My Open Relationship with Vegetables

In the first half of my 20s, I spent a lot of time thinking about my personal gender expression and how I wanted to present myself outwardly to reflect the person I was in thought and in deed. (I swear this is about food. Just give me a minute.) At some point in the last year, my gender expression resolved itself. I developed a fashion style I liked. I realized that super short hair with a poofy skirt with pockets is just as good as with skinny jeans, and also that I shouldn’t reject the “feminine” styles and give into the cult of masculine = good, feminine [sissy] = bad. Provided that the skirts have pockets and the shoes are comfortable, anyhow.

Mushroom wrap at Cock & Bull, Cincinnati

My later 20s have been rife with a growing sense of discomfort about my food habits, particularly the consumption of meat. Growing up in the Midwest, I was used to meat as the center of the meal and veggies as less-worthy side dishes. At university, I drastically cut down my meat consumption, rarely eating red meat (dining hall…) and eating poultry once a day or so. At language school, I was presented with amazing vegetarian options. Then I moved to Japan, where meat, particularly chicken, is more expensive. I disliked the fatty cuts of meat at restaurants–not fine marbled beef, mind you, but just badly cut meats with fat left on. Sans my oven and a supply of lean cuts at the rural grocery store, I was even less inclined to have meat for dinner, though I longed for burritos and hamburgers.

Quick dinner of grilled tofu, blanched snap peas, and homemade cilantro dressing on soba. Inspired by 101 Cookbook’s “Grilled Tofu Soba Noodles.”

I also made a lot of vegetarian and pescetarian friends through my Japan-related community and traded recipes with them. I began to notice that I didn’t want to eat meat as much. Sometime in the last year–and particularly when I began a twitter for the blog, I noticed that everyone else’s “#MeatlessMonday” was my “Meat on Monday,” as my vegetarian repertoire has grown to the point where I don’t have to cook any meat to get through a week, though I do usually make fish a couple nights. (Particularly on Mondays after a run to the fish market.)

I think the header came on a business trip to the US. I flew Delta, and my airplane meals were basically meat with meat on meat in meat sauce. “What is wrong with Americans?” I complained to my husband. “You CAN eat meat, so don’t complain,” he responded. In order to avoid another meaty flight, I requested vegetarian meals on our recent flights to the US on United and ANA, but was annoyed to discover that one long flight with a snack only offered some sort of sausage-biscuit thing (that I mercifully slept through). “Why didn’t you order me a vegetarian meal?” I asked. “You’re not even vegetarian! Why are you so bent on being offended for them?” he responded.

Le sigh. Oh, hey, sudoku!

Having had food allergies for the last 15 years, I’m a little sensitive about people who get left out of meals. I’ve turned down a lot of sweets for my latex-fruit allergy, but those were generally situations where it was not the only thing to eat on a 6-hour flight. I have friends with gluten allergies, rice allergies, extreme lactose allergies, fish allergies, and I have friends who are vegetarian, vegan, pescetarian, and keep Kosher. But the real issue on the proverbial table was “either commit to being vegetarian or don’t.”

I identify as flexitarian. I generally avoid non-fish meat, but sometimes I eat a hamburger or have a chicken sandwich. My reasons are for my wallet–veggies, beans, and tofu are cheaper in Japan; for my health–avoiding saturated fats and cholesterol; for environmental reasons–eating lower on the food chain and getting only local meats, a.k.a., fish, which is easy in Kanazawa; and for my own peace of mind–after the turkey roasting at Thanksgiving, I can’t see meat as just meat anymore. Lately I’ve been wondering if I should just go for it and just go pescetarian since that appears to be where my lifestyle is headed. But, similarly to my refusal of adopting a single fashion style, I don’t want to commit to that. I don’t want to indulge in a biannual hamburger in front of people who think I’m a strict vegetarian. Moreover, I don’t want people to think that “vegetarians” are noncommittal to a lifestyle, saying “I don’t eat meat” and then ordering some, particularly in Japan, where the understanding of what meat is is very different than it is in the US–octopus, bacon bits, minced pork ARE actually meat.

Veggie sub on proper bread in Buffalo

Instead of flexitarian, I would actually describe myself as “vegetarianish” taking a page from Dan Savage’s term monogamish (links to Savage Love, NSFW). Savage sets up a relationship of two long-term primary partners, but instead of cheating, on one end of the spectrum, or polyamory/swinging, on the other, a relationship negotiated by the couple so that sexual flexibility is okay: “We’re mostly monogamous, not swingers, not actively looking. Monogamish” (“Monogamish,” Savage Love, 20 July 2011–this one is most definitely NSFW). So that’s vegetarianism and me. Vegetables might be my primary partner, but we acknowledge that I do have a relationship with meat sometimes, not as a mistress (read: guilty pleasure), but as a functional though not primary player in my diet.

Vegetarian-ish? Veg-ish? What should I call this? Anything but “a little meat on the side,” thanks.

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11 Comments Add yours

  1. toranosuke says:

    I think people need to chill out about how we label ourselves, or about what we choose to eat.

    Depending on where I am, who I’m with, whether I expect them to know what kosher means, and whether or not I feel like getting involved in identifying myself as “religious” or as “Jewish” to that person or in that context, sometimes I call myself Kosher, sometimes I call myself vegetarian (though I do eat fish, and very occasionally meat, so really I should be calling myself pescatarian, or skipping all the -arians and being most honest to say I’m Kosher. Sort of. Lax kosher).

    But, really, at the end of the day, I think it should be okay to be more about preferences, and not so strictly about following an ideology or something. No offense to your husband, but why is it that (American?) society seems so bent on the binary of “people with normal eating habits” and “people with dietary restrictions”? It shouldn’t be a binary, it should be a spectrum or a scale. I think your comparison to personal expression of gender identity is actually rather apropos. If I choose not to eat meat as often, or in certain contexts, it shouldn’t have to be about allergies, religious reasons, or ideological “save the animals” reasons – it could be just preferences, as in, I prefer not to eat meat on an airplane when I don’t really trust that it’s going to be high-quality food to begin with.

    I encountered exactly the same issue on a Delta flight, and ended up going hungry (though this also had to do with my stubbornness on the principle that airline food should be included and I refused to pay for anything on the plane) … I do believe that an American company should be aware of the diversity of dietary patterns that Americans, and people around the world, follow, and that they should always provide a vegetarian option for those who cannot eat the meat option. But I also believe they should provide a vegetarian option purely on the basis of offering variety. Even if you’re not taking into account people with genuine dietary restrictions, even someone who can/does eat anything doesn’t necessarily need or want meat or seafood in every one of their meals…

    1. metaphlame says:

      I agree. I bristle to no end when labels get hauled in. I was not a very social person when I was younger, so I wasn’t often confronted with people asking for them, but I felt like I was up against a wall when part of the getting-to-know you process, in college, seemed to be “so are you this or this? this or this? this or this?”

      Ugh.

      Can I choose “none of the above?” A mix of A,B,C, and D? In matters of sexual orientation I was correct in assuming (this was very early on in college, mind you; not a soul was in a queer theory class yet) that the resistance of labels would be met less with magnanimity than with a resentment that you “want it all.” Or that you “can’t commit.” Well, duh–commit to what? The crassly generalizing label you want to slap onto me, and then rebuke me for not being kosher with, should I falter from the label’s prescribed path? No, thank you, I will _not_ be committing to that anytime soon.

      Though I’ve stopped being so open-to-discussion about my food choices since angering several vegans with my [admittedly brief-from-the-beginning, acknowledged trial-period!] only three-month foray into veganism, your intro about fashion/appearance piqued my interest because I didn’t know there was pressure, still, now, at our age. Which lack of awareness comes not from any enlightened self-expression on my part, but more general cluelessness. I never wore makeup or dresses until the tale end of senior year, and while I enjoyed learning the skills or buying the fabrics, it resulted in attentions I had a.) been pretty much free of thus far and b.) didn’t really like. Now, in an effort to woo the most ornery of the elderly women at my new workplace, I dress in a way that (I imagine) little girls on the prairie once dressed for church. But I also have been lifting more and more weights and greatly enjoying it, which I assume was why two separate HR people today assumed I, in my pink pinstriped and ruffled first-day-at-work blouse, was in the reserves. Which was reassuring, really, because this is not Little House On the Prairie, and I do not want to look (entirely) like I belong there.

      Besides, realistically speaking, if I lived in a little house on the prairie, I would want some damn fine biceps. Someone’s got to put those prolapsed uteruses back into those cows, after all…

      1. Leah says:

        Prarie Biceps would most certainly be useful! In my case, it wasn’t pressure to wear skirts or pants or anything from the outside, but I was tired of feeling like I was being perceived as your Standard American Hetero Femme Wife™, but I didn’t want to give up pretty dresses or skirts (in the summer!) to set myself outside of that. So, cutting off the hair helped me feel better about the gender I present. And that’s not to say that you can’t be butch or futch or queer while dressing sort of Mad Men, but your presentation is a personal choice that you have to make to feel good about yourself. (But yes, I understand totally about the professional gender police, even though I work in a very relaxed office with cool people.)

        I also hate the idea that being flexible with food or with gender means “non-committal” to some people. I try to be as specific as the situation allows on either front–the airlines and surveys reduce this–and race and ethnicity– to a box to be checked. But every label has so many possibilities–if you check male or female, that doesn’t let you explain what kind of person you are or identify as or want to be. I think you’ve said it all quite well, so know that I am in solidarity with you!

    2. Leah says:

      I do find the labeling issue with food and gender (particularly sexual preference) to be both useful and troubling. On one hand, if your friend is a vegetarian or gay, you have a framework for knowing which restaurants have options for him and that you shouldn’t try to set him up with your female friends. On the other hand, if you’re “queer” in the sense of food or sex in a way that doesn’t fit neatly into a label, it makes you feel like an apologist, or that you have to justify yourself, and maybe people will think you aren’t committed or that you’re a poser. (See Erika Moen’s “Dyke with a Boyfriend” http://www.darcomic.org/2007/12/11/dykewithboyfriend/ – she’s amazing.) For this purpose, I often tell people “I eat mostly vegetarian food” or “I’m not a vegetarian, but love vegetarian food”–which, I feel, makes me sound like I’m prime for the judging, even if it IS an accurate description of my diet.

      In this vein, and as you’ve said, it’s both “normal people” vs. “people with ‘weird’ dietary habits” and “normal people” vs “sexual/gender deviations from the norm.” And in both cases, we all just need to chill the hell out and accept people and their preferences instead of pitting them against each other like opposites or enemies.

  2. “Mostly Pescetarian”, I love tofu and always order vegetarian on flights… I am rather violently allergic to pork and there is no respect for this in Japan or the US (where I could say I am kosher), but everyone understand vegetarian. I’d rather go meatless than be ill. The only meat i eat is that i cook or at restaurants i know well. I would not worry about labels, hon, just be what you makes you feel best… and order vegetarian if you like! No guilt!

    1. Leah says:

      Oh, there’s zero guilt in my chowing down on a veggie meal! Having a pork allergy in Japan must be the pits. I feel like the US gets better and better about food labeling (both ingredients and for dietary reason) and you can generally ask for substitutions or just to confirm, but Japan is really, really upsettingly behind on food allergies and diets alike. I saw one of those “weird medical cases” shows last year where the talents were freaking out over a peanut allergy, and all I could think was “how 1997 of you!” (Meanwhile, the woman with the curry roux allergy? Way more novel.)

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

  3. metaphlame says:

    Oh whoa, I hadn’t checked the send email replies button and so missed that comic link. *retrieves jaw from floor* That is my entire life! Right there! Holy crap! I must now jounce my husband awake and demand he read it! *flails*

    1. Leah says:

      Enjoy! Erika Moen is the best. I really hope she does more comics about being queer soon! (Bucko was really good, too, though.)

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