I used to joke that I have the eating habits of a medieval serf; it was a funny way to describe the diet of meat and bleached grains that I shove in my face every day.
However, that all changed once I researched the actual diets of pre-Renaissance paupers. Joan Thirsk, a social historian who studied agriculture, wrote that the lowest classes of 14th century England subsisted on vegetables and herbs grown in their small gardens—foods like turnips, leeks, and parsley.
So I no longer joke that I have the diet of a serf; I consume far fewer vegetables than the ranks of the destitute did during the 14th and 15th centuries.
While I do occasionally eat things like leafy greens, root veggies, fruits, and healthy grains, one constant remains: meat. Nearly all the healthy things I eat are in service of, preludes to, or accompaniments for meat.
Meat has been the centrepiece of nearly all my lunches and dinners to the point that, at the age of 30, I am hard-pressed to recall a day in my life where I didn’t have at least some meat.
I never realised that this might be odd until recently, when I did something that tends to make one question one’s diet: I moved to California.
My eye, trained for decades to immediately spot the tastiest meat options on restaurant menus, found itself lost, unable to locate the rows of steaks or burgers I was used to seeing at dinner spots in Chicago—my hometown—and New York—where I had been living.
In California, veggie patties and meat substitutes aren’t relegated to minuscule fonts beneath the main items; they take centre stage. Bodegas sell quinoa. Friends describe a type of tofu as “delicious,” and they’re being serious.
And so I began to reevaluate my multi-thousand-day streak of meat consumption, and gave myself a challenge: I would go vegetarian for the entire month of July.
In giving myself a set timeframe and thinking of it as a simple “break” rather than a massive lifestyle change, I figured I could sail through the month a happy vegetarian.
And then came July 1.
It wasn’t the strongest start. In fact, it wasn’t a start at all: Fourth of July was around the corner, and I postponed the project until July 5 so I could indulge in the holiday’s many barbecuing opportunities. It wasn’t failure, I assured myself, it was patriotism.
When I did start my month, I plotted out a few quick meals that would ease me into vegetarianism. Omelletes, scrambled eggs with veggies, ham-less benedicts—OK, what I did was think about all the ways I could make eggs.
Foolishly, I hadn’t considered the chance that I may, one day, get sick of eggs. That day came on July 8.
I had eaten enough omelets, fried eggs, and egg salad by then, so I decided to move on.
My girlfriend was having family over for her birthday dinner, and one of her relatives requested steak on the grill. Vegan sausage fit the bill for me, my reasoning being that I could throw the “sausage” on the grill alongside the steak and not feel left out.
This was the worst mistake I made all month, as you can see here:
Look at that delicious cut of beef, grilled to perfection.
Imagine taking a bite. Taste the warmth and comfort.
Now, for comparison’s sake, imagine taking a bite of that sausage. Chalk. That’s all I tasted. That, and maybe a little talcum powder.
Warmth And Goodness vs. Tums in A Tube. I was hoping some of the smokiness from the meat would mingle with my entrée, but it didn’t. No amount of mustard—not even the thick, grainy stuff—could save it.
So I found myself relying heavily on pizza and veggie burritos. It was during this early stage of the experiment that I learned my most valuable lesson: it’s easy to be a vegetarian, but that’s not necessarily a good thing.
In committing myself to quitting meat cold, ahem, turkey, I took an “any means necessary” approach and missed the whole point.
I convinced myself that because I was steering clear of meat, I could eat anything else I wanted. I don’t even like sweets, but I made a point to eat dessert every night because, heck, I deserved to, didn’t I?
This cheese-and-chocolate diet wasn’t doing me any favors. I could feel my mood darken and my energy wane. I had gone from thinking I ate like a Middle Ages peasant to actually eating like a medieval king—the kind who dies of gout on his throne.
With fewer than two weeks remaining in what was shaping up to be a failed experiment, I knew it was time to shake it up.
I tried my hand at recipes that, weeks prior, I wouldn’t have given a chance. Things like cauliflower rice, which, as it turns out, is delicious (though, rice rice still has the edge in my book).
Then I asked my vegetarian friends for their favorite brands of meatless sausages. Apparently, the one I had chosen to grill was a dud even amongst vegans.
Turns out there are plenty of very good options, and some are downright delicious.
This experience served me a much-needed reminder that being a healthy eater means being an adventurous eater.
Sure, sticking with just the foods I know I like makes for a diet of convenience, but it also makes for a diet of boredom. Going vegetarian taught me the importance of trying new things, which is a lesson I’ll take with me even when I start eating meat again.
I had to force myself to eat a quinoa kale quiche, and despite my skepticism, it wound up being my favorite meal of the entire month. These are the kinds of pleasant surprises that can happen when you push yourself outside your comfort zone.
Was I still craving meat? A little.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel a pang of jealousy whenever I fed my dog her food from a bag that boasted its high content of real venison.
Despite this, I wound up staying a vegetarian two days after my goal. I’d love to say this was because of my tremendous willpower, but it’s mostly due to the fact that we had some leftover meals in the fridge that had to be eaten.
On the third day, I ate a Philly cheesesteak. It was terrific. I’d love to try a meatless version if anyone has any recommendations.