Want a man? Eat meat!

The first time I became a vegetarian lasted 16 hours. My mother had come home from work and announced that she was tired and we kids were to fend for ourselves. The meat that was in the refrigerator included two hundred Murry’s Italian meatballs for $1.99, and an empty box of Steakums that someone, I suspected my mother, had finished off, which meant she ate the last two because you needed at least two of the rectangle wafers to make one good faux steak sandwich.

I instead had an OLT (onion, lettuce, tomato), and mayo sandwich. I can’t remember what my brother had, probably Corn Flakes. My sister being too industrious for an 8-year-old and for her own good, probably bummed a meal from one of the neighbor’s claiming, as she often did, that someone in our small clan was treating her with unreasonable cruelty, which was only half true, because there was always a reason. Sixteen hours later, back at school, I was standing first in a line of three, ready to wolf down two loaded half smokes from one of those “ice cream” trucks that park in front of schools expressly for teens (like the one I had been) who refuse to start the day without having a good breakfast.

Years later, in my 20s and on my own, I was playing with the idea of becoming a nonmeat eater as opposed to a strict vegetarian. I was open to taking this more moderate stance, although my good friend Kayla had become a full throttle vegetarian and seemed hell bent on getting me to do the same. I was having none of it. When and if I chose to become a vegetarian, it would be my decision, and mine alone. And, all her haranguing about chickens: what chickens ate, where chickens slept, everything I never wanted to know about the chicken life cycle, the True Untold Purdue Story, fell on profoundly deaf ears.

She even attempted to coerce me by having me over to view a bootlegged film on the tyrannical chicken industry, what she initially described as a small “get together” of friends, who she claimed could not wait to meet me. “I’ve been telling them all about you, and they’re dying to meet you, girl,” she went on. She knew that if she had been upfront, told me that these were people I should meet: forward thinking, hardcore vegetarians out to make the world a better place for every living thing, large and small, it wouldn’t have worked. At 22, I was already fortunate to know all the people I ever wanted to know – all five, one of which at that time doing his part to make the world better by completing 200 hours of court ordered community service.

Ever since her conversion, when she met 6-foot, 3-inch, 160-pound Steven, three years before, all her friends were vegetarian, all except for me. She also let me know as I snooped around the kitchen looking for something to nosh that there would be a short presentation. I understood. Kayla and I had been friends since high school; we met working the front (me) and drive thru (her) registers at Wendy’s. I knew what she was capable of. I had seen her chow down on too many triple cheese burgers to count: triple cheese topped with Wendy’s chili, triple cheese with fried onions, green peppers and mushrooms, triple cheese the healthy way, with just pickles and mustard, and if things got heated, I’d have no problem sharing this and more.

The guests, three couples, didn’t seem to know me from the nearest rice cake, which I noticed they scarfed down as if they were some great life altering treat instead of biodegradable coasters they clearly were. After dinner, an au gratin medley of assorted root vegetables topped with bread crumbs and something Kayla swore was just like cheese, we adjourned to do what everyone except for me was there for: the indoctrination. Kayla did PETA proud. By the time the VCR stopped, and someone had the great idea of hitting rewind so it could be watched one more time, I was already up, coat in hand, swearing to everyone that I’d never eat another eye-lashed creature again, and now had to leave in order to thoroughly digest all I had seen.

I meant this too. Right up until I walked into McDonald’s and hurriedly scanned the menu board for their salad selections. I meant it still as I ordered a Big Mac, and then as I opened the container and lifted the bun, and even as I picked up the beef patty to strategically center it, assuring that I’d get a mouthful of meat in each delicious bite. My one regret? I would have preferred a Whooper and wished Burger King had been the closer of the two meateries.

I did eventually go meatless a year later, but not because of any coercion that night at Kayla’s. The absence of meat in my diet was due solely to economics. I was young, had a small studio apartment in Dupont Circle in D.C. and wouldn’t have possibly had any money for fun if I hadn’t tightened my belt. And seeing how rice and beans net so many more meals than the same amount of money spent on bacon, meatless was the way to go.

Peggy Lipton of Mod Squad fame had a choice to make: Veggie lifestyle or the man of her dreams? (Publicity photo)

This lasted for several years. I was happy and, in my mother’s opinion, dangerously thin. Then I experienced what Peggy Lipton says she went through with meeting Quincy Jones. In her autobiography “Breathing Out” Lipton recounts how Quincy cooked lamb chops for her on their first date. Lipton hadn’t eaten meat for six years, and she said she knew with that first dinner that it was “going to be a truly carnivorous event,” that all her dietary decisions up to that point were about to go out the door. “I fell madly in love,” she said in a People magazine interview. “I saw him cooking meat and thought, ‘If I’m going to be with him, I’m going to have to change.'”

I remember reading this in my twenties after the demise of their marriage and thinking, “Poor Peggy, she was Julie from the Mod Squad, the girl every guy wanted, and she had to change who she was to be with a man. How sad, so sad. Poor Peggy.” How was I to know that seven years later, I would be doing my own version of carnivorous conversion? Like Peggy, I, too, knew the first time I saw mister man. I knew he was someone I wanted to know better. I also knew a body like his wasn’t maintained by eating sprouts or downing wheatgrass shots. And if it was, then those sprouts were probably topped with a 20-ounce steak and the wheatgrass definitely came with a Hennessey chaser.

I was like a closet smoker who meets the nonsmoker of her dreams. At every meeting, there was the lie told for not eating meat: “Oh, I had bacon and sausage for breakfast,” or “I’m so bloated, I’m eating light today.” I would have said this and more not to admit the truth to him, that I didn’t eat meat. Or not to have to come to terms with what was becoming very clear: If I wanted to be with this man, I was going to have to Peggy Lipton it — I was going to have to start eating meat.

We had a good run. Two years filled with lots of drama (the calm kind), lots of laughs, and lots of meat. After several tries at dissolution, it finally stuck. I stood in my dining room as the last two years of my life unfurled before my eyes. A simple request on my part about ponying up his share for a trip to Jamaica, a trip I had already asked him about several times, with him finally agreeing, “Yeah, we can do that,” ends with him saying three weeks before departure, “Yeah, let me get back to you on it. Money’s tight right now.” I watched him pick up the fork to begin eating the lasagna I had prepared, packed with meat, the way he liked it.

“I can’t do this.”

He put down the fork, food untouched. “Can’t do what, babe?”

“This.” I said. And, it was over.

No, “I’ll put that in some Tupperware, so you can take it with you,” from me.

No, “Well, I know you’re upset. Perhaps, I can get this in a container, call you tomorrow, and we can talk then,” from him.

Instead, he walked to the door. This time, I held the door open.

Since parting, I’ve been playing with the veggy thing again, this time around with more emphasis on leading a healthier life. There’s my anemia to consider. But I’ve been told this can be remedied just as easily with iron supplements rather than eating red meat. Then, too, there’s always the economics of eating meat. Pound for pound, cost wise, beans and rice, beat steak every time. Or, I could just do what millions of people do every day: eat what I want, when I want, remembering the cardinal rule for most things in life: moderation.

It’s not like being a vegetarian has to be a sociopolitical, lifestyle or entertainment choice. For me, it can simply be that thing needed to see me through, keep me moving forward.


©2012 Willett Thomas