Within the first month of my Freshman year of College, I gave up eating meat. I was not inspired by graphic video footage of factory farms or slaughterhouses. I was not motivated by morals. I was not concerned with the environmental effects, nor by dietary need or health concerns. Instead, I gave up meat because of the college dining hall.
As a child, I had always eaten meat. My mother served assorted cuts from various animals. And we sometimes too ate soy products and beans and other foods vegetarians often substitute for meat. I was an omnivore. Yet whatever Rutgers University dining services served failed to resemble what I knew as meat.
The roast turkey dinner was the end.
By the first week of school, my regular dinner companions began a nightly dinner competition. This contest did not involve speed or volume or even consuming odd combinations of food. Instead, we compared each other’s daily intake of fruits and vegetables, fats and sugars and calories. Meat eating contributed negatively. But yet, the competitive eating was not enough for me to give it up. The roast turkey dinner—slices of bonded turkey protein heated and served in light brown gravy—brought about the end.
Historically, I ate roast turkey as tradition dictates: once a year on Thanksgiving. This is not unusual. Nearly one fifth of all turkey in the United States is consumed on this day. And while deli meat sandwiches account for turkey consumption, I was the exception; for many years I refused to eat sandwiches. So when I ate turkey, it was roasted in an oven and served with mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce.
Whole roasted turkey has texture, sinuous muscle tissue forming wood like grains across a slice of turkey. Well cooked turkey oozes with flavorful juices, but even overcooked turkey arrives at the table with a certain turkey-ness flavor about it. But the dining hall turkey dinner was nothing like this. Dining hall turkey dinner is smooth and slippery—it reminds me of an amphibian, like the skin of the pickled frog dissected in high school biology class. The coloring—pasty pale flesh with pink highlights and lightly browned skin—is all artificial. The meat had no flavor other than salt and the thin brown gravy the turkey was reheated in. And because I tired of eating meat that looked less like meat and more like my high school science lab, I gave up meat.
I adhered to a modified vegetarian diet. I avoided red meat, poultry and pork but I ate fish. I probably ate animal protein in candies like gummy bears, though truthfully, I didn’t even know then that many gelatins rely on animal collagen. If soup relied on animal broth as a base but did not include any chunks of meat, I usually ate it. But even a college town, in an affluent, liberal state, vegetarians had surprisingly few options a decade ago.
The student center restaurants provided the same variety in the food court as a Midwestern shopping mall: generic Chinese food, a pizzeria, Wendy’s, and a steak grill. The vegetarian options – other than a slice of cheese pizza – were almost nonexistent. Even the salads often had meat chunks. The Au Bon Pain attached to the student center offered the only available meatless value meal on its menu; the Mozzarella, Tomato and Basil Pesto sandwich (now branded as the Caprese sandwich) was the only option. Each of the other sandwiches could be ordered without the meat, but the Caprese sandwich was then, the only menu meatless menu item.
Off-campus, the city of New Brunswick offered some choices. Stuff Yer Face, known as ‘that restaurant Mario Batali worked at before becoming famous,’ served custom Stromboli stuffed with any of two dozen ingredients. Falafel and sushi were readily available and there even was a dedicated vegetarian/vegan restaurant. Still, these choices proved limiting because eating a meal is a social experience and because eating meatless meals cost more money.
And then came my first vegetarian Thanksgiving. I expected to feel that I was missing something (my mother wasn’t making a tofurkey just to appease some college fad). But at the dinner table, my plate filled with meatless side dishes and me now more than two months meat free, felt no remorse passing on the plate of turkey.
I survived Thanksgiving. Then I survived my first semester of college. And meat seemed very unimportant.
But that was easy. Even with the limited choices, I always had the dining hall with a seemingly endless bounty, unlimited variety, and always as a failsafe, the salad bar. But my mother’s dinner table always came with meat, and good, recognizable meat at that. There was no salad bar, no slice of pizza, no custom baked Stromboli; there was only my mother’s dinner menu. But I persevered. I overcame prejudices. And I didn’t eat meat.
I got through winter break at my mother’s dinner table and then the spring semester and then the first few weeks of summer. But then there was Italy.
In Rome, do as the Romans. That summer I set off to Italy for three weeks. We stayed with cousins, visited the mountain village where my grandfather was born, wandered the ruins of the Forum, explored Venetian canals, and we ate meat. We ate a lot of meat.
I survived eight months without meat. Thirty seconds after my cousin produced a ten-pound leg of prosciutto, I had dry cured pig flesh in my mouth. We assembled sandwiches from freshly baked bread, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and paper thin slices of the meat. We took these with us and in the early afternoon, in the Forum or beside the Pantheon or along the Tiber we ate meat and cheese sandwiches, the fat from the meat glistening on the bread.
In those three weeks, I ate: chicken, lamb, veal, steak, pork sausages, chicken sausages, beef carpaccio, prosciutto, vegetables stuffed with meat, pastas stuffed with meat, squid stuffed with meat, meat stuffed with meat—I was no longer eating as a vegetarian.
I thought for sure that returning to the United States, I would too return to my modified vegetarianism. After all, when I returned from Italy, I had no cravings for an American cheeseburger as I had four years earlier returning from the British Isles. I would soon by back at school, anyway, faced with the prospect of dining hall meat product. Yes, I convinced myself, I would continue without meat in my life.
And I did. I stayed away from steaks and sausage links and cheeseburgers and chili. But then I slipped a slice of prosciutto hoping to rekindle the magic of my Roman holiday.
I bargained with myself. Poultry, I agreed, was not really meat. Just birds, I reasoned, not because they are stupid or because their brains, slightly smaller than a walnut, prevent them from sensing pain, but because eating chicken and turkey allows for all sorts of culinary delights. Besides, the Caprese sandwich from Au Bon Pain, after Italy, tasted like cardboard.
And pork is the other white meat I told myself, faced once again with slices of prosciutto. I can eat white meat, I justified.
I went another two years before eating red meat.
Then one summer, I began dating a moderately strict vegetarian (who, in an unrelated aside, also didn’t like green peas). She showed up at barbecues bearing boxes of vegetable burgers or tofu chicken patties. I slid back into the familiar patterns. I avoided restaurants without suitable vegetarian options. I chose the meatless option more frequently. I cooked vegetarian versions of familiar classics. I experimented with tofu substitutes and amalgamated vegetable proteins.
Then we broke up and I ate steak.
I have been eating meat steadily ever since. I cook my steak rare enough that sometimes people call it raw. I eat organ meats like livers or kidneys. When I can, I’ll eat game animals like elk or buffalo.
Do I ever hesitate about eating meat? Yes, sure. I’ve read the books and watched the documentaries. I’ve seen some horrific videos. I distrust the industry and the government inspectors. But ultimately, eating flesh is a vice worth the price. Meat is delicious.