A number of years ago I had the exciting and all-too-common experience of being in an unfamiliar restaurant and having the waiter make recommendations he thought would be appropriate for a vegetarian.
"You should have the oyster sauce with your vegetables," he suggested.
"But doesn't that have oysters in it?" I asked naively.
"Oh no! There aren't any actual oysters in it. You see, it's just made from…" he held his thumb and forefinger together, as if holding something precious, and smacked his lips, "…the essence of the oyster."
"Oh." I pretended to consider his suggestion for a second. "Thanks, but I think I'll just stick with the essence of broccoli."
For me the essence of the oyster incident has become a metaphor for a whole series of bad experiences. How many times have I found meat lurking in the supposedly "vegetarian" entrée? Wasn't it just the other day I had to tell the restaurant to leave the essence of the chicken broth out of my pasta? Wasn't it just last week that I found out my favorite brand of bread is now contaminated with the essence of whey? Wasn't it just today that a friend of mine who is deathly allergic to shrimp found shrimp in her "vegetarian" spring rolls? It seems to be our lot in life as vegetarians—everyone claims to know what's best for us, but what they deliver rarely meets our standards.
My mother says I'm too fussy. She hates it when I meticulously comb the ingredients in everything she buys at the grocery store. And the last time I ate out with her she was mightily embarrassed when I sent my salad back to have the hard-boiled eggs removed, and then sent it back again to have the bacon and cheese removed. (Well, how was I to know they were hiding under the eggs???) She's probably right. Eating a little bit of something bad probably won't kill me nearly as fast as agonizing about eating a little bit of something bad.
There are people who agree with my mother—arguing that from a health standpoint it may actually be better to not be so strict in our vegetarianism. I once knew a nutrition doctor (okay, so he wasn't actually a doctor) who had studied all of the world's cultures with long life expectancies. One thing he found that all of these cultures had in common was that they were almost vegetarian. They all followed a vegetarian lifestyle most of the year, but every once in a while they'd have a big blowout party where they'd roast the prize pig and wallow in greasy food. This "doctor" surmised that those occasional non-vegetarian indulgences stressed their bodies and actually made them stronger in the long run.
I was recently reminded of this theory when McDonald's made their now infamous admission that the French fries they have for years been promoting as "cooked in pure vegetable oil" are not really vegetarian—that they contain the essence of the dead cow for flavoring. The same day I heard this shocking news I read about Mary Clark of Montrose, Colorado. Mary is 106 years old, in great health, and practically lives for her daily fix of—you guessed it—McDonald's French fries. (The McDonald's corporation is thrilled with this, and has promised Mary free fries until she is 150.)
Could Mary Clark's health actually have benefited from the animal contamination in her favorite food? Would I be healthier now if I'd only eaten that essence of the oyster sauce many years ago? Would all vegetarians be better off if only we weren't so fussy?
Somehow I doubt it. First of all, any vegetarian in our society is going to ingest unwanted animal products from time to time no matter how careful he or she is, thanks to the antics of Bozos like Ronald McDonald. If our systems need occasional stress we're sure to get it. More importantly, though, there's more to being vegetarian than our own health. And the commitment we make to lofty goals—even if they are loftier than we can ever hope to achieve in the real world—is one of the things that keeps us going.
I think I'll stay fussy, and continue to object every time I'm faced with the essence of the oyster. Maybe it's silly and obsessive and irks my mother, but somehow drawing a line and sticking to it just seems like the right thing to do. Somehow it just seems like the essence of vegetarianism.