Guys, I have a confession: I was a vegetarian for 17 years, but I didn’t do it for the animals. In fact, the Wilburs, Bessies, Babes, and all the other adorably long-lashed barnyard denizens were the furthest thing from my mind. Nope, I became vegetarian for one man, and one man only — Morrissey.
At 15, I was deep, deep in the throes of my love for the high priest of misery. I bought Morrissey glasses, which was harder to do in the pre-Warby early '90s, when the only specs you could find were the bookish wire frames that are big in Bushwick these days. I talked like Morrissey, convinced I wielded his Wildean wit whenever I hurled "vulgar" at the popular girls' backs. I listened to Patti Smith and Sparks records (let's just say I wasn't really ready for Patti at 15). So, the first time I heard The Smiths’ queasy ode to anti-vivisection “Meat Is Murder,” I was instantly changed. “If Morrissey’s a vegetarian, I’ll be a vegetarian, too,” I thought. And so it was — I'd accepted the Word of Moz into my heart, chapter and verse. And I vowed to never eat meat again.
Aside from a harrowing relapse with Chinese takeout two weeks after my conversion (curse you, General Tso!), I was completely abstinent for 17 years, resisting all manner of meaty temptations. On vacation in the Virgin Islands, I turned down jerk chicken roti, pork paté, and mountains of fresh seafood wrapped in banana leaves and roasted over a beach fire pit. Instead, I dutifully prepared a dusty box of Goya red beans and rice gleaned from the local market. In Brittany, I eschewed mouthwatering jambon galettes for cold three-cheese sandwiches on soggy baguettes. Intent on exploring my ethnic heritage the fun way (read: by eating), I bought a Puerto Rican cookbook, and promptly learned that I couldn’t eat chicharrón, carne guisada, bacalaítos, or pretty much anything else in it, save the saffron rice.
Still, I never felt deprived. After years as a junk-food vegetarian who ate Oreos and Baked Lays for dinner (a packet of ramen noodles if I was feelin’ fancy), I decided I'd better learn to cook, you know, actual food. With Julie Sahni at my side, I made massive pots of aloo gobi to bring to potlucks, house shows, and socialist student meetings (nerd alert, I know). I mashed tiny, fiery red peppers with garlic in my mortar and pestle to create luxurious Thai coconut curries and spicy peanut noodles. I fed countless grateful boyfriends and roommates my signature harissa spaghettini with olive tapenade. My made-to-order crepe parties were legendary. I ate fields of kale, vats of hummus, mountains of brown rice. I learned to make beans, eggs, and tempeh, that mighty triumvirate of vegetarian protein, countless ways. Food and cooking became a part of my identity and how I connected with people. I loved the way I ate, and, having been raised on bowls of cereal and Wonderbread for dinner, I loved that I was finally getting to know food.
Over time, my vegetarianism developed a moral dimension, too. Reading Marion Nestle’s Food Politics and Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation taught me about the horrors of agribusiness, its mistreatment of animals, and the icky things that make it into our meat — let’s just say Schlosser's chapter on pus in the U.S. food supply made me double-down on my "veg for life" pledge. I read Carol J. Adams' brilliant and seminal The Sexual Politics of Meat, which linked the exploitation of women to that of animals, and for the first time understood why so many women identify with the plight of animals. I never proselytized, but I was deeply proud to be a vegetarian, and to have opted out of an inherently exploitative system.
But, at a certain point the wheels fell off. After over 15 years eating in a way that I believed to be both morally right and healthy, I had a revelation — that I didn’t feel healthy. And, I sort of couldn't remember a time when I had. I got sick a lot. Depression and anxiety were constant problems. I slept too much at night, napped like an AARP member in the afternoon, and still had no energy.
And, I never felt truly satisfied with my food. I'd always had a healthy appetite, but at a certain point, I realized that I was the only one who always went back for "thirdsies." Besides all those healthy greens and protein, my diet had a dark side: I also had a bottomless appetite for bread and sweets that felt more compulsive than carefree "guilty pleasure" (ever wake up in the middle of the night to make, and eat, an entire batch of crepes? I have!). I struggled with my weight even when I ran 30 miles a week, gaining and losing the same 20 pounds most of my adult life. Over time, weight got harder to lose, so I started experimenting with juice cleanses, raw veganism, American Spirits, and every other unsustainable fad diet and depressingly ascetic eating plan Gwyneth Paltrow could name.
Despite the fact that my diet lacked red meat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and all those other enemies of health we’ve been trained to avoid since the Nixon era, despite the fact that I exercised and meditated and did acupuncture and took supplements and generally tried to maintain as chirpy and cheery an outlook as is possible for a natural born cynic, I felt the exact, diametric opposite of healthy. I felt, in a word, like crap.
And, despite the fact that my low-fat, grain-and-legume-filled diet looked exactly like the USDA food pyramid we'd all been trained to follow, I began to suspect that my eating habits might be the thread that connected my moods, my weight issues, and my complete lack of satiety. I finally admitted to myself that all the greens and superfoods in the world couldn't make up for the effect grains and sugar were having on my body. After 17 years of tinkering with a vegetarian diet, it just wasn't working for me. I needed a major change — like, quick, before my latest crash diet veered into ABC Afterschool Special territory.
So, in June, I committed to a way of eating that I’d freely dismissed as “insane” for years: the paleo diet. Yeah, the caveman thing: no grains, no sugar, no legumes, no junk or processed food — that is to say, all the foods I had a tortuous, love-hate relationship with. What paleo does offer lots of: veggies (obviously not a problem for me) and fat. Delicious, unctuous, satisfying, previously forbidden fat. Coconut cream in my coffee and veggies sautéed in enough butter to wake Julia Child from the dead — that was easy to get into. But, paleo also typically includes meat. For a week, I tried to do paleo as a vegetarian, which is kind of like trying to be a pacifist serial killer. I quickly realized that if I wanted to subsist on more than steamed kale and fried eggs, I’d have to make peace with meat.
For a 17-year vegetarian, it wasn’t easy eating salmon for the first time (ever!). Chicken was harder than salmon, possibly due to raw chicken's unfortunate resemblance to a placenta. Steak was
even harder than chicken — just kidding, steak was easy because holy crap, steak is freaking delicious. But, overall, it was a bumpy transition, both mentally and, um, gut-wise. Let’s just say that any longtime vegetarians making the switch back to meat would be wise to stock up on these.
However, after those first few bumpy weeks, the benefits started piling up fast. My mood got better. Like, way better. I discovered that "morning person" was, in fact, a real thing, and, even more stunningly: I became one. Ever bounded out of bed two hours before your alarm to drink tea, read paperbacks, and watch the sun rise? Turns out, that doesn't just happen on Cupcakes and Cashmere, guys: It happens in real life, too. Better still, my new fatty, protein-y diet kept my energy levels steady throughout the day; no more napsies or falling asleep on the subway home for me.
There were cognitive benefits, too. My short-term memory, usually a reliable source of frustration and forgotten names, suddenly improved. I didn’t have to “dig” for words anymore. I felt more motivated at work and my writing got sharper and funnier (my editors may disagree). I think my brain had been starving for healthy fats, and that tragic half-teaspoon of olive oil on a salad from my dieting days wasn't cutting it.
I'd be lying if I said I wasn't secretly hoping for paleo to carve Gisele's body out of my regular one. Aside from a few initial pounds lost, it didn't. I still have a very healthy appetite, and despite what the more snake-oily paleo blogs will tell you, calories definitely still count. If you're capable of grubbing like it's your job, then yes, you can gain weight while eating paleo. But, for me, it leveled out my cravings and made it easier for me to eat a normal amount of food. I still love food and cooking, but I think about it when it's time to eat, not constantly in between. No more midnight crepes for me.
I don't have a great answer for the moral part of this equation. I buy meat as ethically as I can afford to, but I'm still not completely comfortable with the fact that animals die for me to eat this way. The best answer I can come up with is that for me, paleo is a form of self-care, one that has helped me manage my moods and largely freed me from a compulsive way of eating that was only getting worse over time. Most people still seem to think of paleo as an overly restrictive eating disorder, but to me, that's exactly what paleo liberated me from. Skipping toast and "just" eating a three-egg omelet and bacon for breakfast doesn't feel like deprivation to me. Punishing myself for last night's second helping of pasta with a two-day water fast — that was deprivation. And, with paleo, I'm off that roller coaster for good.
In the end, I don't at all regret going back to meat. After nearly two decades of endless tinkering with a vegetarian diet, I can safely say that it wasn't for me. I'm really, really grateful that I found this way of eating because it's the only way that's ever felt sane and sustainable to me. And, yeah, I'm grateful for all the Wilburs and Bessies that end up on my plate, too. I wish I'd made the switch years earlier — I probably would have been a lot more fun if I hadn't been on a damn diet my whole adult life. Meat just works better for my body, and I feel okay about that. Just, uh, don't tell Morrissey, okay?