Following in the footsteps of college freshmen everywhere, I sent my mother into fits by coming home for Christmas a vegetarian. I had read Diet for a New America, John Robbins’ polemic against the manifold evils of a carnivorous lifestyle; the book places the blame for animal cruelty, environmental destruction, and all forms of bodily illness upon the consumption of beef, pork, chicken, and lamb. As only a good Catholic girl could be, I was consumed by guilt over my history of sinful hamburgers. Robbins promised atonement in a tofu patty.
My sacrifice was actually not that painful, as I had never loved meat. No psychoanalyst needed to understand why: my mother, the source of 18 years of dinners, was a terrible cook. Of all the kitchen atrocities she committed, her transgressions against animal flesh were the most offensive. Her vegetables may have been soft and watery and her pasta gluey, but at least these would yield to the bite. Against my mother’s steak, no jaw was victor.
In addition to providing an excuse not to eat leathery liver, vegetarianism offered a perfect, almost acceptable, teenage rebellion. Too inhibited to experiment with alcohol or sex, I attained some much-needed hipster credentials by experimenting with food instead, replacing the chops and meatloaf of my childhood with ethnic exotica like mung beans, miso, and quinoa. Meanwhile, my mother and I sparred over questions of doctrine: Did chicken stock count? Surely not stuffing? I ate squash and potatoes for Thanksgiving dinner and felt boldly defiant, while continuing to defer to maternal authority on all matters outside the kitchen.
The earthy-crunchy counterculture I embraced offered a hairshirt cuisine, strong on virtue and weak on flavor. Alice Waters had been preaching the gospel of fresh, bright, and sophisticated meat-free food for years, but the message hadn’t made it to East Coast college campuses. Our beans were bought in dimly lit and poorly swept co-ops, then cooked endlessly in Crock-Pots found at yard sales. Our salads were flattened under sunflower seeds, chickpeas, tahini, and bean sprouts. Lacking the imagination to envision meals centered on fresh vegetables, my housemates and I attempted homemade meat substitutes, freezing tofu to give it the texture of a sea sponge and kneading bread dough under water to produce masses of gluten like a drawer of entangled rubber bands.
My consciousness may have been raised, but my palate remained shackled, my new dinners as dismal as the gray roasts at home.
After graduation, I moved to New York City — my first true act of independence. There I discovered the joys of real food. I bought sourdough bread and cheese at Zabar’s, sampled heirloom apples at the Union Square farmers’ market, journeyed to Chinatown for mushrooms and soba noodles, and stood alongside ancient Greek grandmothers in the Astoria produce market, picking over green beans. The fantastic ingredients inspired heroic acts of cooking. Multicourse meals emerged from my closet-sized kitchen. But for years, I still wouldn’t touch meat.
Today I look at my beloved freezer — full of pasture-raised heirloom pork chops, grass-fed beef shanks, and ground bison — and I wonder how I was ever so certain of anything as I once was that I would forever abstain from flesh. I understand now that I was afraid of living without rules, without the comfort of each day setting myself a test I knew I could pass. Growing up for some people means learning limits. For me, it meant letting go of them and, for the first time, embracing pleasure over purity.
The metamorphosis transpired slowly. First fish — always my last-resort choice in restaurants that lacked vegetarian options — became a more frequent indulgence. I gradually stopped interrogating beleaguered waiters about chicken broth hidden in cream of broccoli soup or lard lurking in pie crust. At cooking school, where I enrolled in a pastry program to avoid the culinary track’s lessons in leg of lamb and foie gras, I even nibbled a few tastes of duck à l’orange — to be polite, of course. I still identified as a vegetarian, but my resolve had weakened.
In the end, a steak was my downfall. I was suffering through first big problems of adulthood — a failing marriage, looming unemployment, unpaid bills, and wavering faith — and learning to compromise on issues more looming than the contents of my dinner plate. In search of the special comfort of food cooked by another’s hands, I went to a restaurant one evening nursing a hunger too deep for any salad to satisfy.
I found myself ordering a T-bone, cooked rare. It came to the table sizzling hot, well peppered, salty, and very, very bloody. Each tender, succulent bite was a revelation, offering that familiar beefy flavor, but better than I had ever imagined it could be. The meat juices swam on the plate and dyed the baked potato red. I mopped up every drop.
That dinner marked the true end of my vegetarianism. I could no longer pretend to be indifferent to the call of flesh — not with the memory of that steak enough to make my mouth water. And so I set out to conquer this new world.
Never having learned how to cook as an omnivore, I started with the most boring but unintimidating of cuts: boneless, skinless chicken breasts. But the bland neutrality of those pale slabs satisfied neither my taste buds nor my spirit. If I was going to develop a relationship with meat and find a way to bring my desire in line with my convictions, I had to go much further.
Talking to farmers’ market purveyors with their coolers of beef, pork, and lamb, I discovered a whole network of people committed to the practice of ethical livestock husbandry. Now these were meats that could inspire. Soon endless culinary possibilities opened themselves to me: boeuf à la mode, hunter’s stew, jambalaya, flavorful and complex dishes with history and soul. I learned how to coax tenderness from tough cuts with gentle cooking, how to create gelatinous stock from bones and trimmings, how to make rich dark gravy. In a few thrilling years at the stove, I managed to condense a lifetime of missed lessons in the cooking of animals.
Buying direct from farmers encouraged me to try oft-ignored cuts, leading to such once-unthinkable meals as braised trotters and pickled tongue, cuisine far removed from both the baked chicken of my childhood and the five-bean chili of my early adulthood. I learned to love fare both my mother and John Robbins would find distasteful, to say the least. But my kitchen is my own — not my mother’s, not Robbins’ — and meat, in all its variety, finally has its place at my table.
Kathleen Weldon has worked as a pastry chef, mutual-fund trader, and pollster. She keeps a blog called The Seasonal Cook.
Contributions from farmers, cooks, and others who are tasting the many meanings of food.
Want more? Comb the archives.
Most of the time with cooking and eating, the rules are clear.
A father’s legacy
The vegetarian-cooking pioneer
Barbecue, tamales, cocktails, and more
Good on everything