When I tell people I don't eat either meat or dairy products they screw up their faces in disbelief and say, "What's left???" I can't get a decent meal at the vast majority of the restaurants in the United States. I don't dare go to a neighborhood potluck unless I eat beforehand.
All of this is distressing, to be sure. But it has also left me with an interesting thought: I bet there are people in this world, probably right here in River City, State of Confusion, USA, who have diets so different from mine that the two don't overlap at all. Let me say it another way: If there are vegans who don't eat any animal products, there are probably other people who never eat anything that doesn't contain animal products. Wow, just like Mr. and Mrs. Sprat! It's a sobering thought.
I must say that I've had a morbid fascination with this for the last few years. The idea that someone out there is eating at the totally opposite end of the spectrum from me has increased my awareness of the diets of people around me. I haven't actually found anyone who's food choices meet my criteria of "nothing without animal products passes these lips," but I have found some folks out there who come darned close. People with really horrible diets.
(Before going on I should explain that when I use terms like "really horrible" and "gag me with a pipe wrench," my comments are totally subjective, and do not necessarily make any value judgments. Indeed, as a guy who has in the past defined the four food groups as "sugar, chocolate, alcohol and nicotine," folks might well be healthier if they stay away from my dietary suggestions.)
It's been quite an experience to discover people who's diets seem as strange to me as mine must seem to them, and over the past couple of years I've found some doozies. First there's my friend Blake who washes everything down with a quart of cow's milk. Then there is Greg, who won't eat anything all day but pastries and candy. Just when I thought I'd seen everything though, just when I thought it was safe to go back in the supermarket, I met someone really, really special. We'll call her "Anita," since that's her real name.
Some background information is probably in order. Anita is an attractive, thin, 27 year-old blonde who is both intelligent and charming. She grew up in rural Indiana, (no doubt with parents like mine, who believe vegetarians are communists), married a man with a background similar to hers, and is now enjoying a normal, happy lifestyle. Normal, at least, with the exception of her food choices.
Anita admits to being a "fussy" eater, a trait that apparently started at an early age. "I definitely ate fatty, fatty in high school," she says, referring to her daily lunch of four candy bars and a pop. Since then her diet has become more varied, but not by much. She obsesses on her two favorite foods, macaroni and cheese and pizza, and it is as a topping on the latter that she consumes the only fruit that she'll eat: canned pineapple. Anita won't eat fresh pineapple because it isn't as sweet, and the texture reminds her of (god forbid!) an apple. If Anita had been in the Garden of Eden humankind would never have fallen from grace.
Anita is just as discriminating with her vegetables. The only ones she'll eat are corn and potatoes. (The spuds are instant, from a box. "We have real potatoes about every 4 months.") Cauliflower and broccoli are okay, but only if there's dip available.
Four years ago Anita took a major step forward in her dietary progress. That was when she ate her first salad. Now she doesn't mind them, as long as they're limited to iceberg lettuce, carrots and croutons, with French or ranch dressing. "I've gotten very experimental in the last four years," she says.
Anita's meats of choice are hamburger and pot roast and chicken breasts. She also likes "Rice Krispie treats," which are apparently snacks made out of cereal and marshmallows. Strangely, though, she claims no interest in other creations of American culture such as marshmallow cream, Cheez-Whiz, and Spam.
Many of Anita's dietary intentions are admirable. She worries about fat now because of cholesterol problems in her family, so she buys only skim milk and "93%" hamburger (apparently that's the "low fat" stuff). She even likes "wheat" bread better than white. Unfortunately, her favorite sandwich is "mayonnaise." Mmmm.
When Anita gave me the details of her diet, my immediate reaction was: "I can enlighten this misguided soul!" (Yeah right, as if I could enlighten anybody!) For a fleeting moment I envisioned myself as a Rex Harrison type (a fair comparison I think—after all, we both have gray hair and speak English) meeting an Eliza Doolittle type. She'd be a real challenge, but if I could get Anita to like vegetarian foods, that would prove that it's possible to convert (or at least influence) any meat eater.
If I could cook for this woman for three months, I thought, I might have a chance of saving her. That, of course, wouldn't be practical. I did, however, promise to bring her samples of the foods I eat. In return, she didn't exactly promise to eat any of these foods, but I am pretty sure she'll at least look at them.
That's a start anyway. In the meantime, I'm already making progress. I've already found that we actually have one food in common. Both Anita and I like peanut butter and jelly.
(Next time: Mark sings "The Rain in Spain..." and reports back on how the conversion process is going.)