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It's Nelly's World

How I Became a Vegetarian

alec vanderboom

It is very strange for the genesis of such a momentous choice to hide itself so completely that it is impossible to recover it. If I make my head hurt with forcible recollection, I can barely get a hazy picture of me reading a paperback copy of Diet for a Small Planet, and spooning several scoops of brewer’s yeast into the blender along with fruit and a raw egg while dripping sweat from a morning jog around my parents’ gracious neighborhood of old Tudor houses. Then again, I appear to be eliding this strange interest in granola and the nutritional complementariness of beans and brown rice with another unprecedented decision. Or it is possible that I suppress the memory of where that book came from because it might have been my mother who gave it to me.

But this could not possibly be; it does not square with anything I know. The daughter of Greek immigrants—that is to say, the daughter of a restaurateur—my mother was raised on a deluxe plenitude of food. Her uncle would come home from the fish market with red snapper wrapped in paper, or octopus that would, thankfully postmortem, be beaten senseless against the concrete walk. Her father would fill the commercial-size double-door refrigerator with everything available to the patrons of his “continental” style eatery, especially whipping cream. And her mother would pore through Vogue with special attention to the entertaining column, and glean ideas from Larousse, in order to put on holiday feasts whose over-the-top sumptuousness (whole suckling pig, mountains of shrimp, candied nuts, sugared grapes, ice cream bombe) raised us all on a cloud far above any peasant roots.

As one of three children raised by busy parents who came of age in the fifties—and who requested some time to themselves every now and again, over dry-roasted peanuts and a martini or Manhattan—I was no stranger to the Swenson TV dinner consumed in front of Disney’s Wide World of Color. Certainly, my mother cooked for us, too: we clamored for her New England boiled dinner, her iceberg lettuce quarters with Thousand Island, her cube steak and those spirals of filet mignon pierced with a sharp stick, and every once in a while the Greek specialties of moussaka and leg of lamb studded with garlic.

And so I was in no way prepared to make the sudden move I did one night in a restaurant, where we were feting the imminent departure of my older sister to her Junior Year Abroad in Paris. Perhaps my subsequent history would have been all different if she had ordered anything but rabbit. But she did. And I sat there staring at it.

It was interesting to be the sole vegetarian at a boarding school of hundreds of students. For a while I subsisted on the Wonder Bread with margarine and Jell-O (I didn’t say I instantly became an educated vegetarian) that appeared at every meal. Then I joined the swim team and went into training: every day we swam our hearts out for two hours, and I watched the bones of my hips become increasingly prominent. Only so much of this could satisfy the adolescent girl’s pathological concern with fat; finally I became so hungry I couldn’t stand it anymore. I was a fair-weather vegetarian, it seemed. Then it started raining again.

The meal I happened to elect for my reversal of tastes featured that toothsome staple of boarding school cuisine known as Elephant Scabs. If the inspired image was not enough to put you off your feed, the dish certainly would; it purported to be breaded veal patties covered in cheese in a bath of tomato sauce. I immediately re-became a vegetarian.

I would often sit and ponder, as I now had plenty of free time during mealtimes, the ceiling of the dining hall. Like a busy galaxy it was studded with gray dots of grease: the margarine pats of generations, launched skyward by catapults fashioned from knives and spoons. Perhaps one of those marks was made by my father thirty years before.

I suspect I survived by coming home for weekends. But instead of sitting down to mother’s cooking, or even my formerly favorite takeout of a big pile of suspicious gray meat on a bun from Arby’s, I was eating a parallel meal that my family in no way could comprehend. I had a lot of peanut butter. My mother, good Greek parent that she was, wore a permanent look of concern, perplexity, and hope that I was about to change back into the child she once knew (who would nonetheless gag on liver and never bought her line that tongue was corned beef). I never obliged her. Not even the first Thanskgiving I came home after making my weird transformation. She asked many times over the preceding weeks if I was sure I meant I would not eat any turkey. No, I insisted: no turkey. I could tell this was causing deep intellectual consternation in her. Indeed, it may have made some permanent damage. After I sat down to table and everyone else received their plates, she reappeared from the kitchen with mine: it contained a cornish game hen.

Twenty-eight years on, my mother still sends me clippings about the dangers of the herbs she steadfastly but mistakenly believes I take, the best sources of iron for women (meat), and the body’s need for B12 (best obtained from, you got it, meat). But she absolutely will not admit to the cornish game hen episode. And she would not read Diet for a Small Planet if her life depended on it.