era in which foodservice support for vegetarians was non-existent. As a result, I chose an apartment-style dorm, and set about teaching myself to cook within my $20-a-week grocery budget. Not going to the cafeteria cost me the social interaction that might have propelled me into finishing my degree there, but cooking – and wandering the city’s food destinations - Greenmarkets, health food stores, Kalustyan’s – was a whole education in itself, and was so fascinating that it set me on the path of making food my career.
One day in movement class, a studiomate asked the meaning of the Fresh Fields shirt I’d picked up during spring break. The store was a revelation for me – I recall vividly the moment the doors opened in front of me the first day the Fairfax Station store was open in March 1993. The wood floors (which I later found out were Pergo) and the fruit! I had never seen such beautiful fruit, or fruit merchandised as if it just wanted to jump into your cart. I enthused about this to my studiomate, and she said, wrinkling her nose with evident contempt, ‘You’re wearing a t-shirt from a grocery store?’ And it was at that moment that I knew I was in the wrong place, doing the wrong thing, with the wrong people. I wanted to be around people who thought that good food was Important, one of the most important things in the world.
I went to work for Fresh Fields, which was bought by Whole Foods. I stayed there for five years, doing mostly cheese, though a year of that was as a demo queen. During that time, a mutual friend who knew I was a vegetarian introduced me to an ex-boyfriend of hers who wanted to give up meat. That’s right, I even owe my marriage to Chimp to vegetarianism. At this time he was working on his PhD. After we’d been together a while, I jokingly told people I was getting my ChD – cheese doctorate. I had not been a cheese lover growing up, but I found it a fascinating category and threw myself into it wholeheartedly.
When we moved to Michigan so he could take a teaching job there, we found that the university in the same town as the college he was teaching at had a food marketing degree. So I got one, cramming it in in three years, having had to start almost completely over from my drama major. I worked at the headquarters of an Enormous Cereal Company while I was a student, and after Chimp’s three-year job was up, we moved to California, where I took what I’d learned from ECC and went to work for the organization that supported the growers of California peaches, plums, and nectarines until I was disabled by ME in 2007.
The license plate on our car in California read HRBIVRS. I’d had a previous plate that read EAT YR VG and another back in the Whole Foods days that proclaimed CHZ WHIZ. I was one of those people driving a little car wearing more than its share of bumper stickers that over the years said things like VEGETARIANS TASTE BETTER, SUPPORT ORGANIC FARMERS, LEGALIZE TOFU, HEART ATTACKS: GOD’S REVENGE FOR EATING HIS ANIMAL FRIENDS, and I EAT TOFU AND I VOTE.
When I was still well enough to be out to eat with omnivores, sometimes they would ask me, “Will it bother you if I order meat?” I always said no, because I’d not eaten meat for so long that seeing someone doing so was as foreign and curious to me as if they were eating a Styrofoam cup. My mental reaction was, “Huh. You can eat that? You consider it food? Well, whatever floats your boat.” It wasn’t my style: Unlike some vegetarians, I never had cravings for meat. No, not even bacon. I love the world of plant foods, and can count six dozen vegetarian cookbooks among my hundreds of books about food.
This past summer, I got a new bottle of a amino drink powder that I’d been using for several years. Instead of being plain chocolate, it had been reformulated with a coffee flavor. I can’t handle caffeine – that’s been a problem since I was 18; it makes me bite the heads off of puppies – and I assumed that the weird headaches and unpleasant wired feeling were a result of the reformulation. I had them send me a bottle of another flavor – vanilla – which tasted more like a plasticky vanilla candle than actual vanilla, and I had the same problematic reaction to it. Then I realized that the vanilla was a pre-reformulation bottle, so if the reformulation alone was the problem, I shouldn’t be reacting to it.
I started having reactions to food, and more and more foods were added to the list as the weeks went by. Tomatoes. Aged cheese. Avocados. Bananas. Kale, fresh and organic from our garden. As the evidence piled up, it became clear that the problem was not just the drink powder, but a histamine reaction. I did a lot of reading and checked a number of conflicting food lists before finding this one which seems accurate, or at least reflective of my reactions.
Among the items that list knocks out are beans, pulses, nuts, seeds, most cheese, soy in all forms, and eggs.
Well, crap. That’s most of my protein sources.
At roughly the same time, the Wahls Protocol started making the rounds among my ME friends on facebook. It’s a paleo-style diet with lots of vegetables – each day, three cups each green leafy, sulfur-rich, and colorful vegetables and fruits, with protein from grass-fed meat or fish, supplemented by bone broth and fermented foods. Terry Wahls improved her MS significantly through it. Jamie Deckoff-Jones, a doctor with ME, has also shown marked improvement following the same diet. I had a recent chat with another ME/CFS friend who improved from bedridden to housebound by leaving her vegan diet behind. On the other hand, I know another patient raised as a vegetarian who has shifted to eating meat and remains bedridden.
Backed into a corner protein-wise and seeing those few remarkable transformations, I decided to try to eat some meat. The histamine problem, added on top of all of my existing symptoms, is so much worse that I felt like I had to try something different – if I didn’t try something new, how could I expect things to go any differently than they have been?
Besides those folks above, it seemed like there was enough evidence that eating meat might help me: I’ve benefited slightly from acetyl-l-carnitine in the past; recently I bought a bottle of taurine, and I found that it made me yawn, which is something I have not regularly done since my insomnia first reached its crisis point in 2007. It didn’t help me sleep – in fact, it seemed to make my sleep worse, and it made me tired, too, but it did make me yawn. That made me think that perhaps those substances, naturally occurring in meat but not in vegetable foods, might help me. If eating animals helped me sleep, it might change the course my illness entirely, and that would be…immensely welcome, let’s say.
But it’s a testament to how deeply ingrained my vegetarianism is, that I have, in all seriousness, had the thought that even if eating meat would cure me, I didn’t think I could do it. This is a long way from the girl who thought she couldn’t manage to go vegetarian.
On October 17th, I had Chimp make me a tiny amount of broiled lamb. Why lamb, when I picked at it even when I did eat meat as a child? Mostly because down in our little burgh, the meat at our supermarket is not so responsibly sourced, and among those animals, while they are all equally dead, lamb is the one that’s likely to be mistreated the least during life.
I can’t say it went well. Not wanting to leave me any rareness, which was a dealbreaker when I did eat meat, Chimp blasted the lamb with the broiler. It was done, all right; done to the point that it was nearly impossible to cut or chew. He brought me our smallest bread knife and we laughed about the fact that we lack steak knives – we’ve never had any reason to buy them.
I managed two bites of the lamb. The next time we tried a day or two later, I did about the same. He took the leftovers from the second effort and made them into a very nice hash with potatoes and carrots. I got down about a quarter of the bowl of that he served me, with just a few shreds of meat in the process. I confess I was eating around them a bit, though I tried not to. It was still too lamby.
We tried broiled chicken breast next. That went better flavor-wise, but about the same otherwise. I would put it in my mouth, trying not to gag at the bouncy, fleshy nature of it, move it away from my tongue as much as possible so I wouldn’t have to taste it, chew it the absolute minimum number of times, and wash it down with an enormous slug of water.
Next came some responsibly-raised flank steak from Whole Foods. Beef can be a histamine problem because it’s often aged before sale. I reacted badly to it, with the headache that heralds too much histamine, from just a couple bites.
Fish, unfortunately, is totally out for histamine reasons, unless you can pull it out of the water yourself and eat it that moment.
And there is a diverse collection of at least twenty pounds of beautiful beans and pulses in the pantry that I cannot have.
So for the time being, that mostly leaves us with chicken as the meat I can tolerate, without adornment (citrus, tomato, soy, and hot peppers all being histamine-verboten), about four bites at a meal, before I’m overcome with revulsion and need at least a day off. I want to want to eat meat, but I don’t want to eat it.
Because it turns out that if you eat meat, you don’t have to steel yourself to do it just once, you have to muster the will to do it all the time! Over and over again! Like every single day! Sometimes more than once a day! Ugh.
At this point, I’m attempting to triangulate a place between my former diet, the Wahls diet, and the histamine diet. I already had some dietary restrictions – I’ve been on a very low sodium diet since 2007, because my body hates salt and will suffer tachycardia if I don’t keep it way down. I can’t have alcohol or the caffeine I already mentioned. Dr. Cheney wants me to restrict fructose. I’m somewhat lactose intolerant. Because of Wahls, I’m experimenting with grain-free – I’m down to just oatmeal at breakfast, because I haven’t been able to come up with a workable grain-free breakfast arrangement – yogurt and eggs are both out for histamine reasons. I can’t do the Wahls bone broth or fermented foods, because those are both loaded with histamine.
Mostly, to this point, I’m adding a larger volume of vegetables and fat to try to compensate for the legumes, nuts, and seeds I’ve had to drop. The macronutrients are not the same, I know, but I’m hoping I’m still getting enough of what I need. Thankfully I do have a couple vegetarian sources of protein left: chickpeas seem to be okay, and being unripened (and also unsalted), so does paneer. Those are two foods I like, and I’m eating a lot of them.
I’m still in the process of figuring out what I can tolerate, and that’s going slowly, because you can only introduce one thing at a time, and as tired as I always am, I don’t have a lot to spare on having my equilibrium upset by challenges. With histamine, you don’t always react right away, although I seem to throw a certain kind of headache reliably.
There are a lot of things I love that I can’t have. Tomatoes, avocado, spinach, onions, garlic, a lot of spices, and aged cheese are all out. Just living without tomatoes alone is depressing. Living mostly without grain is likewise. I would really like a bowl of quinoa salad, some tomato-based curry and rice, or one goddamn Triscuit.
I must admit that I’m struggling mightily with the fact that I’m betraying my fundamental beliefs. It’s not an exaggeration to say that if I eat meat, to a certain degree I don’t know who I am anymore. “Vegetarian” has been at the top of my identity for so long, and has connected me to so many like-minded people, people I admire, and with whom I feel a deep commonality. I wonder if they’ll feel contempt for me for eating meat, the kind of contempt I’ve felt for vegetarians who ate poorly and gave up the diet for “health reasons” (i.e., subsisting on Doritos and Coke).
It’s not unlike trying to leave a religion you grew up in – there’s a little voice at the back of my mind telling me that what I’m doing is wrong. Twenty-two years of eschewing meat and a lifetime of disliking it is difficult to change. I feel like Inigo Montoya at the end of The Princess Bride - I’ve been in the vegetarian business for so long…
On top of all this, a friend from high school has recently gone vegan and is crowing (deservedly!) on facebook about how good she feels. I remember that experience from my early days as well. My body felt lighter, my digestion worked better. But seeing those posts makes me feel even more guilty and sad, and like a failure. I know that’s ridiculous – twenty-two years is more than a fair trial, and if it turns out I function better with animal flesh as part of my diet, there are more humane, more environmentally sound options than there were in 1990 (besides the whole matter of living beings killed for food in the end). And if it doesn’t help (and if I can resolve the histamine issue), I can always go back to vegetarianism.
In the meantime, I wish science would hurry the hell up with the lab-grown meat. That I could deal with, and wouldn’t feel guilty about. I think I could even put my hands in it, make meatloaf out of it. Maybe in the shape of a bunny.