I am a vegetarian because I don’t want to kill anything. It doesn’t start there; not eating animals, fish, or fowl is really just a spot on the long winding trail that includes moving worms off the sidewalk so they don’t fry during the summer. Along the trail, I also find myself rescuing several animals a year and finding good homes for them.
Sometimes the “good home” is mine. Many years ago I had my publicly stated upper limit of cats, when another one showed up at the door. I knew my young niece desperately wanted a cat, so this looked like a match made in heaven to me. The handicap to this plan was my twin brother (my niece’s dad), who detested cats.
I admit it. I groveled. The cat was a beautiful calico, fully grown. I committed to having her spayed and getting my brother a kitty starter kit. Finally he agreed. Before he could change his mind, I dashed to my local pet store and loaded up a litter box, litter, bowls, food, treats and toys. I pushed my laden basket to the register and eagerly waited in line. While standing there, I noticed the magazine Cat Fancy. I picked up a copy. I delivered the cat and the cat supplies to my brother. I did not deliver the magazine. Instead, I took the magazine home and used one of the forms to order a two year subscription to Cat Fancy for my brother.
A month later the phone rang. When I answered, my brother didn’t say hello. Enunciating very clearly, he said “I just. Went. To the mailbox.”
I quivered with excitement.
“I pulled out this magazine called Cat Fancy and thought, ‘How nice. Aunt Lisa got this for Amy.’ Then I turned it over and it is addressed to Larry Tuck.”
I chortled with glee.
“I just wanted to let you know that your subscription to Cattle Baron’s Monthly will be on its way shortly.”
I howled with laughter to the point I couldn’t speak, so he finally hung up on me. It was a fine, fine moment.
I do not try to convince my family—or anyone else for that matter—to adopt my lifestyle. They do not try to convince me to adopt theirs. Do we tease each other about it? Oh, yes. In our convoluted little world, teasing is part of accepting each other exactly as we are. Respecting my choices doesn’t mean my family knows how to feed me, though. The traditional meals we grew up on do not work at all. Our mother kept a can of bacon grease beside the stove and put it into everything from grits to cornbread to fried chicken. I started this column and website for those who also need to feed a vegetarian, but don’t know where to start. I hope it will help you along your trail.
By the way, my brother never did send Cattle Baron’s Monthly. If this column reminds him he still needs to pay me back, it might be really big...
Until next time,
Lisa (aka Veggie Gal)
I can’t count the number of times I have been to a restaurant and told the waiter I am a vegetarian and gotten the reply “Oh, then you must try the salmon.” This is common with waitstaff because it is common with the folks they are waiting on—in the U.S., many folks consider themselves to be vegetarian if they have given up beef. In reality, a vegetarian is a person who doesn’t eat meat, fish or fowl. Vegetarian diets get more restrictive from there. I envision “levels” of vegetarianism. If a vegetarian is coming for dinner, the most important rule is to ask him what his restrictions are (what level he is). It may be easier to feed him than you think!
An ovo-lacto-vegetarian is the most common type of vegetarian in the West. They do not eat animals, poultry or seafood. They will eat dairy products and unfertilized eggs, as well as fruits, vegetables and grains, etc. Limitations may be fish eggs and cheeses that are made with an animal enzyme (rennet). Rennet comes from the lining of the fourth stomach of a newborn calf, so they clearly have to kill the calf to get this enzyme. (I have no idea who figured out how to get and use this enzyme to begin with.) If the ingredient list on the cheese says only “enzymes,” assume it is rennet. Many who follow the Ovo-Lacto-Vegetarian diet are doing so for health reasons, though, so are not too worried about what type of enzyme is used to make the cheese. They are quite likely worried about limiting saturated fats, so you might want to limit cheese and butter in recipes for that reason.
An ovo-vegetarian will eat eggs and egg products, but will not eat meat, fish, fowl or dairy products. Limitations may include fertilized chicken eggs or fish eggs.
Lacto-vegetarians will eat no eggs of any type, even unfertilized chicken eggs. Limits on dairy include cheeses that are coagulated with animal rennet, as well as sour cream or yogurt that contain gelatin. Many vegetarians of this type follow the diet for religious reasons. Some Lacto-Vegetarians also omit garlic, onion and honey.
Vegans eat no animal products, so no eggs or dairy. Many will not eat honey. Some omit garlic and onions. Vegans typically do not just follow a diet. They follow a “cruelty-free” way of life and therefore avoid products derived from animals and anything that results in the exploitation of animals. That being the case, giving a vegan tickets to the rodeo or to the circus is probably not a good idea. Giving a lambskin purse is a worse one.
Once you know the “level” you are dealing with, it is easy to create happy meals that will provide tasty dishes for your vegetarian and omnivores alike.
A committee meeting I was attending lasted longer than anticipated, so our host offered to have food brought in for lunch. I needed to leave shortly anyway, so I declined and told him I was going to get a tofu burrito at the Oakland airport. As one, the other people at the meeting, all of whom happened to be men, turned to look at me with varying degrees of horror. Each shook his head, looked at the others, looked back at me, then resumed writing on our project. After a minute, our host snorted and said, “I just can’t see you as a vegetarian.” Genuinely surprised, I asked him why. As he continued to write, he shook his head again and said, “Because you’re not … skinny!” Nonplussed, and a little unsure just how to take that, I sat back in my chair and finally managed to reply, “Um, thank you?”
You may not recognize a vegetarian when you see one. We’re out there, though, and tend to show up when you least expect it. It may happen when your son is bringing his first serious girlfriend home from college. Twenty minutes before they are scheduled to arrive—and fifty minutes before you are planning to surprise them with his favorite dinner of lasagna and Caesar salad—he calls to ask if he had mentioned she is a vegan. It might occur when your 35-year old sister suddenly gives up meat. She is steadfast and refuses to eat like a normal person, even during the holidays. Don’t despair! You can very likely feed your vegetarian using items you already have on hand, in perfect harmony with everyone else.
Let’s take the girlfriend scenario above. You already have the lasagna made and ready to put in the oven. You have the ingredients for the Caesar salad, but you haven’t put it together yet. How can you possibly transform this dinner to a vegan one? The answer is that you can’t. Don’t try! Your vegan doesn’t want everyone else to have to forego all meat and dairy just because she does. She wouldn’t be with your omnivore son if that were the case. Go ahead and put your lasagna in the oven. It is your son’s favorite dish, after all. For your vegan, put some of the Romaine lettuce into an individual bowl and serve it with balsamic vinegar dressing and homemade croutons. For her main dish, sauté whatever vegetables you have in your refrigerator with cooked pasta, canned beans and olive oil. If you are making garlic bread, leave a couple of slices unbuttered for dipping in olive oil and herbs.
Your dinner is a huge success! Conversation is lively and everyone is relaxed. Your son’s girlfriend is pleased you had something she could eat. (It is a toss-up when a vegetarian is invited to dinner and there is nothing he can eat as to who is the more embarrassed: the vegetarian or the hostess.) Your son is completely oblivious to your brief moment of panic and is thrilled that his girlfriend had such a nice time. You are delighted everything was so easy—and that the girlfriend is a jewel. All in all, it is a warm welcome home.
I went vegetarian eighteen years ago. My family did not. For the most part, I do not cook meat. My family cooks mainly meat, with vegetables as a sideline. The family member who comes closest to being a true carnivore is my twin brother, who limits himself primarily to one vegetable: green beans. I am fairly certain my sister-in-law knows hundreds of recipes for green beans.
After becoming a vegetarian, I decided to invite my family over for dinner. On four separate occasions before D-day, my twin called me with the same statement: “Let me make sure I have this right—you are having me over for dinner and you are not cooking meat.” Each time I answered, “That is correct.” Every time he responded with dead silence, followed eventually by, “That’s what I thought you said.”
I don’t even remember what I served (well, other than green beans). What I do remember is that before he left he very grudgingly said, “That was really good.” Mouth agape, I heard the Hallelujah Chorus playing in the background. If my twin brother would eat it, it must be good! Thus was born my live litmus test for recipes.
For myself, I don’t care if the dish looks or tastes like meat. Some folks, on the other hand, don’t even want to taste it if it doesn’t look like something they recognize, so I often make dishes using meat substitutes. I recently made up a recipe for rolled lasagna using fake ground meat and cooked it for my dad. My twin brother happened to come by and tested it. I got a mumbled “This is really good,” and knew I had a winner.
An Italian restaurant where I went with a group from work served hot bread with some kind of paste instead of the traditional herbed olive oil. It turned out to be really tasty olive paste. That weekend I bought several kinds of olives and experimented with various olive, garlic and caper combinations in the food processor to come up with my own recipes. I took three olive pastes to a party at my brother’s and earned another “This is really good” for those. To take these pastes even higher up the I’ll-make-this-again scale, each paste has three or four ingredients, so they couldn’t get any easier.
My true measure of success for cooking is orchestrating a relaxed, happy meal experience where everyone has a good time and comes away satisfied. The one meal my twin brother and I consistently agree on is chips and salsa. I can hear some of you out there saying “That’s not a meal.” If you are saying that, you have clearly never tried salsa for breakfast. My cousin Yvonne gave me her recipe for homemade salsa. All you need to do is change the number of jalapenos and serranos to suit yourself and you have the freshest, easiest salsa imaginable. Put it over scrambled eggs or scrambled tofu—or just eat it with chips—and blast yourself into your day.
For the vegetarian recipes mentioned here, go to www.veggiegal.com and look at Rolled Lasagna, Olive Paste and Bagel Chips, Salsa and Tofu Scramble. You can find additional recipe and menu ideas there for stress-free, harmonious meals. Happy eating!
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