When I was in fifth grade, my Spanish teacher strung up a pinata to celebrate Day of the Dead. As I watched the boys in my class pummel the paper mache bull into a bloody pulp, something clicked inside my head.
From that day forward, I was a vegetarian.
My parents never really questioned my decision, though other members of my family weren’t quite as convinced.
For a long time, my grandmother would try to put brisket and turkey on my plate at holiday dinners, and just a couple months ago, she asked if I wanted to share a chicken platter with her at a local Greek restaurant.
Still, I held firm.
Every so often, I question whether I want to remain an herbivore. In recent years I have begun eating a bit of fish (more in theory than in practice), and on our honeymoon, Brent convinced me to try a tiny bite of what he called “the best steak he’d ever tasted” (I did taste it, though the best-ness was lost on me). But for the past two decades, I’ve existed on a diet of tofu and seitan, and searched for veggie options in Europe, Latin America, and across North America.
A few weeks ago, though, I had a craving.
Brent and I were biking down a volcano in Ecuador’s Cotapaxi National Park. I’d been sick for three days at that point – battling a nasty stomach bug that left me hugging the toilet and unable to eat the home-grown organic meals that were provided at the rustic mountain lodge where we were staying. My insides were churning, my energy was totally depleted, and I wanted nothing more than to curl up in bed.
We paused for a short rest, and I turned to Brent.
“You know what I’d like right now?” I asked.
“Salami,” I told him matter-of-factly.
“That’s definitely not what I thought you were going to say.”
We continued on with our ride. The salami was forgotten and when we got back to our room, I finally gave in and began a round of antibiotics.
By the next evening, I was beginning to feel better. We had spent the day summiting a dormant volcano, and I wasn’t completely exhausted. I still had no appetite, but the thought of food no longer left me running for cover.
We were hanging out in the lodge with the twenty other guests, when one of the Spaniards with whom we’d become friendly told us he had an announcement.
“I’d like you all to try something from my hometown of Valencia,” he said. “I had to sneak it through customs in my backpack, since I wasn’t allowed to bring food into the country.”
He reached behind his back and pulled out a long, thin stick of cured meat.
I looked at Brent, and we both burst out laughing.
Our friend sliced the Spanish delicacy and set it out for everyone to enjoy. After a few minutes of listening to the ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs,’ I made a decision. I was going to try it. I told Brent my plan, and he announced to the entire room that the long-time vegetarian was going to sample the chorizo. He handed me a slice, and I bit off a tiny piece.
And I liked it.
Not wanting to risk upsetting my stomach’s precarious calm, I opted not to eat anymore.
For the duration of our trip, I was convinced that I was pregnant, but when I returned home and confirmed that I was safe, I began to think.
With all of the high-intensity activity of the previous several weeks, at a time when I was more nauseous than I’d ever been, totally depleted and unable to eat, was there a reason my body was craving meat?
As I said, I’ve been a vegetarian for twenty years. I’ve been a vegetarian through twelve years of competitive swimming, and four years as a runner-turned-triathlete-turned-adventure racer.
I know how my body feels operating on a vegetarian diet, and I generally believe that I have plenty of energy to lead a pretty fast-paced life.
But I wonder how my body would feel if I weren’t a vegetarian.
Would I have more overall energy?
Would I get sick less often?
Would I be able to run faster, race longer, or push harder?
For several years now, I’ve said that I am a vegetarian more out of habit than anything else.
And so today, I decided to see what it would feel like to break the habit.
While loading up on groceries this morning, I found myself lingering at the deli meat aisle. I called Brent, and told him what was running through my head. We chatted for several minutes, him listening and responding and asking thoughtful questions.
Finally, I made my selection – locally grown, nitrate free, farm raised turkey salami.
(It was an obvious choice – I grew up a food co-op kid, and to this day, if I try hard enough, I can still taste the fresh salami-and-brown-mustard-on-whole-wheat-bread sandwiches my dad would make when we got home from shopping.)
I placed the meat gingerly in the cart, and went to check out.
As the woman was ringing me up, I felt compelled to tell her my big news. She wished me luck, told me I’d made a good choice on the turkey salami, and confessed that she was planning to try a bison burger for the first time that afternoon.
I got home and put the meat in the fridge.
I haven’t eaten any of it yet. I feel like I need to work my way up to it.
So, sometime in the next few days, I will test out life as an omnivore.
We’ll see if it sticks.
For now, I’m not telling my grandmother.