Friday, August 23, 2013

Somos vegetarianas

Folks, this doesn't really have to do with cities or Michigan, but it's an old thing I wrote two years ago when I lived in Spain, and I think it deserves another go. Enjoy!


Madrid from my terraza

Nearing the end of Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, aware that I’m about six years behind on this (but when you’re in school there’s no time to read), I’ve just reached the point where the witty journalist refutes the logic and morality of vegetarianism. It comes at a relevant time, when this aspect of my personal culture, along with many others, has encountered intense challenges.

A welcome party! The school’s resident computer whiz (and probably teacher of something, but I don’t know what) informed Ana and I that the staff was holding one for us the next Friday evening at the school. Two months in and already sufficiently settled, we were a bit puzzled but figured it was just typical Spanish time, and appreciated the gesture, especially with the stress that all this striking has caused.

Real palm trees, guys!

In my conception of a potluck, it’s a buffet-style affair wherein you bring a dish you can and will eat, so that if nothing else present fits those requirements, you can discreetly fill your plate with your own contribution. For this reason, I made a pasta salad, the mainstay of low-maintenance American potluck dishes, complete with cherry tomatoes and feta cheese.

But while standing around and chatting at this party, we notice that each proud cook acts the waiter and proffers his or her dish to the guests. Immediately Ana and I discover we have a problem. “Es típico español,” says the math teacher over her platter of grisly blood sausage. How many times I have heard that phrase, usually in the face of something that makes me horribly uncomfortable. “Somos vegetarianas,” Ana offers, and we smile apologetically in unison. The teacher looks slightly confused but determined to be polite. “¿No coméis nada de esto?” We shake our heads, helpless to correct the bewildering dietary habits of Americans.

El Templo de Debod
We take turns letting them down, the plate after plate of chorizo, ham, grilled chicken. Somos vegetarianas. We begin to contemplate writing it on our foreheads. Already feeling isolated in this social atmosphere that we don’t quite understand, not sure how to make anything beyond the most superficial small talk, this is just another level of separation. I try explaining to some of the teachers that there’s nothing wrong with their cows and pigs. It’s just that ours are usually pumped with antibiotics and live in cesspools. And after ten years of eschewing that sort of fare, I don’t know if my poor stomach contains the necessary bacteria to digest even the undeniably high-quality animal products your country offers!

This strains my vocabulary. Besides, the teachers are getting drunker down here in the school library, and they’re perfectly content to chalk it all up to the antisocial oddities across the Atlantic.

In fact, this sounds like the main reason why Michael Pollan decided to maintain his carnivore lifestyle. He didn’t enjoy the cultural isolation, the feeling of imposing upon hosts and losing a level of connection with his fellow eaters. I’ve certainly felt that in the States as well. In my indomitably liberal college town, vegetarianism is more of the rule than the exception, but dinners with my extended family have involved awkward avoidances and concessions since I was twelve years old.

Mi piso

I do give up some cultural connection with my family when I decide to not partake of the same food, but I also did so when I came out of the closet as liberal at twenty years old (“Are you now?”), and when I stopped attending church services and praying before meals. My closest friends and I have frequently reflected upon the meaning of that word culture, and whether we had inherited any such thing that we could identify with and support. Instead, we seem to have taken many random threads and formed something entirely new for ourselves. Our culture is a haphazard, raggle-taggle idea that involves vestiges of Catholic wisdom, family traditions, student necessities, literary allusions, and whatever old beautiful things we find on the street. When we cook together, we juggle three distinct restricted diets, but we always come up with meals that are shared, delicious, and full of love.

So no, the chorizo-bearing Spaniards don’t scare me, and neither does the prospect of avoiding meat in a country where a bare pig leg sits on the counter of every bar. Spanish culture is a fascinating thing, a thing I’ve enjoyed observing and participating in. I find meaningful ways to connect with people despite the differences in our histories and habits. When I go back home I’ll undoubtedly have another little scrap in the hodgepodge of my culture, which is the wisdom and ways of living of Spain.

Sunset over Madrid

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