This post first ran on Mar 12, 2014.
I was having lunch with a vegetarian friend recently, when I caught myself wanting to tell her the story. When you’re a vegetarian, a lot of people — friends, distant relatives, complete strangers — barrage you with the story. It starts like this: “Yeah, I tried going vegetarian once.”
During my 13 years as a vegetarian, I heard every variation of the story, and they all followed the same arc. Due to some earnest concern like animal rights, the environmental consequences of meat production or the artery clogging properties of lard, the storytellers decided to give up meat. Things are fine for a while, until we reach the story’s conflict. The protagonists notice their muscles shriveling or curly, dark hair hair growing on the backs of their hands, or new bald spots appearing on the top of their heads. They can’t sleep or they sleep all the time, they find themselves deficient in vitamin woo, or they’re plagued by strange bowel movements (which they describe in graphic detail). Now the story’s hero must decide whether to stick to good intentions or resume the meat-eating.
It’s never even close. The slab of beef that breaks the streak is the most mind-blowing thing that any human being has ever tasted, and the storyteller’s life is returned to balance once again. In closing, the protagonist will usually indulge in a bit of self-depreciation for being so naive as to attempt a life without bacon.
I’d heard more than a decade’s worth of these stories, and I’d always dismissed them as the desperate justifications of people who felt secretly guilty about eating slaughtered animals. I’d done the research and knew that vegetarian diets are perfectly healthy, so I’d always considered these tales a pile of bull honkey.
Until it happened to me. I was living high in the Indian Peaks of Colorado at the time and running as much as I possibly could. Which — here’s where my story reaches its moment of conflict — had become not much. I was tired all the time. Blood tests showed that my iron stores were low, and no matter how much spinach I choked down, I couldn’t seem to get my iron up. My favorite trail runs felt like death marches. Like most runners, I’ll do anything to avoid not running, and I became so desperate that I was willing to consider anything. Even the unthinkable. Maybe, just maybe, I’d try a little meat.
After weeks of agonizing, consulting my doctor, and searching the internet, I decided to break my 13 year vegetarian streak. I’d gone vegetarian for ethical reasons and I ended my meat fast with Rosie—a free-range, antibiotic-free chicken that had been raised listening to Mozart on her own California estate with a view. While I averted my eyes, my carnivorous husband roasted Rosie in the oven. He ate most of the meat, and saved the bones to make me a vat of soup.
My mission for the week was to eat a bowl of Rosie soup every day. I had laid awake for so many nights agonizing over the first taste, that the actual first spoonful was anticlimactic. Rosie soup tasted pretty much the same as the veggie soups I loved. After a week of Rosie broth followed by a Rosie curry and some free range turkey, I was ready to experience some of the miracles I’d heard so much about.
I figured I’d been right all along—meat was not going to help me.
Then I went to a barbecue. My friend Tom was cooking up buffalo burgers and insisted that I try one. He made me a three-bite burger.
After a moment of hesitation, I took my first taste. Without meaning to, I screamed — “Oh.My.God!” Heads turned. That buffalo burger was the most delicious morsel I have tasted in my entire existence. It had a dimension to it that blew my mind. It was as if I’d been tasting the world in black and white, and now I’d discovered color.
I went back to the grill and asked Tom for another burger. And then another. I craved that red meat like a diver emerging from the deep sea craves air.
In the next few days, I ate two more burgers.
The following week, I went for a run up Mt. Audubon. It was a favorite route of mine. Topping out at more than 13,000 feet, the peak was challenging, but plenty runable. Lately, though, I’d struggled. If meat made a difference, this is where I’d feel it.
On that magical day, I arrived at tree level in record time, and as my feet danced across the tundra, I felt myself falling in love with running all over again. Upon reaching the verdant knoll below the summit, I became so overcome with joy that I skipped circles through the wildflowers and broke out in song. After coming off the summit, I couldn’t help myself. I ran another six miles through alpine meadows.
It was one of the most beautiful days of my life. And I knew that I could never tell the story, not even to my dear lunch companion. Because the only people who want to hear it are those smug carnivores who heckle vegetarians, and I never want to become one of them.
*Image via WikiMedia Commons.