A vegetarian cracks an egg

Eggs from free range chickens fed on a vegetarian diet, anyone?

Eggs from free range chickens fed on a vegetarian diet, anyone?

I was raised a vegetarian. Avoiding meat was the most natural thing for as long as I can remember in my childhood. During our teen years, eggs made a brief entrance into our lives. In the form of cakes. They would be baked in a special-purpose oven (egg handling done by a domestic help) away from the kosher confines of our kitchen.

I liked cakes though even the slightest overt taste of eggs would reduce my enjoyment. There was no danger of cakes making it to my Top 5 favorite desserts list. That list, I must mention, was dominated by milk-based desserts.

When I was in 8th grade, an uncle from Canada (who had turned omnivore a few decades earlier) presented a gastronomic proposal to my mother with a gleam in his eye. If she was willing to sacrifice a nonstick pan and give him free rein in the kitchen, he would make scrambled eggs for his nephews and niece. In a moment of weakness, she agreed. [See Addendum below].

An hour later, I was tasting my first egg dish. It didn’t send me racing to my friends’ houses for sneaky servings of egg dishes but the memory was definitely “hmm”.

Meanwhile, my older brother had discovered eggs at his college hostel mess. When he came home during holidays, he showed off his bread omelet making prowess (yes – that very same sacrificial nonstick pan was used!) I have a distinct memory that this tasted better than scrambled eggs.

Four years would pass before I got my next egg-eating opportunity. I was in college and omelets were a staple part of breakfast. I must have became an occasional to regular eater of omelets but I don’t have a strong recollection of it being something I “couldn’t live without”.

I graduated from college and my first job brought me to Jamshedpur. Those Tata Steel people! They really know how to take care of their employees, especially new trainees. The hostel mess was a serious upgrade from college. I think this is where I really developed a taste for omelets. I finally understood what the fuss was about.

The move to US elevated eggs to the look-forward-to segment of my weekly diet. My friend and housemate in Houston (who was instrumental in me becoming a basic-101-Indian-cook) taught me a cheese-intensive recipe which he dubbed as “Italian eggs”. The details are sketchy but my rendition was appreciated by my housemates as “almost as good as Shiv’s”.

From a parental standpoint, eggs were never on the “do not eat” list. It was more like “don’t ask don’t tell”. A lack of discernment between fertilized and unfertilized eggs and ignorance of the industrialization of poultry meant no moral dilemma.

Have you always been a vegetarian? Have you never tasted meat?

These were two frequent questions asked by Americans. My answers were Yes and No.

The latter answer requires elaboration. Stay tuned for the post “A vegetarian tries meat“.

Addendum: My mother just read this post and shared two related stories:

  • Later in the day (after our egg tasting escapade), my sister’s earring went missing and my mother was convinced that it was divine retribution for having broken a cardinal rule. Fortunately the retribution turned out to be just a slap on the wrist – the earring was eventually found next to a flowerbed in our garden (whew!)
  • Clamors for a home baked cake (from her children) had reached a crescendo so my mother finally gave in. She requested a family friend to come home and bake a cake. The friend deputed her son to lead the proceedings. Eggs were beaten, utensils were rendered impure, a mess was created but at the end of it, there was a cake to show for it. I don’t recall how it tasted but the episode had a scalding impact on my mother’s psyche. She went to bed tortured with guilt and had the worst nightmare.. a scene with scores of chickens squawking loudly in her face. For someone who’s not seen Hitchcock’s Birds, she could have been describing one of the climax scenes. The nightmare cured her of her newly found affinity towards cakes.

The butcher did it

butcher_uk_pinterest_comA recent conversation with my parents unearthed a nostalgic gem from our years in Bokaro. This is post #2 in my series on understanding meat eaters.

My older brother (S) was seven. We had our first cousin (let’s call her “IP”) living with us that year. She was six. I was too young to remember anything.

My uncle (and IP’s dad) would drive down from Jamshedpur every few weekends. During one of those trips, he brought something to eat for the kids.

S & IP: “What is it? What is it?”

Uncle: “Surprise! Try it first. It’s yummy.”

Uncle (as S and IP started chewing): “It’s meat…”

S promptly spat it out.

IP: “But Dad, S tells me you get papam if you eat meat!” (papam in Telugu means sin)

Uncle: “Silly! Only the person who killed the animal gets papam! Not you, me or anyone who eats it!”

********

Next in the series: Eating pork chops while petting your golden retriever

Understanding meat eaters through the lapsed vegetarian lens

[Editor’s note: This is the first in a series on vegetarians, omnivores, food habits, diets adopted by successful athletes (bias towards runners of course), perhaps eventually leading to a psychohistory of food. Several years of Facebook sharing has taught me that *any* article on these topics (lengthy, nuanced or researchy) invariably lead to defensive or offended responses from my social graph. This series is an attempt to keep readers on *one* hair ‘splittable’ topic.]

“Our special today is duck smothered in oyster sauce.”
“Oh! Please don’t tell me how you killed it!”

While this might be evocative of your modern day Newyorker cartoon, this cartoon appeared in a Reader’s Digest issue around 35 years ago.

Barring 3-4 episodes of collegial rebellion, I’ve been a vegetarian all my life and a chegan for the past year.

In a global population of 7 billion, vegetarians are a minority. One might even call them a fringe group of sorts (aka a cult). I understand vegetarians well. It’s the other group I want to understand better.

An omnivore friend with an intense carnivorous proclivity said something very similar to the above cartoon.
“Most non-vegetarians are lapsed vegetarians.”

This assessment goes a long way towards understanding the majority group.

Who the heck is a lapsed vegetarian?
Any homo sapien carnivore that is not a hunter, not a butcher, not a meat industry worker is a lapsed vegetarian.

If you’ve not seen the goings-on at a chicken/goat farm, you are a lapsed vegetarian.

If you haven’t done a tour of a state-of-the-art industrialized beef farm in US (on the lines descibed by Michael Pollan in Power Steer), you are a lapsed vegetarian.

If you haven’t gone fishing in the past 10 years and caught a tuna or two, you are a lapsed vegetarian.

To the true blue chest thumping carnivore bristling with indignation at this name calling, here are a few litmus tests to prove that you DON’T belong to this yucky group of ‘lapsed vegetarians’.
Go to your local butcher shop and wield that machette and *take a life*. Or two.
Didn’t get your adrenaline rushing yet? Well, go on a licensed hunting expedition and shoot some wild fame.

To the rest of you non-indignant meat eaters, that chieftain from the movie Madagascar says it best:
“You are pansies!”

Like that woman in the restaurant, you don’t WANT to know how the dish on your plate was killed. You’ve been doing it for so long that you don’t even THINK of your dish as ‘ex-living-animal’.

The good news is that smart inter-disciplinarian scientists are creating meat in-the-lab which will taste and feel no different from traditional meat. So whatever subliminal conflicts you might have in your mind might just be resolved in your lifetime.

Next episode candidates in this series…

  • Blame the butcher!
  • Hey vegetarian, you are just a lapsed vegan!
  • Killing for meat or clothes: does animal size matter?
  • Killing for meat or clothes: does the method matter?
  • Eating pork chops while petting your golden retriever
  • Vegetarians and the “anticipated reproach” theory