“Just a Sliver”
An excerpt from Dirty Sugar Cookies, by Ayun Halliday
I can pinpoint the exact moment I became a vegetarian. The summer between junior and senior years of high school, I enrolled in a six-week program for stage-struck youth that took place on the campus of the university I would later attend. The “cherubs,” as we were called, ate all of our meals in the cafeteria of Allison Hall, the ’60s-era dorm in which we were housed. Ever since the acceptance letter had arrived in early March, I’d been bouncing off the walls, giddy to get a taste of the collegiate lifestyle, but many of my fellow cherubs, who hailed from such exotic locations as New York and boarding school, behaved as if our situation was no great shakes.
As I observed from a safe distance, they openly lit up Dunhills, made casual reference to Greenwich Village vintage stores, name-dropped bands I’d never heard of, and slouched around Allison’s lobby, criticizing the provincial Midwest. Their exoticism was a birthright they wore lightly. That night, when a hair-netted cafeteria worker manning the entrée station attempted to serve me some roast beef, I demurred, then turned to the kid next to me in line. “I’m a vegetarian,” I explained.
“Really?” His awkward posture and faded Florida State T-shirt were reassuring in the midst of so much teenage sophistication. “Why?”
“Oh, animals mostly,” I replied with studied nonchalance, nodding when the cafeteria man offered to load me up with garlic bread and canned corn.
“She’s a vegetarian,” the kid behind me told the kid behind him, a scrawny-looking specimen in rainbow suspenders.
“Really? Don’t you ever, like, want to pound down a burger or some McNuggets or something?”
“No,” I smiled, as patient and mysterious as anything to emerge from Da Vinci’s brush.
“Never?” Florida State teased. “What if you were starving and I offered you a steak?”
“Or a big old sausage pizza?” Rainbow chimed in, eagerly leaning forward to clock my reaction.
“Or a three-piece dinner from Kentucky Fried Chicken?”
“I’d stick with the biscuits,” I parried, slipping into my sophisticated new identity as smoothly as those New Yorkers flicked their Bics.
To tell the truth, after a long day of orientations, introductions, and shape-shifting, a sausage pizza would have hit the spot like nobody’s business, but in for a penny, in for a pound. If memory serves, it was at least six years before my next taste of that former staple, though, in all frankness, you might not want to quote me on that.
Over the course of the six weeks I spent amongst the cherubim, it became second nature to request a hot dog bun with no hot dog, a practice I found surprisingly easy to keep up after the Cherub program ended. Maintaining my commitment to vegetarianism was a snap, as long as nobody witnessed me gobbling bacon bits from the salad bowl I’d been asked to carry into the dining room at home. My mother and stepfather didn’t seem particularly put out by the change in my dietary habits. My appearances at the dinner table were becoming increasingly rare, eaten up by Saturday dates with James and weeknight rehearsals for Li’l Abner. Daddy found my vegetarianism funny, yet somehow it always managed to slip his mind between visits, so that every meal we shared, he was delighted anew. Gran-Gran was frowning but silent, still a fervent believer in the superior education and opportunities for enrichment that had unexpectedly resulted in a host of anti-Reagan proclamations, a snotty attitude toward Izod shirts, and now this.
That Thanksgiving, I granted Gran a temporary reprieve, by stoically dispatching one skimpy slice of her perfectly browned bird. After that, I confined myself to stuffing, candied sweet potatoes, and plenty of surreptitious carcass-picking out in the kitchen while the rest were still at the table, groaning over coffee and pie. It seemed a small concession given the nature of the holiday. Probably half of America’s vegetarians were suspending their ideals in the interest of family harmony that day. For their part, my relatives kindly abstained from pointing out that the stuffing I so loved owed its succulence to the turkey juices in which it had been basted.
Sticking it to my family was hardly my primary motivation in cleaving to a vegetarian lifestyle. Impressing my peers was a far greater goal. My burger-scarfing, Izod-wearing high school friends tolerated my vegetarianism as just more semi-amusing, mildly irritating fallout from my interest in theater, like Rocky Horror and tattered vintage clothing. I was a showoff, but I was their showoff.
When we ordered pizza, they were more than happy to field my unwanted pepperonis, balking only if I licked my fingers before, rather than after, redistribution was accomplished. Knowing that their McNuggets would be battling my fries for dipping rights, they requested extra tubs of honey and hot mustard sauce at McDonalds. (When Fast Food Nation revealed that those spuds were fried in beef tallow throughout the ’80s, I realized that it wasn’t just the dipping sauces that were helping my fries to taste like those little felted chicken scraps. Also that I might never have been a vegetarian in my life.)
For my eighteenth birthday, Gub-Gub gave me a copy of The Vegetarian Epicure, inscribed,“That’s you n’ James on the front!” How flattering to think that my skinny, Big Mac-addicted boyfriend and I could be mistaken for the idealized vegetarian lovers gracing the cover, the woman barefoot and crowned in greenery, the man lolling seductively with a big stalk of celery. The first few recipes I tried were uniformly repulsive, but that book sure looked groovy next to all those Park Tudor Chronicles on my shelf. It also supplied an articulate excuse for passing on the pork chops.
“Good food is a celebration of life,” the author declares in the introduction, “and it seems absurd to me that in celebrating life we should take life.” I loved the piousness of this statement so much that I found myself willing to overlook the decided non-goodness of her broccoli mousse. Given that I’d spent the last nine months believing I was a vegetarian, it was no great leap to start spouting rhetoric like some sort of long-haired, rhododendron-wreathed Joan of Arc. Of course I would battle on behalf of my voiceless animal brethren. No sacrifice was too great for them, the way it would have been if meat were made out of chocolate.
Despite growing up in Indiana, I’d never really had much interaction with livestock or, for that matter, people who knew them pre-shrink wrap. The stiff-dungareed 4-H kids winning state fair ribbons for their bottle-fed lambs didn’t attend schools where grace was conducted in French. While they were slopping their hogs and gathering eggs, I was attending Saturday morning classes at Junior Civic Theater. My view of the barnyard was informed chiefly by Charlotte’s Web and an oft-told anecdote regarding Uncle Zibah, Gran’s youngest brother, who owned some sort of little farm down in Florida.
We had swung by there once on our way to Disney World. I retained a vague impression of leaning over a metal fence to pet a black-and-white cow named Lucy. (It’s probably just wishful star-fucking, given Lucy’s pivotal role in the upcoming anecdote.) My aunt and uncle had been raising her for however long one raises a cow, and during this time Aunt Frances developed unusually fond feelings for the beast. Frances, no stranger to the realities of farm living, had never succumbed to sentimentality when other four-legs in her care were carted off to the slaughterhouse. But when Lucy’s number came up, “Wall, old Frances here cried like a baby,” Uncle Zibah drawled. “She carried on so, I finally had to call up and say, ‘Looky here, my wife’s going to pieces. If it’s not too late, could you go ahead and hold off on that heifer I brung you? Her name’s Lucy and I’m coming to get her.'” It was a total Hollywood ending. Granted a permanent reprieve, Lucy ended up living the life of Riley on the farm in Florida, until she expired of natural causes at a ripe old age.
As a child, I had always imagined that given the opportunity, I, too, would have snatched Lucy from the jaws of death. Going veggie was like saving all the Lucys, or at least refraining from blatantly eating them. At that point, I’d yet to taste the delicious medallions of their babies.
It’s always a shock when a vegetarian of my steely resolve falls off the wagon. Still, the flesh, as they say, is weak, and these Irish guys I met in Munich offered to treat me to Wienerschnitzel when I was too broke to buy beer, let alone food. Far from filling me with remorse over what could have easily remained a simple one night stand, the experience unleashed something primal. I felt like the ex-smoker who scotches half a decade’s abstinence by declaring, “You know what? Fuck cigarettes. I’m going straight to freebasing.” Like the Big Bad Wolf’s, my dreams were vivid with dancing sausages. If it was cured, I craved it. I was delighted to learn that during my absence, scientists had developed a whole new bacon out of turkey. I couldn’t get enough of it! I devoured it straight out of the package, incapable of waiting the five minutes it was supposed to spend in the skillet.
“What?” I’d chuff around the slice hanging out of my mouth, whenever some boyfriend, up to and including the one I married, pulled an expression of disgust. “Jeez! Shnot like ish raw! See what it shesh on the label: ‘Thish product is pre-cooked’!”
Mmm, what I wouldn’t have given for another crack at a Gnaw Bone Camp breakfast! This time I’d have bypassed the Pop-Tarts to pile breakfast meats on up to the rafters.
Yes, I felt the occasional twinge that I was no longer celebrating life according to the parameters laid out in The Vegetarian Epicure, but I reminded myself that there were plenty of high school ideals I’d done well to leave by the wayside. What if my knowledge of the flesh had never been allowed to progress beyond James? Things that had seemed so fated at eighteen, in my twenties were hard to imagine. Sacrificing variety would have meant sacrificing experience — a poor choice, I thought, for one determined to make a go of it in the arts. Having experienced vegetarianism, I felt professionally obliged to go hog wild on the meaty treats I’d spent half a decade publicly rejecting.
All five senses came into play as I wandered the neighborhood like an out-of-control stray, slobbering over the Swedish butcher’s sausages and every delicious aroma issuing from a back-alley vent or barbeque grill. It got so bad, even the scent of burning leaves activated my salivary glands. The rotten stench of the carniceria in back of the produce market was troublesome, but only for the amount of time it takes to buy bananas.
Like many lapsed vegetarians, I did have several practicing vegetarian friends, most of whom had been meat free since high school, just as I would have been (kind of) had I not encountered those Irishmen. Some of them maintained fairly militant standards regarding honey, milk, and shoe leather, but even the hardest of the hardcore seemed disinclined to hold my fall from grace against me, the way they held it against me when, say, they returned from vacation to discover that their cats had shat all over their Pier 1 Papasan chairs, as a result of my failing to stick to a regular litterbox-scooping schedule. Having been there myself, I could hardly begrudge them the pleasure they took in taunting me with talk of lips, anuses, and other assorted hot dog yummies. It was all in good fun.
Besides, I wasn’t a total philistine. I knew my PETA literature. I was opposed to blinding bunnies and electrocuting monkeys. I hated that falsely folksy Frank Perdue just as much as they did. There’s something evil about a fortune made on poultry ordered de-beaked and de-legged long before they’re slated to go to chicken heaven. Given my already-well-informed status, the “education” my downstairs neighbor and theatrical cohort Dave delighted in subjecting me to was really just one of those comedy routines that develop over the course of a long and comfortable friendship.
“Do you know how chickens are raised in this country?” he’d inquire from time to time, usually when we were hanging around our theater’s lobby with carryout from Andy’s or the nearby Middle Eastern grocery.
“Fecal soup?” I’d smile. Fecal soup was a subject Dave held particularly dear.
“That’s right, fecal soup!” he’d cry happily, his teeth bared in the same rictus of triumph the lioness exhibits, raising her bloody muzzle from the flank of her kill. “American chickens spend their entire lives in these wire cages, positioned an inch or so above their water supply. Which they also defecate in. So when they drink, they’re drinking their own feces. It’d be like you or me drinking out of the toilet.”
That part always slayed me. My stepfather had a black Lab who habitually nosed his way into the downstairs powder room for a big, sloppy drink, so much so that one of the first things my mother told company was always, “And if you have to go to the bathroom, be sure and close the lid.” I was totally in love with the idea of some unsuspecting theater patron asking directions to the facilities, only to stumble in on me or Dave lapping noisily from the commode.
“It’s true though, you know. And I’m not the one who made up that phrase ‘fecal soup.’ That’s how it’s referred to in the industry.”
“So you’ve mentioned.”
“So when you’re biting into that souvlaki you have there, just take a moment to think ‘fecal soup.'”
“I always do.”
Dave had my number, all right. Like many young carnivores trying to make a go of it in the low-budget arts scene, I consumed a disproportionate amount of poultry. Professional chefs may sniff that chicken is the least exciting flesh to work with, but it’s inexpensive, easy to prepare and — have you heard? — drinks its own shit! What’s not to love? It didn’t even need a recipe, just a pan, some olive oil, some garlic, a little bit of salt, maybe a splash of white wine or some lemon juice. Nothing smelled better on the stove, especially when it was steaming up the windows on a cold winter afternoon. It made me feel like a nineteenth-century French peasant, the sexy, robust kind who uses a lot of rosemary from the garden and doesn’t require a glass for her vin ordinaire. Presumably that same peasant would have had to engage in some strangling and plucking before she could take up her fork, but not me. I could barely handle looking at the rubber chicken we kept backstage. The actual anatomy of meat was something I preferred not to consider, until I dissected a human cadaver, that is.
It was a great experience, actually, particularly for someone studying massage therapy as a means of supplementing a lowly theatrical income, but it kind of freaked me out that some part of me wanted to try a little nibble. The urge was far from bloodthirsty. I mean, it’s not like I was going to rip off a foot and stuff it in my mouth. I wouldn’t have had to, since this particular cadaver lab put beginners at ease by keeping the dead bodies under wraps until we’d each had a chance to examine a severed foot, which the work-study students carried out on orange plastic lunch trays identical to the ones at Wendy’s. Next up were brains, which I found about as appetizing as clay. Wild horses couldn’t have induced me to eat them.
Then we uncovered our cadavers. Most of them seemed fairly fresh, plump with formaldehyde, not creepy as I’d feared, just sort of naked and dead. The one to which I’d been assigned, however, looked like he’d been hanging around for a while. I was not the first to have a go at him, a work-study student explained. Before hooking up with me, my cadaver had participated in a thoracic cavity seminar and had had his nerves “dissected out” by an aspiring chiropractor. His muscular-skeletal system remained intact, though, making him an appropriate match for me.
The fact that I’d been given someone else’s leftovers didn’t bother me in the slightest. On the contrary, I found it quite beautiful that no piece of him would be wasted. The only problem was, he had gotten so dried out that he was starting to resemble my grandmother’s pot roast. His flesh had a well-done appearance. Every muscle my scalpel probed flaked along the grain so readily that the lack of mashed potatoes seemed like an oversight. If he’d been laid out on damask instead of stainless steel, I’d have popped a sliver in my mouth without giving it a second thought. Just a sneaky little vegetarian-on-Thanksgiving taste. I was dying to ask one of the cute work-study boys if he ever felt similarly inclined toward cannibalism but, not wanting to seem a ghoul, limited myself to inquiring if he’d ever seen Dawn of the Dead, and if so, did he ever think about it when he was alone in the storage room, inventorying the latest shipment.
My close call in the cadaver lab didn’t put an end to my carnivorous ways, though the heightened grasp of anatomy that I walked with made me uncomfortably aware of tendon and sinew, even in the boneless skinless breasts I continued to prepare any number of ways. In terms of connective tissue, a chicken is basically no different from a human, a fact that kept reasserting itself as I marbled — excuse me, massaged — the oily flesh of friends and family eagerly clamoring to serve as my guinea pigs. Still, the common yard bird was too tasty, too indispensable to my current celebration of life to do away with just like that. I cut back a bit when Greg and I moved to New York City, settling into an East Village tenement just a half block from First Avenue Meat Products, but only because I considered it my civic duty to partake of the locally produced kielbasa several times a week.
Remarkably, most of my new East Coast friends and acquaintances assumed I was vegetarian. I don’t know if it was the massage thing, the hippie dress printed with dancing Shivas, or the fact that I still dabbled in tofu, but something about me must have screamed “herbivore.” In an ironic twist, I now felt compelled to give prospective hosts and hostesses a courtesy call to apprise them of my lack of dietary restrictions. “Really? You’re not vegan?” my hostess-to-be would ask in surprise.
“No, I eat everything,” I’d assure her.
“Listen, it’s no trouble to make you an omelet. Are you lacto-ovo?”
“Uh, I always forget, is that the one where you don’t eat dairy or you don’t eat anything but dairy?”
“So, wait, you do eat dairy, then?”
“Yes, but you don’t have to make me an omelet. I mean, unless that’s what everybody else is having.”
“Are you sure? It’s really no trouble. Or, I know, if you don’t like eggs, I could whip you up some plain pasta, not plain-plain, just without the meat.”
“That’s okay. To tell you the truth, I hate pasta.” Dead silence. I should have told her I was gluten intolerant. People who gladly accommodate outside-the-mainstream guests by braising an acorn squash in homemade mushroom stock often turn frosty when I make the tactical error of revealing my un-American feelings toward everyone’s favorite dish. And sadly, these days, I find myself in a position where I must choke down a fair amount of it.
It’s my own damn fault for renouncing meat yet again. I didn’t climb all the way back into the wagon; I’m sort of hanging onto the running board with a bag full of fish. The reasons behind this latest change of heart are pretty boring and difficult to support, particularly when one is talking to a lobster or a trout. Suffice it to say that once again, I’m a nightmare to invite to dinner, there’s very little for me to order in Peruvian restaurants, and if the vegetarians who don’t eat fish choose to write me off as an irritating wannabe, they’re well within their rights. About once a week I find myself at an ethical crossroads, wondering whether to cross-examine a Chinatown waiter about the broth in which my veggie noodles will float or give up the charade and tell him to bring me some pork fried rice. After all, it’s not like he knows anyone I know, and either way, I’ll probably end up eating pork.
But just as I’m about to chuck it all, I think of the piglet, Babe, crying “Mom?” as a load of curly-tailed, apparently non-English-speaking extras are herded off to the abbatoir, and I realize I’m no longer equipped to be so brazen. Jesus Christ, is this what having kids does to you? Now when people ask if I’m vegetarian, my answer is neither the earthy “used to be” of my hickory-smoked idyll, nor the resounding, duplicitous “yes!” of early adulthood. I question the morality of dunking lobsters — or “insects of the sea” as Greg calls them — into boiling water while still sentient (the lobsters, that is), yet sometimes can’t resist ordering them in special-occasion restaurants where the only other option that fits my constraints is a fifteen-dollar plate of Seasonal Steamed Crudité. (Mussels and swordfish ceased to be options when Anthony Bourdain let it leak that they’re stored in their own piss and riddled with giant worms, respectively.)
“Why don’t you just tell people you’re a pescatarian?” a vegetarian I met recently asked, cutting me off mid-apologia for my beat-up leather jacket and my callow habit of behaving as if fish are neurologically no more complex than eggplants. Was he kidding? Or was this his passive-aggressive way of letting me know that, as far as he was concerned, I was full of fecal soup? No, he was serious. “It means someone who eats fish,” he clarified.
Maybe so, but why bother with a label so few can define, especially when “basket case” is just as accurate, while still leaving lots of wiggle room for the future.
Excerpt from Dirty Sugar Cookies © 2006 Ayun Halliday. All rights reserved.