I GREW UP IN YOUR AVERAGE AMERICAN HOUSEHOLD. WE
ate cold cereal for breakfast, ham and cheese sandwiches and potato chips for lunch, pork chops and applesauce for dinner, and homemade chocolate chip cookies for dessert. It was a different time, and eating healthy meant adding just one teaspoon of sugar to a bowl of Honey Nut Cheerios, eating the crust in addition to the innards of a Wonder Bread sandwich, and drinking a large glass of milk to wash down that chocolate chip cookie.
I don't fault my parents for feeding me something close to the Standard American Diet. It was, after all, the standard. My mom was, and still is, an excellent cook, and with my chin eagerly perched on the kitchen counter, I watched in awe as she moved around our tiny kitchen. From my waisthigh view, I learned how to slice vegetables with my fingers curled under, to not overmix my cake batter and that a canister of whipped cream makes excellent "Christmas trees" on an outstretched index finger. But of all the food lessons I learned from my family, the most important one was the value of eating dinner as a family almost every night. Sharing a meal that was lovingly prepared by my mother around a table with my brothers and my parents was more important than what was on our plates.
Even so, I made the connection early on in life that some choices are healthier than others. My dad was a smoker when I was born, and you can bet, as soon as Daddy's Little Girl figured out that they weren't called "cancer sticks" by chance, all it took were a few tears and an "I love you, Daddy" to change minds and hearts. My husband ("Pea Daddy") has had many similar experiences as a father, most often involving something pink, frilly or an impossibly small waist, blond hair, and feet that were just made for high heels. After my appeal to my dad that night, I awoke to find a carton of my father's cigarettes in the trash can. He never smoked again. This was my first lesson in the power of tears as a tool of manipulation, to be used less sincerely throughout my childhood and adult life. More important though, in that moment, seeing my dad's Marlboros sticking out of the can underneath the kitchen sink, I realized that parents aren't perfect and sometimes have to admit that they are wrong.
That lesson hit home in a different way many years later while having a snack with my daughter Gigi. She was happily munching on some orange wedges that were notsohappily dripping down her face and onto her Gymboree shirt that I paid far too much for. As I sipped my third Diet Coke of the day and munched on a handful of Sweet 'n Salty Chex Mix, she did what all kids do and begged for what I had. I told her no, that soda and junk food were bad for her. I cringed when I thought of caffeine, aspartame and artificial coloring streaming through her tiny body. Suddenly it hit me: I was a hypocrite. I had a long talk with myself in hushed tones that night, poured out my diet soda cans and put them in the recycling bin. Then I finished the bag of Chex Mix and recycled the bag, too. (There was no point to just wasting food, right?) After that processedfood breakup, it wasn't long before my dietary choices moved on to even greener pastures.
I wouldn't necessarily call myself an animal lover. We had pets growing up, including a fox terrier who chewed his way through a gas barbecue hose, a hot water heater, a piece of plywood and a fivepound chocolate bar that he found under the tree on Christmas Eve. Having your dog go into cardiac arrest kind of puts a damper on Christmas morning. I liked our dog okay, but lived in fear that he would do something to upset my dad, who after cleaning up the kitchen trash strewn all over the living room for the sixteenth time had nicknamed him "POSGE" (pronounced PAHSJEE), an acronym for "Piece Of S*&# Garbage Eater."
When I started my own household, I wasn't in any big hurry to get a pet to destroy my things. That's what kids were for. And I certainly never intended to become a vegetarian, let alone a vegan. Until one night a friend sent me an email with a video of Sarah Palin visiting a turkey farm in her governor capacity to pardon a turkey for Thanksgiving. The irony of the video was that as the rogue politician declared one turkey free, another turkey was refusing to die (much like Ms. Palin's political aspirations) and was being violently slaughtered in the background. My stomach turned, my mouth dropped and tears sprang to my eyes. I'm not sure what dream world I was living in, but apparently I thought that Tinker Bell came and sprinkled magical sleeping fairy dust over live turkeys and they somehow ended up on a platter in my grandmother's dining room with a side of the most delicious mashed potatoes I would ever taste.
This violent and abrupt realization of where my food came from impacted my choices from then on. I read literature about factory farms and learned that the terrible conditions in most threaten the safety of our food. I decided I was no longer willing to eat meat. I started preparing more and more vegetarian meals for myself while continuing to serve up abnormally large breasts (the only abnormally large breasts in our house) to the family. Meanwhile, memories of my "jilted lover," Diet Coke, and ridding my life of its grasp came back to haunt me. I had banned aspartame and artifical flavorings for the household, but served daily meals of animal flesh washed in ammonia?
On a more practical level, my family missed seeing my face at the dinner table while I cooked up a steak for Pea Daddy, steak fries and nuggets for the girls, and a tofu steak for myself. After a few weeks of cooking three dinners a day, Pea Daddy surprised me by volunteering to follow my lead at dinnertime and become a vegetarian himself. I was thrilled. While his announcement wasn't an exhilarated "I'll have what she's having" moment out of When Harry Met Sally, once he saw that he could enjoy a meatless meal (and multiple times a day, at that), Pea Daddy was excited for all of us to make the transition to vegetarianism.
It wasn't long until Gigi asked why we were no longer eating chicken. I started to explain that it was important that we not hurt animals, and didn't she agree that we wouldn't want to hurt the chicken that we saw at local farmstand last weekend? "Not the kind of chicken that lives on a farm, Mama!" she scolded me. "The kind of chicken that you EAT!" I wasn't sure if I should hug her for being so naive, or immediately put a helmet on her to prevent further brain injury. It was time to have "the talk," and I spent the next twenty awkward minutes acting out the most macabre scene to ever have been depicted using a Fisher Price Little People farm set. I'm afraid she still has nightmares about Farmer Jed.
From then on, it became my mission to transition my family from the Standard American Diet to something better, but I knew that I couldn't change who I was in making the transition. I wasn't going to make my own soap or sew our clothes. I can't even sew a button. I wasn't about to trade The Bachelorette and my flatiron for a PETA rally and dreadlocks. I'm too addicted to reality TV and straight hair for that. Though I enjoy a nice bowl of granola, I'm no "granola" mom, and I don't have to be "perfect" to lessen the environmental impact I have on the planet.
I want our foods to be fresh, organic when possible, meatfree and, for the most part, free of all animal products. But most important, our meals have to be delicious. I want my children and husband to come to the dinner table each night with the same feelings of excitement and anticipation that I had as a child, and...