I’ve been a vegetarian for nearly ten years. My reasons for going vegetarian are many, and it would take several more essays to fully explain why I choose to not eat meat. I’ve never really been fond of animal flesh, even as a child, and would only eat boneless, marinated meat that had been rendered unidentifiable. I have memories of being stuck at the dinner table for hours because I wouldn’t eat even try bite of fried fish. My family jokes that I don’t eat anything “˜that has a face’. I finally decided to take the plunge into veghead territory when, as a college student in New Zealand, I was having a late night pizza binge and watching the Simpsons. In the episode Homer is dreaming that he’s on a giant monopoly board, and he walks up to a pig in a top hat. “˜Take a bite of me,’ entices the pig, “˜I’m delicious!’ And Homer takes a bite out of the talking pig and much nom nom nom ensues. Meanwhile, the pig, with a giant bite taken out of his arm, waves Homer away happily. So I’m sitting here, eating a chicken and bacon covered pizza with gusto, and suddenly, I’m nauseous. Just seeing Homer Simpson take a bite out of an animated pig was enough to turn me vegetarian. It’s stuck for 10 years, so I’m guessing at this point it’s permanent.
Being a vegetarian amongst many carnivores, for me, is an easy enough compromise. My husband eats meat, and I’ve taken it upon myself to cook for him. I enjoy cooking, and despite my not wanting to eat meat, I feel no need to push my own agenda on him. Cooking meat doesn’t particularly bother me unless it’s something especially disgusting or involved. I enjoy making things for him that I know he’ll appreciate, and it lets me flex my culinary chops where meat is concerned, since I don’t often get a chance. In turn, I’ve been able to influence him into trying things like tofu and seitan, Morningstar and Quorn products, and other vegetarian friendly fare; things he’d probably never have tried were it not for me. Between us we’ve found a happy balance in meals, and I enjoy preparing and cooking meals for our family despite the differences in our diets.
When it comes to my son, things are somewhat more complicated. He’s 18 months old and has never eaten meat. When people ask me if I’m raising a vegetarian, it’s hard for me to answer. I’m not necessarily raising a vegetarian – I’m just feeding him a vegetarian diet until he’s old enough to express a preference. Whether that occurs at age 2 or age 12, whenever he asks to try meat he will have the right to do so.
It surprises people sometimes when I tell them that one of my culinary heroes is Paula Deen. I adore Paula, not just because she’s from my home state of Georgia, sounds like Scarlett O’Hara and treats butter like edible gold, but because she cooks and prepares meals for the same reasons I do.
Paula Deen cooks with love. She recognizes the sentiments and emotions behind food, why people love certain cuisines so passionately and why you never forget certain meals. I love that every dish Paula Deen makes has a story behind it, an anecdote that will keep you laughing. She’s an incredible, and I think underrated cook (much of her actual talent is, in my opinion, dwarfed by her larger than life personality and reputation as an “˜unhealthy’ influence on cooking) who knows what makes ingredients “˜good’ and what makes food great. She doesn’t rely on the most expensive ingredients in the market, and she doesn’t have 20-step recipes that would have inexperienced chefs quaking in their boots. She doesn’t have such high aspirations. You might see a box-cake mix in her cabinet from time to time, or pre-shredded cheese in her biscuits. I think Paula Deen puts more emphasis on the end result of her food, and for that reason, it’s amazing. It is what goes into the loving preparation of her food that matters more than the ingredients themselves.
Sure, Paula Deen is more of a brand these days than anything, but I bet if you asked her plainly what her favorite food-related memory was from the past decade, she’d relate something to do with her sons, or her husband, or something family-oriented. She makes no bones about the fact that she loves to prepare food for and with her family members and loved ones. She’s always surrounded by people, by animals, and by loving experiences. She radiates joy and kinship, and it comes out in her food. I think it is more this, than the tubs of “˜more butter y’all”˜, that really shines in her recipes and has made her a success.
So no, I won’t be making her lobster shooters, sliders, or her chicken divan. But what I can take away from Paula is the knowledge that cooking is more than just a science. It is an enjoyable experience through and through, something to be undertaken with love and attention to detail, but not too much – there is always room for error if you have the right attitude. And finally, humor. It doesn’t matter if you burn something, add too much jalapeno, or it just doesn’t taste quite right. Just laugh at yourself and start over again. Cooking is meant to be easy going and enjoyable, the labors of which are to be savored with family and friends. She’s the reason that I undertake steak dinners for my family, knowing full well that I could screw it up beyond recognition.
You’ll never see Paula Deen on an episode of Iron Chef, pretentiously arranging slices of tuna tartare over a bed of arugula greens. You’ll see her throwing that tuna into a casserole and topping it with ritz crackers, licking leftovers off a spoon. There’s something to be said for that kind of gumption and no-frills attitude with food. It has its place in my heart, anyway, and reassures me that whatever my own culinary preferences, I too can cook delicious food to my heart’s content, even if it isn’t perfect at all times.
Paula Deen is the reason that I actually took the time to brine a tofurky this year. Laugh if you want, but I did it with love. And boy was it delicious.
Image credit – The Food Network