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The meat of the matter

May 17, 2010

Published by The Boston Globe Sunday Magazine

Raised a vegetarian, must I soften my convictions to find love?

In 1972, my mom read Charlotte’s Web and decided to give up meat forever. She was 10 years old and living in Chicago. Her decision didn’t make for easy eating. “There wasn’t any politically correct urge for people to support me,” she says in retrospect. “I was considered a pain in the neck. Really a weirdo.” She stuck to it, learned to cook for herself, and when she grew older and started dating, assumed she’d eventually marry a vegetarian. “I figured I’d have to move to California to find him,” she says.

But she never dated a vegetarian guy, never even met one. She found my dad.

One night at a club in the city he asked her to dance. She says she knew she would marry him a month in. “Even the fact that he was an omnivore didn’t faze me,” says my mother, still smitten after twentysomething years. “He really opened the door, made me more tolerant.”

My dad had never met a vegetarian before. Taking her out to eat was a little complicated, but he added it to her long list of quirks, and they married in 1988. They had four daughters, all of whom they raised vegetarian. “It was more important to her that you were vegetarians than it was to me that you weren’t,” my dad tells me.

In my 21 years, I’ve never tasted chicken, a cheeseburger, or turkey – even on Thanksgiving – but I don’t feel deprived or weird, certainly not malnourished. Meat isn’t something I worry about; you can’t miss what you’ve never had.

“Marry a vegetarian,” Mom advises, despite her success with the opposite. Marry someone who is generous and hard-working, supportive and intelligent – like Dad – but a vegetarian. After watching my parents prepare and eat separate meals, I can see her point. But every girl knows that a good guy is hard to come by, especially one who is vegetarian.

Imagine my surprise then when I am invited to an Indian restaurant for a first date. Delicious, aromatic Indian food? It’s my favorite! I’m shocked and impressed by this open-minded saag paneer-eating boy. A few weeks later, we get Thai. When I cook, he eats my veggie lasagna with relish and later compliments a spicy stir-fry. We go to a vegan restaurant; he tries mock beef and gluten sausage. My mom thinks I got lucky. Dad – not only an omnivore, but also a seriously finicky eater, in general – says my new guy is just being nice.

He’s my boyfriend now, but not a vegetarian. It doesn’t matter – I’m too young to really think about marrying. Still, I ask myself: Could I be with someone who eats meat forever?

Could I ever cook meat for my husband? Could we raise our children like him? Could I cook meat for my children? If I ask myself these questions now, the answers are no, no, and no.

“No way!” my 13-year-old sister agrees. She’s never had a boyfriend but says that she will never cook meat for any future husband. “I’m not touching that stuff. It’s bloody. And gross.” I’m the oldest sister and, presumably, the first of us who will really have to think this through.

My reasons for the life choice are part moral – I read Charlotte’s Web, too – and part habit. I never made a conscious choice to be a vegetarian. But I don’t think that my boyfriend, or anyone else who eats meat, is an inferior person, and I would never suggest that he change to be like me.

It’s a dilemma that couples face in a million ways. Can a woman who loves to travel be with a man who’s scared to fly? Can a man obsessed with baseball marry a woman who refuses to acknowledge the sport? I understand that the real solution to these situations, and mine, is compromise. My choices are either to hold out for a decent vegetarian like my mom suggests or to compromise like my mom did. When I am ready to commit, I’m not sure what I’ll decide, but at least I have my parents’ union to emulate.

My dad will never be a vegetarian, and my mom will never eat meat. She does, however, occasionally cook it for him. She started only after years of marriage, during one of his stressful, sleepless 60-hour workweeks. If she can do it for the man she loves, then maybe so will I someday.

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