I’ve been a vegetarian (or pescatarian for those of you who know the difference) for many years now. I get a lot of questions regarding this choice of life-style, but mostly, people just tend to be amazed that I could live life without eating meat. And if I had a dollar for every time I got asked “but how do you get enough protein!?” well, I’d have a lot of dollars. However, despite the inherent restrictions & challenges that come along with such a life-style, I think my favorite part about choosing to forego meat from my diet is the mere fact that it has forced me to be so much more creative when confronted with the inevitable: “what’s for dinner?”
And no, beef is not the right answer in this case…
One of my new roommates who just moved up to Portland from Orange County (thank the Lord for the gift of solidarity in this season!) made a comment the other day about how when she lived with her sister, they literally ate the same thing every single night: chicken and rice with a limited rotation of vegetables. She said they always went to the grocery store with the intention of coming up with something more creative, but always walked away, more or less, with the same meal. I think this would kill me, but I understand the mentality. Growing up our meals were consistently just more of the same, only sub out the chicken for beef, and you can bet that we rotated through the same one-dish-wonders every week.
Making the choice to eliminate meat has forced me to explore different options. What other sources of protein are there out there? What can you use to make a meal more “meaty” or hearty so that you don’t miss that fist-full of flesh on your plate? As a kid, my mom used to beg and plead with me to help out in the kitchen; “You need to start cooking one meal a week. How are you ever going to find a husband if you can’t cook!?” Old fashioned to be sure, but she meant well. (Mom if you’re reading this, I love you!) So she would force me to make spaghetti with the intention of it being a weekly routine. I would make it begrudgingly and then conveniently let her forget when my “day” came back around the following week. All of that to say, it never stuck. You can’t force someone to love something they just don’t, especially a teenager, let’s be real. Everyone knows that will always make any teenager all the more hell-bent on hating it just to spite you.
But remove meat from the equation, and suddenly I found myself fascinated with new flavors, dishes, combinations and varieties. Through my college years I started to experiment a little more, and the more income I managed to bring in, the more I ditched the cafeteria & explored my talents in the kitchen. Fast-forward to present day and wouldn’t you know it, cooking is one of my favorite therapies. Or perhaps that’s food, and cooking is just the means to an end ;) Either way, I have learned to fall in love with the art of cooking. But more than that, I absolutely love the way food brings people together.
In college, I was heavily involved in Rezlife where I was responsible for planning events and promoting community for fellow students. Tack on 3 years of that and my party-throwing, dinner-making, cookie-baking abilities only improved. I fell in love with hosting events and determined one of my natural giftings to be the gift of hospitality (or so said some Christianese survey I took years back). But whatever, I’ll take it. When I think about the holidays, or a friend from out of town coming to stay, or any event in life really that might warrant an occasion for a gathering of friends/family, my mind immediately jumps to all the many possibilities. I love the presentation factor. It’s more than just the menu, or what’s in your glass, or the anticipation of (or perhaps dread of an irrefutable) dessert; it’s about the beauty of it all. Environment. Display. Appeal. They say you eat with your eyes before you ever take a bite, and I must say, I couldn’t agree more.
As luck would have it, I just moved in with a sweet girl who is in culinary school up here at the Art Institute of Portland. We both have a love of cooking, but she has the eye for presentation and the natural intuition that promotes a seamless sequence of events in the kitchen. These things I’m still learning. But let me tell you, it is a total blast to have someone to cook along side. Just the other day she was looking through some of my cookbooks that I had pulled out as I was unpacking and she became engrossed in one in particular given to me by a friend years back called “Eating Local” (how very Portland of her). It has some really great recipes in it, most of which I have not attempted. But she fixated on one in particular that incorporated every part of a beet. The root, the stem & the leaves with a whipped fresh mint goat cheese blend for the savory dip. Now I love beets, but for the life of me, I have never known how to cook them. And I certainly didn’t know the stems and leaves were desirable for eating. But she convinced me, so we ran to Fred Meyer (because apparently it’s a big deal up here & that’s what people do), and got all necessary ingredients. This girl whipped the dish together in no time, and I was stunned not only by the beauty & creativity of the dish, but by the explosion of flavor and savory goodness that followed. Add a delightful wine (“God King Slave,” a beautiful syrah-tempranillo blend, created & produced by the one and only Christine Collier) and the meal made for my favorite evening in Portland thus far.
Last night my best childhood friend, Vanessa came over for our first reunion since my move and, you guessed it, we made dinner. Vegetarian stuffed bell peppers with asparagus and of course a red wine.
Lo & behold, another fine evening. But I was struck last night by a strange & comforting thought while we were slaving away in the kitchen: it really doesn’t matter where I am, when I’m cooking with friends, I’m home. I had forgotten that I was not in LA anymore. I had forgotten that it was not normal to spend an evening with Vanessa as old friends. And I had forgotten all the anxiety that has been my faithful companion throughout the course of this move. And with that realization, I couldn’t help but fall just a little deeper in love with this simple pleasure, and furthermore, I felt, if only ever so slightly, more at ease in this new place that feels anything like home. So here’s to hoping I can adapt one bite at a time.