I was a vegetarian once before. When I was eight. Or maybe it was ten. Either way, I was too young to know what the hell I was doing. I was doing it to be different. Mr. Meat-and-Potatoes loved steak. I, knowing I did not want to be like my father from a young age, did not want to like steak. I refused to eat it. I'm sure I made up some inane excuses to go along with my denials of the tender-cooked cow, too.
I didn't eat steak, I was a rebel. I was breaking down walls left and right. Child prodigy who would be the first vegetarian in the family. Until my mom would serve shrimp. Or even chicken. But only sometimes chicken, if it wasn't with the typical salt-pepper-paprika seasoning she would put on it. If I saw it coming out of the over, I had new religious concerns to fear for, I couldn't eat that meat, it'd be breaking a law. Mind you, I was raised a Catholic, both my parents were Catholic, and it was no where near Lent. I wasn't such a fan of pork either, so I did everything in my power to ignore the meat on the table. By the grace of God my parents did not make me sit at the table and finish every meal or resort to locking me in a cage with the foods I did not like. Although it might have been fun to sit in a cage. Maybe.
I didn't just not eat meat though, oh no, I hated other foods too. The super villain of the non-meat foods was stuffing. Stoffer's instant stuffing, an amalgam og dehydrated bread and God knows what else, was on my hit list also. My older sister loved it. And my dad ate it too. Naturally, this someone translated into I will never eat this food. If I was smart (I wasn't), I could've cited the fact that it was fake, that it wasn't homemade like my mom made every thanksgiving, christmas and easter. If I was smart I would've played to my mom's vanity, using the position of loved son to gently bring her to my side to see, hey, it's okay if my dear, darling son doesn't want to eat the food I slaved over. He has moral objections to the meat and doesn't believe in processed foods. Boy, he sure is a smart little kid. No such luck. Instead, from what I can remember, many meals were spent sitting at the kitchen table, my arms crossed in front of me, pouting. I'd push the vegetables or whatever was on my plate around a little bit, audibly and over-dramatically sigh, and go back to pouting. If I were my father, I would've reached across the table and slapped me. Luckily, though, no such thing ever materialized.
I didn't understand vegetarianism then. I had no idea about the production of meat--the trip from cramped pasture to slaughterhouse to market to table-- and I wouldn't have cared had I known. I know now exactly what goes on and it doesn't bother me in the least. As a child I was weird, to say the least, and the thought of blood and gore, like in any young boy who is even only slightly right in his mind, would only evoke the words "awesome" and "cool" from my mouth. Blood and gore are fine as an eight-year-old when it is far off, distant and untouchable. Foreign to my eyes. Sure, I had seen people reduced to a few teeth and a shoelace in action movies, but that was the movies. From a young age my dad, after any movie would look over at me, curled up onto myself, eyes wide, and say, "It's all fake, you know. That is just ketchup and right after it happens the director calls cut and everyone goes to get a cup of coffee." Not until much later did I make the connection between ketchup that I would use to create mass lava flows on my french fries with and the fake movie blood my dad had said was a tomato-based product. Blood. Ketchup. Eat. Vampire!
Why couldn't I have made that connection before? It would've been so awesome to be a vampire, or to at least say I was sort of a vampire for sort of eating blood that may have been ketchup used as blood in a movie one time across the country in Hollywood. Okay, looking at that now it looks inane and I feel dumber for typing it, but, I am confident that my eight-year-old brain would've thought that. I was that dumb.
(I would write more, i would, but I completely lost myself and don't feel like getting sorted out right now. More later)
(I realize I have some information that concerns a time span after this, work with me here. Also, all of these posts will probably be wrong, I urge you to read anyway.)
[Sidebar: In an attempt to prove me wrong, a friend pointed out that not all meat came on bones. For example, KFC's Boneless Buffalo Whatever. I should have something witty to say here, about how I deftly pointed out that the meat originally came off of a bone--I hope--but no. I just told her she was wrong, reasserting that I am not the King of Quick Thinking.)
Criminals on death row don't have it this bad. At least after they get their last meal they don't have to worry about food anymore. Sizzle sizzle and off they go into sweet, sweet oblivion. Or hell. Or wherever they think they are off too. Sure, they die, but I mean, they shouldn't have gone on a twenty-day murder and rape spree that spanned the Greater (insert large city name) area.Ya win some, ya lose some and right now I'm on the losing end. I will not go down without a fight though. I will have my hands curled around something that was once alive until 11:59PM ET. Only then will I let go, probably crying hysterically, and try to move on. Like a baby's favorite toy, I can see it being pulled from my fingers by someone who I can only identify by his or her boots (think Nanny from Muppet Babies).
I decided to make my last supper last as long as possible. I would start in the morning, eat small meals throughout the day and culminate at 11:59. It would would be a smorgasbord of bovine, ovine, swinish, avian and piscine delight. And who knows, if I had a hot dog or Chinese food, there could be meats I had never though to eat before in there, too.(Raccoon anyone? A little bit of Moo Goo Gai Kitty, anyone?) I'm glad I won't know either, the only other words I can think of to describe animals would be feline and canine, after that, I'm lost. Raccoonine just doesn't sound right.
I started out at a New Jersey staple, the diner, for a nice big, cholesterol-shocked breakfast. I managed to have not just (pork?) sausage, but a couple of bacon strips and a few slices of taylor ham along with my eggs. Knowing I wouldn't be eating these things for a while made them more flavorful then ever before. It is like that last scoop of iced cream you get from your favorite place before it closes for the winter. As it melts in your mouth you finally take the time, after having mindlessly swallowed the treat all summer, to swish the cream around, feel the sugar as it coats your molars, realize the chunks of still partially-frozen fudge there as they knock against the roof of your mouth. You do this, eyes closed, perhaps, until you hear the plastic spoon scraping the bottom of the paper cup. The muted shh, shh, shh of your last bit of good iced cream for eight months. That was what it was like, but with ground up meat forced into intestinal casing. I was thinking in cliches while I ate, of Babe, of Wilbur from Charlotte'ss Web, of SpiderPig, even, while I ate.
Living in North Carolina, the home of some of the best Barbeque out there, giving up pig would be tough. Not being able to eat the tender, moist flesh roasted for hours in its own juices and specialy made sauce, then delicately pulled from its bone home, irked me. I hadn't been a real fan of barbeque at first--I grew up in New Jersey, a "barbeque" for us was Dad grilling hot dogs or maybe steaks during the summer, letting the smoke fill our porch and sting my eyes as I sat there, waiting for the occasional flare-up from below the food as a globule of fat would fall onto the charcoal and flames.
I learned, though. I learned fast that wasn't barbeque. Barbeque was taking a pig, forcefully pushing a hard metal pole through it end to end, and roasting that sucker till the flesh was the same color of a tomato and you could pick at it and get maximum return for little effort. Chopped or pulled, it doesn't matter now, just scoop some onto a plate and let me go at it. That thought, was one I had pondered long before finally deciding on doing this for the month. Living in NC and not eating the 'Cue would be like living on a houseboat and not eating fish. So abundant, yet so out of reach. I was beginning to see how horses in cartoons felt when people held carrots on strings in front of the horses' eyes. Those cruel, cruel bastards.
The bacon and taylor ham were equally more succulent than ever before. The eggs and potatoes and toast that came with it I could have cared less about. This wasn't about them, right now. This was mano-a(e?)-meato. My mother, looking at the pile of pink flesh in front of me just shook her head.
"You're your father's son, that's for sure," she said. It stopped me for a moment. Despite the carnal mouth orgy I was planning on participating fully in today, I didn't, and couldn't do it every day. I had meat, yeah, but not piles of it at every meal. I treated it like other food. I had it in moderation. I know my dad is a meat and potatoes guy. Always was and will be until the day he dies, but I hoped that, in my absence, he would not do this regularly. All these meats together created a flatline waiting to happen. How could anyone eat this much unhealthy meat often. People did, I'm sure--just took platefuls of greasy, limp bacon at all you can eat buffets everyday, everywhere--but I just had to hope it wasn't my father. If it was, I thought, I'd have to start finding ways to sabotage the company we got our meat from. I'd prefer the breadwinner of my family alive for as long as possible--he was paying for part of my college, after all.
Having packed away enough for two heart attacks in one meal, I took a break. I was far from done, but I didn't want to get sick. Throwing up would just be a waste of time at this point. It was crunch time, overtime, sudden death.
I neglected to have a real meal for lunch. I was banking on having a nice steak at a fancy steakhouse for dinner. I'd take a full cow or a full pig, but living in the suburbs restricts the amount of livestock I see on a daily basis to, well, none. Instead, I'd order a large prime rib, pinkish-red in the middle, still able to bleed when press lightly with a fork. I could see myself looking at the baked potato in its foil cocoon and slapping it aside. I didn't need a baked potato, that was just room that could be devoted to meat. I wondered if they'd let me top the steak with another steak, like a garnish. Parsley? Hah. Parsley is for people who don't go to the dinner table and mean business. I meant business. To fill time before dinner, I coached my stomach, prepping it for the night ahead. Though the steak would be the main course, I had other food I needed to eat, too.
"You can do this, you've had big steaks before," I said repeatedly. My stomach remained silent. I figured it was just taking it all in, being stoic before the fight.
"You're a starved lion, take the meat for all its worth. Ingest and dissolve with your crazy acids, and then ingest some more." Silence again. This was good, my stomach was a good listener/learner.
"Just remember, steak is round one. The hardest round, yes, but still only round one. There are other animals out there too. Chickens. Fish. We need to conquer them all also."
It was around six and my father and I were on our way to TGI Fridays. It wasn't the elegant steak dinner I was envisioning--low light, dark wood tables, a large hunk of dead cow--but it would have to do.
"You know," he began, turning down the Doobie Brothers just enough to be heard. "I almost wish you wouldn't do this."
"Okay," I said. What was I supposed to say to that? Sure, Dad, I'll stop right now. He exercises control over me to a point. In the food world, a man who cannot keep up with his son in the eating department, one that won't even try, is not worthy of food-oriented respect. I was on a mission, here, and he wouldn't stop me.
"It isn't going to change how or what I eat."
There is was. The there-is-some-plot-against-my-diet-type line I had heard before. When I am home and I cook dinner, I have to be careful. I can't be creative, I can't add flare or even a little spice. Granted, my dad's stomach is weak and can't take heat, but he isn't willing to try things that aren't simple either. He thought I was doing this to try and change him. If I wanted to change him, I would just harass him into doing it. It wouldn't work, because he is stubborn and way on his way to being a crotchety old man, but that is how I would go about it. Clearly, he missed out on the part of my childhood and teenage years where I developed the same stubbornness that he has, the same ability to be a dick, basically (which was fostered not only by my father but the fact I went to an all guy's school, where it was learn to be a dick or drown in dick-related jokes and the shame of not knowing how to bully someone lesser than you around at any given time.)
"I'm not trying to change you, I know you won't," I said.
"Good." And that was that for mindless car chatter.
Even though I was hoping for a grand last meal, in a way Friday's was a comforting end. The food, while okay, isn't the best. It is at the same quality level of every chain restaurant out there. Good for mass appeal, but falling short on anything that can be considered gourmet. By going here instead of another place, I'd have my steak, but it wouldn't be a steak that I would dream about. I wouldn't see myself happily running through a field with it, dancing and partying with it. I'd eat it and that would be it. And, when the New York Strip I ordered came out, I could tell right away that was the kind of meal it was going to be. As my dad dug into his the baby back ribs he ordered, I scraped off the "Argentinean Rub" that came on the steak. Last time I checked, pesto with an additive to make it spicier was not Argentinean. I had no idea what all was in it, but it looked like ground up baby vomit, a brutal mix the color of a fresh asparagus and tar smoothie.
Despite ordering medium-rare, it came out closer to well done, sidewalk gray on the inside and tough between my teeth. This is not how I wanted to go out. I wanted blood to seep, meat to give like muscles getting a Swedish massage. This was chewing old Playdough. Coupled with instant mashed potatoes, the meal was fantastically plain. Being served in a cast iron skillet to "preserve the flavor" did nothing. All it translated to was that the steak was served on a black plate and not a white one.
Having eaten meal number one, I had crossed off two meats from my list--I had consumed beef and pork already, leaving chicken and fish left for the rest of the night. I had four hours left before midnight and Zero hour.
I didn't have time to rest after dinner. I was running out of time. I decided my next stop would be sushi. The place in town I normally went to, a small shop seated amid a thai, chinese, and Asian "specialty" restaurant, as well as a number of other stores, had closed and reopened under another name, so I had wanted to check it out anyway. The place was empty when I walked in and I was greeted immediately by the hostess. Were they desperate for business or just very friendly? I couldn't tell. I ordered my sushi, surprising them, I think, with my use of the Japanese names for the fish instead of the English words printed on the menu.
Eel and Tuna, two of my favorites. I would've the individual pieces with fish on top, sashimi (I believe) but I was after quantity here, not quality or variety, and rolls with six pieces each were providing me with the quantity I needed. To complete the sushi portion of my last supper, they gave me some miso soup to accompany the fish. The sushi was okay, not the best but certainly not the worst (you need to go further inland for that. Being only a half hour from a port is good, compared to my school--three or so hours to the nearest beach area). The rice, still a little warm, heated the fish a little too much for my taste, but it was not a terrible detriment to the meal. On my way home, I almost passed completely by the McDonald's parking lot before abruptly flicking the turn signal, cutting in front of a fast approaching SUV and queuing up in the drive-thru lane. To complete my last supper, I needed fast food.
I don't care who says fast food is bad for you or that it is disgusting. Those are mostly the same people who point to Supersize Me and point as if that is the gospel on the subject. I calmly remind them he chose to do that. That he ate it three times every day. (In a way, I thought, I was like him, but better looking and less dumb. Slightly less dumb, at least...I wouldn't become obese no matter how hard I tried) If anyone did that willingly, they'd just be, for lack of any word to express the true idiocy of that, a fucking moron. As a treat though, or an occasional meal, no one can go wrong with a hot, cheap fast food meal.
There is absolutely nothing like a cheeseburger from McDonald's. Everything is so fake, so processed, that no amount of trying at home could ever recreate it. The one word that comes to mind is smooth. Almost everything about the standard cheeseburger is smooth. The pickles, sliced so thin they are translucent in the center are as smooth as a calm lake. The only change in texture is when the tongue goes from the main portion to the rind of the pickle, but even then, it goes from smooth to a more waxy smooth giving only slightly less then the inside. The cheese, probably the most process portion of the burger, barely melts on the burger. Again, a perfect surface for ice skating on, no chinks, no errors in production, every slice the same. Tasting of the same yellow American goodness. It envelopes our nation in its little 3 by 3 area--tons of products all put together to get one, generalized being. The ketchup and mustard provide the real flavor on the burger. The ketchup an artificial sweetener of sorts and the mustard giving a tiny little kick. The final part of the concoction, the most important part is the meat. Slightly bumpy and grilled and pressed into a circle the thickness of a matchbook, it comes nowhere close to resembling the animal it once came from. And I love that. I love the institutional floor color of the meat, somewhere between dirty and cloudy sky gray.
When asked a previous time about burgers and after having given my description, someone asked why I loved them.
"I just do." is what I came up with. The burger is so uniform with every other, so unchanging that it offers a spot of comfort.
"What about disease, or dirt, or rat feces?"
"Who cares," I respond. And who does? If you think about it, sure, it could be bad. Just don't think about it. Anthony Bourdain says in his book Kitchen Confidential that our bodies aren't temples. They are amusement parks and we need to have fun with them.
To round out my night, I finished with what I can remember as my first fast food, the almighty Chicken McNugget (Now all white meat!). Those little brown packages of (now) white meat and their crispy tan outsides are the first thing I remember about McDonalds. Sitting with my grandmother, she'd take the box of four out of my Happy Meal bag for me and let me dig in. I'd go for the toy first, of course, but soon after I would be delivered into a little dreamworld for a few minutes as I ate.
Everything, despite mixing sushi with fast food, when down like honey. I waited for repercussions--a quick run to the bathroom to deposit my last meats into the toilet--but no. Thank God it didn't happen. I still had an hour. One more hour of meat. And I couldn't do it. I couldn't eat any more. I was disappointed in myself. I had one more hour for meat and I couldn't force myself to ingest anything, not even a cheap hot dog or something from behind the counter at 7-11. As I stared at the little turning cylinders of meat, whatever kind it was, I frowned. This was it and I wasn't going out with a bang. I was running from the final charge. Was it a sign? Would it make it easier through the month?
Apparently not. I was just full. Five minutes after midnight, after a few deep belches and some pounding on my chest to get tiny burps out, I was hungry again and damnit, I wanted meat.