When I was 11, I used to go fishing in a pond behind my house. My hooks were baited with stale bread, and I’d usually catch a small bluegill and toss it back. Every once in a while, I’d leave the bluegill on my hook and cast it back out into the pond. For the most part, this resulted in dead bluegill. But sometimes a carp would snatch up the bluegill, and I’d be in for a huge fight with one of the ugliest fish you can imagine.
Carp can put up a lengthy struggle (at least to an 11 year old). They can break your pole or snap your line. They’re bottom feeders, so they’re not good for eating. If you absolutely have to cook a carp, make sure it’s between two pieces of cardboard. Then eat the cardboard.
When I opened a vegetarian cookbook on Thursday, May 31—my last night as a meat-eater for 60 days—to plan the coming week’s meals, my struggles with those carp were the furthest thing from my mind. But as I read through the multi-step recipes and started calculating the sheer amount of effort that was going to go into each meal, I couldn’t help but feel like my 11 year old self, knowing that I had purposefully hooked something I didn’t want on my line. Something that would take time and energy and would ultimately result in nothing edible.
I closed the book and decided that I’d eat Cheetos and Snickers bars for dinner every night, then wash the whole mess down with a 2 liter of Pepsi.
But that wasn’t honest—to really engage myself with what it means to be a vegetarian, I’d have to actually eat like one. So that meant mushrooms, soups, and leeks (which I didn’t even know existed until last week). It meant meal planning. It meant trying new things.
So I set a menu, and, for the most part, I stuck to it. I won’t lie—there have been a few nights where I just ate ramen noodles because I didn’t feel like chopping a whole host of vegetables.
I’ve also learned some valuable lessons, the first and most important being that fake meat doesn’t taste like real meat. Did you know that you can buy fake bacon? It comes in perfect rectangular strips that look like drawings of bacon. It has a taste that approximates bacon, but isn’t bacon. You know that piece of plastic that comes in each vacuum sealed package of real bacon? And how it’s always covered in bacon slime, so you hold it by its corner and dump it in the trash like it’s toxic waste when the package is empty? Imagine cutting that piece of plastic into ½ inch strips, frying it up, and eating it. That’s pretty much what fake bacon is, I think.
And don’t get me started about the fake chicken breasts with grill lines painted onto them.
The best meals have been the ones that I’ve put work into—the ones that had me chopping fresh ginger while I fried garlic and soaked mushrooms, all at the same time. They’re the ones that got me sweating even though I’m lucky enough to have air conditioning. They’ve made me ask questions like “What’s a garlic chive?” and “Where do I get sunflower oil?”
Dinnertime is a little less satisfying in one way—I still miss meat. I miss being able to come home and throw some chicken on the grill. No planning. No fuss. No mess. I miss the sizzle you get when you throw a cold piece of meat on a hot grill. But in another way, dinner is more exciting now. It’s a challenge, but it’s a relaxing and rewarding one. Sometimes I end up with something fantastic—garlic thai noodles for instance. Other times, I end up with something that I guiltily scrape into the garbage disposal because I can’t choke down another bite.
But that doesn’t bother me much. I’m not usually a quote-y sort of guy, but it’s like Ursula K. Le Guin said (probably over a nice steak dinner): “It is good to have an end to journey toward, but it is the journey that matters in the end.”
I may have tossed those carp back twenty years ago, but I won’t be throwing this experience back when it’s over. At least not entirely (the fake meat products can’t make their exit soon enough). After only two weeks, I’ve found a number of meals that are probably going to make it into the dinner rotation once my time as a vegetarian is up.
And I may not even dress them up with chicken or steak when the time comes.