My husband and I were both raised on a typical Southern/Western American diet, with a meat dish as the center of every meal, with vegetables added as an afterthought, and that’s the way I learned to cook. Then, in 1977, during a trip to Europe, of all things, we decided to go vegetarian.
It took a couple of years to learn a totally new way to eat and cook, but once you get the hang of it, living vegetarian isn’t that hard. You’d think it might be harder to cook a delicious and tempting meal without meat, but I must say that often veg meals are more creative and imaginative. After a year or so, we even learned to eat out satisfactorily, and the new lifestyle was no burden at all.
The problem was, and always has been, us. Over the past decades, we have experimented with every permutation of meatless diet known to man, and some we just made up ourselves. We were experts at making things difficult for ourselves in the name of health and/or philosophy. And we would persevere in our self-inflicted dietary restrictions for years at a time. The young and idealistic have the energy and discipline to do this.
For ten or fifteen years, we ate no refined sugar. By that I don’t just mean sugar in the sugar bowl, either. We avoided corn syrup, too, and as for artificial sweeteners - heavens to Betsy, no! I would buy unrefined honey, sorghum, molasses, and pure maple syrup for sweetening. (It had to be Canadian maple syrup, too, since at the time, the U.S. allowed additives and adulterants in its syrup) Believe me, it is very hard to bake this way, not to mention expensive.
Don liked to make cinnamon rolls, since he has such fond memories of his mother’s, which were rich and sweet and light as air. Don’s were made with whole wheat flour and one of the above for sweetening, and while they were sticky and tasty, each roll weighed about a pound and bore no resemblance whatsoever to his mother’s.
We avoided white flour until very recently, when we discovered that wheat germ is very bad for people who are prone to a certain kind of kidney stone. Since the aforementioned type of kidney stone nearly killed Don last winter, we’ve altered our flour requirements. I still buy organic flour, but it’s white, and we’ve rediscovered the joy of really fluffy biscuits.
For two or three years during the eighties, we cut all nightshades out of our diet. The prevailing health-Nazi wisdom was that nightshades were very bad for you. Now, nightshade vegetables are quite the staple of a vegetarian diet, and a carnivorous diet, too, for this family includes potatoes, tomatoes, and eggplant. How’d you like to go for three years without meat OR potatoes OR tomatoes OR sugar? (And the truth is, if you are prone to gout, cutting out nightshades will help you a lot. Otherwise, the potato kept the Irish alive for hundreds of years, so you be the judge.)
The potatoless diet went away when dietitians decided that nightshades weren’t so bad after all. By that time, it was determined that coffee was the devil. I have written in this column before that I have a coffee monkey on my back, and have had ever since my early twenties, when I had to get up at five every morning and needed artificial stimulation to be able to do it. But when I decided to sacrifice coffee for the sake of longevity, I did it, by gum. Then a couple of years later, scientists admitted that perhaps coffee is actually good for you, and I gladly let that monkey climb back on.
After twenty years or so of dietary discipline and a growing skepticism in the scientific community, coupled with Don’s new diet restrictions, the extreme health-foodieness fell by the wayside. We are as sugary as the best of them. And as I grew older and ... more substantial, I found that it was easier for me to watch my weight if I fell off the meatless wagon when eating out or at a friend’s house. So I stopped asking if there was chicken broth in that soup if soup seemed to be the healthiest choice on the menu. Now I eat fish a couple of times a week, and take fish oil tablets for my heart. In fact, I’ll pretty much eat whatever I deem to be the least harmful thing on the menu. I’m still health conscious, but only to a point, for at my age, I’ve decided that the best thing for your health is to enjoy yourself.
(In defense of our hippy-dippy youth, when Don did fall apart, he was told by the doctors that his years of good dietary practice certainly staved off his health problems by twenty years, and may have enabled him to withstand them where others might not have.)