I was vegetarian for 20 years, from 1993 to 2013. Prior to my eliminating animal sources of protein (except for dairy) I didn’t just eat meat—I ate animals whose names I knew. I grew up in one of Washington State’s most abundant agricultural regions, Skagit Valley, and most families I knew raised animals for food. My family maintained about a dozen sheep, a few pigs, occasionally some chickens. Every spring I looked forward to the births of the lambs. They were adorable, bouncing around on their spindly legs, chasing each other around the field. After a few months, after they’d plumped up, we’d hire a company called Del Fox to come out and shoot them in the head, hoist them up by their hind legs, slit their bellies, leave their steaming entrails on the ground, and then haul their corpses away to a meat packing plant. A few days later Del Fox would deliver a box of white paper bundles containing lamb chops, which my mother would fry and serve for dinner. We speculated aloud during these meals about which lamb we were eating. Fluffy? Julie?
Then I moved to Olympia to attend Evergreen, a hippie college in the Pacific Northwest, where the pressure to go veg was ever-present. For the first couple years at Evergreen I continued to eat meat, of the most revolting processed variety, Taco Bell. Then I moved in with some vegetarian roommates and accidentally succumbed to their diet. Buckling to peer pressure, I decided to try not eating meat for a month. After that month I’d lost weight and felt a new energy pulsing in my body. I decided to keep my vegetarian diet going for awhile and started having nightmares about eating roast beef sandwiches. I backslid once, eating a McDonald’s chicken sandwich, and the thing just tasted glued together, processed, almost plastic. For the next two decades I would eat meat only by accident, with the exception of the anchovies in Caesar salad dressing, because I simply couldn’t give that up.
My girlfriend, who became my wife, was vegetarian, and so it was easy to stick to grains and legumes. I scanned menus and didn’t see the meat. But I wasn’t exactly filling up on salads. Those 20 years were filled with cheese sandwiches, fries, pasta. The benefits of cutting meat out of my diet were probably erased by the amount of carbs I was putting down. I settled into the Louis CK/Jack Black physique of my adulthood and stayed there, but with the self-righteousness of not eating animals.
After my marriage ended in 2012 I started dating a prime rib- and fried chicken-loving woman from Texas. In the process of reexamining and reconstructing my life, I realized that I actually did have a choice about whether or not to eat meat. The kicker was my dad’s grilled salmon.
Salmon is a spiritual food in the Pacific Northwest. The first contact that Chief Sealth had with Europeans occurred when his tribe was celebrating the return of the salmon to their spawning grounds. Sealth assured the white men that they had no cause for worry about the exuberance of his peoples’ celebrations. “Guys, guys,” he said, “Relax, we’re just throwing down this epic party because--holy shit, would you look at how many fucking salmon there are?!” I paraphrase.
When I was a kid my dad volunteered every year at the Kiwanis Club salmon barbecue, held at the county fairgrounds. He’d spend the day flipping racks of Coho and Chinook, and come home wearing the aroma of smoke and having singed off all of his arm hair. My father’s barbecued salmon is not to be missed in our family’s circle of friends. During family gatherings in my 20 years of tofu and Garden Burgers, I would salivate at the aroma of salmon wafting from my dad’s barbecue, but didn’t deviate from my self-imposed dietary restrictions.
Finally, one summer afternoon in 2013, I held out my plate and asked my dad to serve me up a piece of pink, migratory fish marinated in soy sauce, lemon and maple syrup. I was curious if I’d experience a Proustian rush of memories, a slideshow of images like out of a Terrence Malick film. What happened when I took my first bite was a memory, for sure, but not at all the kind I expected. My mind didn’t open up into a reservoir of sensations. Rather, my whole body remembered what it felt like when I was 14. I didn’t see anything in my mind’s eye, but felt my younger self almost wearing my heavier, wearier 40-year-old body. My eyes welled up. The meat created a bridge over that 20-year period, back to my teenage self.
Much of my post-divorce process has entailed reestablishing relationships to people and activities that had fallen into neglect. Liberated from vegetarianism, I embarked on a rediscovery of carnivorousness. One night after a movie I remembered the existence of pepperoni pizza, so I ordered one from Big Mario’s on Capitol Hill and ate it, in a state of rapture, in the street. One day I sat bolt upright in bed, waking from a nap with the realization that I could get fried chicken at Seattle’s legendary Ezell’s. Clam chowder, barbecued pork sandwiches, phad Thai with chicken, and oh my god Ivar’s fish and chips; my new diet is a heaven of animals. If only I knew their names.