Last month we had our first party in Colorado. We served home-made chile verde and beer from a local micro-brewery, and the invitations I made up included the cartoon above.
For eight years, I was a vegetarian. I was what some precise people would call a “pesco-ovo-lacto” vegetarian, because I was amenable to eating fish, and I ate eggs and dairy products on a fairly regular basis.
Despite all those exceptions, it wasn’t always easy to be a vegetarian. In eastern Oregon, where I was living, going out to eat usually meant choosing between beef, pork, or chicken as the basis of your meal. People who lived there were generally hard-working and didn’t have a lot of money to spend on luxuries like eating out. So, when they did, they certainly wanted to pay for food with “substance” to it!
Most people either worked on a cattle ranch, or had grown up in a family of ranchers, or had friends who were ranchers. For some, vegetarians were a threat to their way of life. When it seemed like they were willing to listen, I would explain why I was a vegetarian: because I was opposed to industrialized livestock farming and its effects on consumer health, animal health, and economic health, especially for small family-based ranches like theirs. I’d point to their meal and ask where the meat came from– probably not one of their cows! I’d ask how they felt about the fact that the paper bags at the local grocery store were imprinted with “Proud to Sell Midwestern Corn-fed Beef.” Some people “got it” after that, but others still just considered me an idealistic hippie who thought she was better than everyone else. At any rate, I didn’t eat out often and mostly cooked at home, and since a few of my friends with whom I often socialized were in the same boat as me, I usually was able to get something to eat.
Eventually, I gave up vegetarianism. I realized a few years in that I had a soy sensitivity, which eliminated tofu and soy milk from my diet, but more importantly, it meant that I couldn’t eat anything with soybean oil, and that ruled out most salad dressings, some breads and other baked items, picnic salads made with mayonnaise, and lots of other prepared foods that I just couldn’t be sure about. At the time I was running almost every day, and was advised by my doctors to include more protein in my diet. And since it was really the industrial farming that I was opposed to, not the consumption of animal flesh, I started eating chicken and other meat that was naturally or organically raised.
But that opened the gateway up wide. Once you are no longer a proclaimed “vegetarian” in social settings, you are expected to eat whatever is being served. And generally I do. Now that I live with someone who needs to eat a good deal more protein than I, we cook with meat regularly, and it mostly is not the organic, humanely-raised stuff. One of his recent culinary achievements is chile verde, a pork-based mexican stew with green chiles. It seemed like a great central dish for a party, since we could ask guests to bring supplementary items like tortillas, rice, shredded cheese, lettuce, and olives. Bo even made two separate pots, one with chicken and one with pork.
I knew that one guest is vegan, and made arrangements for her to have some plain pinto beans to put over the rice she’d bring. But another guest asked, after we called people to the buffet table, “which of the two pots of chile is vegetarian?” My heart sank. I had agonized a bit over using the cartoon on the invitation: it seemed insensitive and cruel even though it was funny and appropriate, given my writing-and-grammar background and the party’s central food item. But I had mentally shrugged off the responsibility of considering the non-meat-eaters who might come to my house, and I thought the cartoon might send a warning about the nature of the food to be provided. It seems so rare to meet vegetarians anymore! Even my friends from Oregon have all become omnivores like me.
In trying to figure out how to conclude this long confessional about eating preferences, I keep getting drawn back to the idea of personal identity. For years, being a vegetarian was part of my identity, and even longer than that, I was proud to be a host who always took her guests’ preferences into consideration, even if it was not convenient (for example, I insisted on having veggie burgers available at the buffalo burger barbecue after my wedding in western Nebraska). At this latest party, I failed. I deliberately pushed away the responsibility to provide for everyone’s needs and did just the bare minimum in providing the pinto beans.
The other reason I’ve been thinking about personal identity lately has to do with writing. For years, I’ve been praised as a good writer by friends and family. I taught writing composition as a grad student and part-time college instructor, I worked as a contract copy-editor, and I was the person my co-workers asked if they had a question about grammar or needed something proof-read. But now I work in an environment where no one seems to know these things about my background–not that it’s a secret, but it’s too distant from the experience that qualified me for this job. I now work with someone who recently completed an English degree, and she is the “good writer” in the house.
I’ve been assigned to lead a committee of my co-workers to produce a white paper for our boss, and we’ve come to the concluding stages of the process, in which I’ve served as a sort of editor-in-chief, taking the pieces the others have written and smoothing them into a cohesive whole. Lately, I can feel tension amongst the committee members. The work of the “good writer” is praised by one of the other committee members, who consistently jumps on mine for punctuation or capitalization errors and most recently gave me general advice on how to improve my writing.
Whew. Deep breaths. Immediately, my mind starts protesting, coming up with retorts. But after a bit, I start thinking about WHY this is so jarring for me. Clearly, it has to do with my ego. Egos get in the way of a lot of positive things. That’s kind of what ego is all about– helping people preserve themselves in the midst of other influences. Ego doesn’t like change. It doesn’t like to ask for or take advice. It doesn’t like to look around much.
So (in conclusion), these two ego shocks are a good reminder to me to look, to be open to change and to advice. I don’t have to take everyone’s advice, or make all the changes to the document my co-workers recommend. I just need to be honest about the reasons I accept or reject advice and ideas. This is true in relation to food or to writing, but also to anything! It seems easiest to start with one or two things, though. Consider this an invitation to comment on my writing. I’ll try not to be shocked.
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