This is the beginning of an experiment. Hypothesis: Everyone's got at least one good story to tell. And everyone eats, so I suspect many of you are harboring some wonderful food-related tales. Let's hear them!
Here's how it works: Once a month, I'll give you a prompt—a word or general theme to use as a springboard into storytelling, such as "laughter" or "smoke." If that theme makes you think of a story from your own life, please write it down and send it to us by the end of the month. (I confess this isn't an original idea; I'm borrowing it directly from one of my favorite magazines, The Sun, whose "Readers Write" section is always the first place I flip to when an issue arrives.) It can be funny, sad, sweet, weird, whatever—just be sure it is true and involves food! We'll publish the best ones on the blog.
Let's start with "Manners" as a prompt. I'll write my response first...then it's your turn! Hope to hear from you.
The simple question, "So why did you become a vegetarian?" always made me cringe. I knew people expected a thoughtful, if predictable, response—animal rights, personal health, environmental issues, etc.—and the truth was so absurd.
Because I lied.
I was just shy of seventeen when I went on an "urban outreach trip" with a faith-based organization, in part because it seemed like a great adventure. I'd never been to the South before, and inner-city Atlanta sounded exotic to a New England girl. The organization's brochure promised "two weeks' room and board" in exchange for several hundred dollars, which I forked over from my recent winnings in a student writing contest.
The "room" was the shared floor of a church basement; the meals were whatever was being served up by volunteers in the sweaty shade of a mess-hall tent. But hey, I was a teenager on my own for the first time, fresh out of high school and eager to experience whatever the world beyond my small town offered. I had no complaints.
That is, until I reached the front of the dinner line that first night. A glop of what looked exactly like wet dog food—the Alpo brand we fed our dog, with chunks of mystery meat in a gelatinous gray sauce—hovered over my paper plate.
"Um, excuse me, what is that?" I asked the server as politely as possible.
"Scrapple 'n gravy, honey," the lady replied. "Made it myself. You want it or not?"
I was stumped. I had no idea what scrapple was, and was pretty sure I didn't want to find out. But it would be so rude to reject it, especially in earshot of potential new friends, who might peg me as a snob.
"Um, I'm...I'm sorry, but I'm...a vegetarian!" I blurted out. She shrugged, and pointed to a pile of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
It hit me the next day as our group stood in the line at Taco Bell: I had to keep up this charade for the next two weeks, or I'd be shown up as a liar!
So I did. Turned out, there were a lot of good reasons to be a vegetarian. People kept supplying them for me: "I know, factory farming is terrible. I admire you for taking a stand," one girl said. Note to self, I thought, look up "factory farming."
Another asked: "Oh, are you a vegetarian because you read Diet for A Small Planet?" I nodded solemnly, promising myself I would buy the book as soon as I got home, so it wasn't a real lie.
The funny thing is, after two weeks of bean burritos, PB & J and cheese sandwiches, I realized I didn't really miss meat (although I did miss vegetables!). When I got home and did some background research, I became a true convert to vegetarianism.
In the end, it was manners, again, that broke me. While traveling in Europe after college, I was sometimes invited to dine in the homes of friendly locals. In the face of such hospitality, I felt it would have been unbearably rude to reject anything they served me, so I started eating meat again occasionally.
The lies finally caught up with me in Budapest, when a friend's father cooked us some sort of meat cutlets for dinner. My friend talked to her dad in their own language while I smiled and took a big bite. They both stared at me curiously.
"But—I thought you were vegetarian!" she said.
UPDATE: Submissions can also be e-mailed directly to FoodAndThink@gmail.com. Please include your full name.