"I know they have salad, honey," said my father as we made our way to dinner. "And you can probably get a side of vegetables, too."
I was 11—two months into my tenure as a vegetarian—and already unbelievably tired of salads and "sautéed button mushrooms," always doused in butter and served in a little gravy boat. I sighed from the backseat of the car and thought about how my stomach was probably becoming an internal fungus farm, nurtured on a bed of iceberg lettuce and growing a bit each time I drank anything.
Like most kids, I loved animals, a commitment confirmed by the tapes I made on the bright red Fisher-Price recorder my parents bought me in grade school. They would ask me the standard parent-child questions: What's your favorite animal? What do you like to do for fun? What do you want to be when you grow up? My favorite animal is a kitty. For fun, I like to play with our kitty. When I grow up, I want to be a kitty.
My consistency troubled my mother, who once suggested that I eat kibble in order to see if I truly wanted to live the life of a cat. It was a good test; in addition to loving animals, I also loved to eat. I tried the cat food—on all fours, even—right out of the dish. That marked the last time I claimed "a kitty" as my future career choice.
While I grew out of the cat thing, I only got more enthusiastic about food. In sixth grade, my after-school routine included frying up an entire pack of bacon while making three ham sandwiches and a chocolate milkshake. One day, something inside my young brain clicked: My two loves, animals and meat, were one and the same.
"I should become a vegetarian," I thought, tearing open several packets of Carl Buddig deli cuts with my teeth. I stuffed the turkey slices into my mouth with the cold enthusiasm of a death-row inmate eating her last meal. I knew I was bidding Mr. Buddig adieu. That was 15 years ago, and the last time I ate meat.
I spent my teenage years ordering meager salads and sides, growling at my dad for taking us to Red Lobster or Outback Steakhouse without bothering to first look at the menu. But it wouldn't have mattered; no one had heard of a "veggie burger" back then. That's changed, and I notice myself browsing menus more often these days. It's not because I've become more interested in meat; it's because restaurants have become more interested in vegetarians.
Last week, my husband and I went to The Fiction Kitchen, a new meatless restaurant in downtown Raleigh. It was a Thursday night, and they were running a 45-minute wait. "Shouldn't I get a FastPass or something?" I thought, half-serious. "I've paid my dues!" My irritation was momentary. Each table was full of tempting fare and wide smiles, and I knew the demand could only mean more vegetarian cuisine in Raleigh's future.
I thought again of my dad, who recently tried The Fiction Kitchen for the first time, on my wedding day. "That was really good," he said. "You know, for fake food." I sighed again, then laughed. For all the progress, I suppose, some things won't ever change.