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A First Flirtation with Meat
It is the week before Saint Patrick's Day, and the butcher shop is awash in green. There are shamrocks decorating the walls, bags of Irish soda bread for sale, offers of free cabbage to go with your corned beef. As the butcher rings up my purchase, he looks up at me.
"Have you ordered your corned beef yet?"
I have never eaten corned beef in my life, but I hesitate to tell the butcher this. He seems so friendly, like a kindly uncle, and I don't want him to think less of me. What is corned beef anyway? I am fairly sure there is no actual corn involved, but you never can tell. I pause, not wanting to come out and say it, but at last I do.
The butcher doesn't say anything, he just stands there, staring at me. Into the gulf of silence between us I toss an excuse, inadequate and offered lamely.
"I'm not Irish?"
He laughs. "You don't have to be Irish to eat corned beef!"
I then begin my confession, the one I shamefacedly pull out in situations like this. "I grew up in a vegetarian household. I don't know what to do with large pieces of meat. They scare me." Understanding begins to dawn on his face.
"If you need any suggestions for how to cook things," he says, "I can help."
I laugh. Me--cook meat? The idea is actually funny.
"Maybe I'll just start at one end of the shop and cook my way to the other," I joke. "I could do a different cut each month." The butcher laughs too, but he is serious in his offer. The idea is terrifying and slightly ridiculous to me, but I realize that, as I leave the store, a seed has been planted.
Could I really learn to cook meat? Would I even want to?
The bigger question, of course, is how does a vegetarian find herself in a butcher shop in the first place? I can count on one hand the number of butcher shops I've been in--two, maybe three. There's never been a need. I don't buy or cook meat, it's as simple as that.
Unlike most vegetarians who adopt the lifestyle as adults or in an act of youthful rebellion, I was raised meat free from birth. My diet consisted of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and tofu, not a bit of flesh in sight. While our neighbors sat down to meat loaf, hot dogs, or fried chicken, my family was tucking into plates of steamed vegetables and brown rice. By the age of 10, I was an expert on millet, barley, and buckwheat. I know the technical difference between tofu and tempeh, but nothing in my background prepared me for blood or bones.
What am I doing in a butcher shop? I can answer that question in two words: doctor's orders. It certainly wasn't my idea.
The problems started when I was about 12--mild fatigue and weight gain after a childhood where I had been lean and active. The doctors diagnosed me as having a low-functioning thyroid gland and prescribed a supplement to correct it. My symptoms persisted, even on the medication. I woke up tired every morning and couldn't lose weight. Around this time I was given a questionnaire that asked: If you could spend a day doing anything in the world, what would it be? Other kids wrote horseback riding or Disneyland. My answer: sleep.
I continued to be active, as much as possible. I ran cross-country in the fall and swam laps before school. As I got older I worked as a backpacking instructor in the summers. I watched my diet as well. Despite plenty of broccoli and salads with no dressing, I remained plump, the only round member of the cross-country team.
My doctor didn't seem worried. Once I started on the thyroid medication my lab results returned to the normal range. According to the numbers, I was fine. The fact that I didn't feel fine seemed a lesser concern.
I muddled through as best I could, exercising and dieting the way they told me to in the magazines. I hoped that if I worked hard enough, I might look like the women I saw in those glossy pages: beautiful, sought after, smiling, happy. At the age of 12, I was waking up early to shower, don a leotard, and do calisthenics before sitting down to a breakfast of half a grapefruit and a slice of dry whole wheat toast.
Still my metabolism wouldn't cooperate. In high school I had a brush with anorexia that lasted about 4 hours. When I skipped breakfast and lunch and came close to fainting in my fourth-period journalism class, I realized that going without food wasn't an option for me. Eating healthfully seemed my best hope, though that didn't work either.
I continued to consult doctors. An endocrine specialist I saw after college told me to limit my carbohydrates and eat more protein. I was living in Japan at the time and horrified my friends and colleagues there by turning down bowls of rice. Instead I ate cartons of low-fat cottage cheese, blocks of tofu, and plenty of vegetables. I even ate fish, which I've never liked. Nothing made a difference. I was always tired, my weight 10 to 20 £ds over where the charts said I should be.
When I returned from Asia, I consulted a naturopathic doctor. He put me on a series of herbal tinctures ordered from Europe, daily doses of barley green powder and rice protein. There were endless tests: blood, saliva, and a hair sample sent off to a faraway lab to check for abnormal levels of heavy metals.
The results seemed to mystify my doctor. More than once he called the lab for confirmation because he had never seen anything like it. I had weird hormone levels, sky-high progesterone ("No wonder you can't lose weight," he said). Perhaps it was the shampoo I was using, he suggested, or a body lotion. I might be sensitive to such things. The lab said they had seen cases like it before.
I systematically discontinued and spoke with the manufacturer of every product that came in contact with my skin, to see if it might be the source of this excess progesterone. They all told me it couldn't possibly be their products making me sick.
Things got worse as time passed. I grew more and more exhausted. Some mornings I woke up and put on my running clothes, as usual, and walked the half block to Golden Gate Park and the beginning of my daily run. I'd stand at the corner waiting for the light to change, and I knew I didn't have it in me. My legs felt weak, my head was light. I couldn't even trust myself to walk the route. What if I passed out and some stranger found me unconscious and crumpled on the sidewalk? I turned around and shuffled the half block home, blinking back tears. I fell into bed, pulled the covers over me, and wept.
When a friend of mine recommended her acupuncturist, saying "She changed my life," it got my attention. Perhaps Chinese medicine held the key to my mysterious health problems. What did I have to lose? I made an appointment.
That afternoon my pulses were timed, my tongue inspected. The acupuncturist told me that my system was weak. This, of course, was no surprise to me.
I should avoid raw foods, she told me, they are hard to digest. Ginseng tea with ginger should be drunk each morning to give warmth. She gave me a small bag of herbs specially selected for my constitution. These are important, she said. They were to be stewed in chicken stock. I should make the stock myself, from chicken bones I could buy at the nearby butcher shop. They weren't on display, but I could ask for them.
"But I don't really eat meat," I explained somewhat apologetically. I always feel bad letting people down.
The acupuncturist brushed off my protest.
"Your system is weak," she repeated. "You need to prioritize your health-- you need to take care of yourself."
Have I not been taking care of myself?
Faced with such a barely veiled accusation, I did the only thing it seemed I could do. I went to the butcher shop.
Drewes Bros. Meats on Church Street in San Francisco is one of those old- school butchers: part meat shop, part community center. The regular customers talk and joke with the butchers and go home with paper-wrapped ribs or roasts under their arms. Kids grow up here, brought in strollers by their parents, then as toddlers and teenagers. There's often a dog tied up out front. Drewes is one of the cornerstones of this sleepy little neighborhood. Established in 1889, it is thought to be the oldest operating butcher shop in California. It is into this piece of San Francisco history that I walk when my acupuncturist sends me in search of chicken bones.
The long glass cases along the left side of the shop are filled with sausages, prepared meat loaves, chicken breasts, fillets, and roasts. There are names I've heard before but do not know what they mean--sirloin, tri tip, porterhouse. As new customers come into the shop, I let them go ahead of me, pretending that I'm weighing the merits of London broil over sirloin. The mere idea is laughable to me--what on earth is a London broil? What's a sirloin? I feel rooted to the spot, too terrified to order, too frightened to leave. I wonder if they've seen my type before: the vegetarian who begins to stray.
One of the butchers looks at me, already impatient. "What can I get you?"
I try to act casual, but I have to clear my throat before I can manage to say "Chicken pieces, for stock." It comes out as more of a squawk than I had planned.
The butcher doesn't seem to notice. He nods and turns away from the display case, disappearing into a door that I imagine leads to some gore-splattered back room. He emerges with a clean plastic bag filled with a large frozen lump. I pay quickly, avoiding all eye contact, and walk off with my shameful purchase. I wonder if I should be emblazoned with a scarlet letter: C, for carnivore.
At home I boil the frozen lump and the acupuncturist's herbs, with as little touching of the meat as possible. The stock tastes awful, bitter from the herbs and slightly medicinal, a fact I take comfort in. This is something I am doing for a doctor, after all. I'm certainly not buying meat for my own pleasure. That would be bad.
I don't yet know that this bowl of chicken stock will set in motion a journey, an inquiry that will lead me to reevaluate the basic assumptions of my childhood, to question my place in the world and the nature of our humanity. Like Persephone and the pomegranate, a mere taste will irrevocably change my life.
Who knew a bag of chicken parts could get a girl into so much trouble?