I remember walking down Channing Way in Berkeley with a mediocre slice of Blondie’s pizza in hand, stopping, looking down at the three-ingredient special and saying, “This tastes like something… I know it… something I’ve had before.”
This was freshman year, the final week of March and the first week of my triumphant return to omnivorism. I’d been playing vegetarian for two years, and everything was unfamiliar.
“Can you try this? Tell me what it is,” I said to my friend Bihn. As a childhood fan of Hawaiian pizzas, I had known all about the mysticism of Canadian bacon. This time, I was fooled. After two years, I’d forgotten how some things tasted.
Bihn took a quick bite, looked at me cross-eyed and said, “It’s bacon, you idiot.”
“Oh.” I squinted my eyes toward the ham-shaped morsels. Bacon. In two years, nothing had come close to that particular flavor.
The twist here is that, between the ages of sixteen and eighteen, I couldn’t have cared less – before I turned vegetarian, I didn’t really care for bacon. Actually, I didn’t care for the meat-inclusive culinary arts in general, and at the tail end of two meatless years, I hadn’t missed anything. People who know me now might be shocked to learn: Before I turned vegetarian, I was a picky eater.
That’s why the final week of March, 2003 turned out to be so interesting. Spending two years unable to try so many new foods inflamed my curiosity. For the first time, I wanted to try everything and for the first time in two years, I was able. My first meal was Thai duck curry, because I’d never had duck before. My second meal was pho, because I’d never had flank, tendon or tripe before. Each consecutive meal became another excuse to experience something new, and despite my inexperienced digestive system, I learned to love it all.
Of course, months passed, and by 2004, my carnivorous dining experiences lost their novelty. My meals would have sputtered into normality if I hadn’t come across the book Confessions of Zeno by Italo Svevo at around the same time. Confessions of Zeno is a fictional psychoanalysis by the lesser talented Italian friend of James Joyce. The first chapter of the novel (the only chapter I liked) is dedicated to Zeno’s unusual addiction to cigarettes. Zeno’s addiction was more specific than the usual smoker’s habit. After numerous attempts at quitting, Zeno learned to love, specifically, the final drag of his last cigarette each time he tried to quit. Soon Zeno realized that he craved that final drag more than the cigarettes themselves; he was addicted to quitting.
The confessions of Zach are equally melodramatic. Spurred by Italo Svevo and the memory of that last week of March 2003, I annually inconvenience friends and family to go vegetarian for three or so months. I forcefully abstain from some of my favorite foods, because, like Zeno, I crave the ritual of quitting. Going on and off a diet grants otherwise normal meals the status of such special occasions as “Last Smothered Chicken Supper” and “Carne Asada Homecoming.”
I go veggie for three to five months – as opposed to two years – because, well, I don’t want to abstain too long. Three to five months is about how long it takes for me to starting missing certain meals. For the first three months of vegetarianism, dining is just different. I make some new menu choices and write different grocery lists. After three months, I start to miss some basic American foods. Hamburgers. BBQ pork. Pollo mole negro. Once that feeling hits, I return to humanity’s meat-eating state before the next stage of vegetarianism can take its toll.
Given enough time, I can appreciate Chez Frankenstein’s attempts at recreating meat. Even if you haven’t lived the veggie life, you’ve probably come across a fair share of diners carrying Garden Burgers, Thai restaurants offering imitation chicken, taquerias with Soyrizo breakfast burritos, Vietnamese cafes featuring mock duck or supermarkets stocking Smart Bacon (pictured above). Call them creative ways to deliver protein to the herbivore, but don’t deny that they’re also catering to the ex-omnivore’s nostalgia.
I’ve ordered a BBQ pulled-wheat gluten sandwich before. I’ve had that long look in the mirror.
I don’t have trouble, then, sympathizing with Veg-N-Out’s creepy reconstruction of Carl’s Jr’s classic Bacon Western Cheeseburger. An eight dollar burger without the ironic title, it gives vegetarians exactly what they’re looking for… if they’re looking for a monstrously unhealthy meal that is reminiscent of southwestern-styled fast food. Veg-N-Out makes its own meatless patties, includes a decent array of ingredients and has a burger menu as large as that of any Island’s restaurant. The patty is good, but not beefy, and the fake bacon is… well, you know, even dogs know it ain’t bacon. A professional omnivore would be unimpressed and a part-timer like myself would be happy eating for half the price at Denny’s with a Boca Burger substitution.
I won’t begrudge full-time vegetarians for satisfying their faux-carnivorism at a place like Veg-N-Out, because I admire the commitment required to avoid a real hamburger for so long – on my best try, I only lasted two years. Once that nostalgic desire meal kicks in, I break my diet and go for the real thing, because sinking my teeth into a choice burger after missing the memory for some time is a wonderful reminder at how delicious an everyday meal can be.
I’m currently on my second month of this year’s veggie stint, and this time my girlfriend is joining me on my crackpot diet. I would never recommend my silly dining habits to someone else, but I can’t forget how much going vegetarian changed my life. Sometimes I have to stand idly by while people order the same thing over and over again – the dietary equivalent of a nine-to-five job – and I remember that I used to be that person. When I find myself standing in that line, I’m quick to recall that last week of March, 2003.
Then, like anyone else who approaches food Homerically, I take up Zeno’s Sisyphean pursuit of satisfaction and leap back onto the produce wagon. You know, for three to five months. Until fake bacon starts to taste good.
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