I am not a picky eater. I am very, very proud of that fact. It has become part of my personality—my brand, one could say—to eat and to enjoy eating pretty much everything on the planet (especially everything that’s frozen). This has always been a central part of who I am. As I grew up, the more people around me who protested that they “don’t eat” or “can’t eat” something, the more assertively I brandished my unqualified claim: “Dude, I eat everything.”
But then a few things happened.
In the last few years my seasonal allergies exploded. Each spring it felt like my brain had liquefied and was slowly dripping out through my nose. I started going to an acupuncturist who had me make several changes to my diet, two of which, she promised, would have the most immediate and profound impact on my congestion factor: cutting out any product made from cow’s milk, and avoiding spicy foods. Around the same time I read some books (ones you’ve probably read, too) which changed my behavior around the frequency and quality of the meat I consumed. Not cutting it out completely, just asking more questions about it, and eating much, much less of it.
My choice to embark upon the GOOD 30-day challenge and give up dairy in June was less about depriving myself of my signature sweet. I wanted to try to strictly follow my recommended diet and get serious (finally) about my health. But secretly, in a secondary challenge that was more about curiosity than diet, I wanted to see how hard it really was to live as a vegetarian. So I stopped eating meat for the month as well.
For the most part, the actual eating part was easy. I didn’t crave gelato or ice cream at all. I ate a lot of avocados and beans. I ate some fish. Yes, a few times I absent-mindedly popped cream cheese dip or a piece of bacon in my mouth, but for the most part I stuck to it the entire month. The hardest part, honestly, was taking my beloved Mexican food without cheese or sour cream. That hurt.
But it was worth it. Almost instantly, my allergies evaporated. Early June, which is usually torture on my sinuses, was free and clear. I am so not kidding about this. I felt great. I should have been bragging about it.
Yet I dreaded discussing my new diet.
If I was eating with people who knew me, I’d have to embark upon the whole story, which I found to be tedious and annoying (and disgusting, as I demonstrated to the table how dairy affected the production of phlegm). After spending a half hour dissecting my habits—Are you eating eggs? Does butter count?—the inquisition finally ended and people could talk about American Idol instead.
When dining out, I felt like the person who was bringing the table down. Side dishes and appetizers would have to be negotiated to accommodate my needs. One of the worst moments came at a restaurant where I requested my pasta without cheese. They brought the dish to the table with huge chunks of ricotta salata studded throughout the ziti. Reluctantly, I allowed it to return to the kitchen in exchange for a cheese-free replacement. They wasted the entire bowl just because of my restricted diet. I felt horrible.
I had become the picky eater.
About two weeks in, I was at my friend’s house for dinner where they’d spent all day marinating and smoking ribs. I tried testing the words in my head before I said them. I’m not eating meat right now. No, thank you, I can really only eat this broccoli. But then I watched them as they proudly brought the food to the table. As much as I wanted to stick to my plan, I just couldn’t be that person that made the entire dinner table listen to my diet, my choices, my struggle. I ate the ribs.
To me, this was absolutely the lowest I could go, and not because I had blown my meat- free spree. It was because the social aspect of my experiment was proving to be the toughest. I was embarrassed that I could no longer wear my “I eat anything” badge. I was now an omnivore with an asterisk.
Then, halfway through the month, I was at the grocery store, and that’s where I saw them. Veggie Slices. I picked up their cheese-like forms, turning over the cool plastic squares in my hand. I was about to put them back down when I realized the irony of the situation. Even as I bragged that I was so unconditionally accepting of all foods, that I’d try anything, I actually still was a very picky eater in one sense: I always turned my nose up in disgust at any kind of fake meat or cheese.
Think about it. The whole act of eating—or, more accurately, not eating—has become the single most important way to define who we are. Think about the way the conversation inevitably turns whenever you sit down to chat with a few friends. What we do or do not put in our mouths is pretty much all we talk about. Even worse, analyzing the seemingly eclectic or haphazard choices of our friends—she’s a gluten-free freak who only eats meat on weekends; he’s a vegan teetotaler, but he smokes!—has become yet another way for us to become petty and judgmental. That’s what I was worried about when I gave up meat—that people would look at me differently.
Instead of feeling ostracized during this month, I realized I actually had an opportunity to expand my culinary horizons. I could move beyond my elitist view of vegan substitutes. I could go where no meat-eater would go. Yes, I, the carnivorous snob who could never understand why someone would want a simulacra “Philly cheesesteak,” dove into the world of soyrizo and pseudo mozzarella.
I had a veggie burrito that was so sublime, I really can’t see the need to order a carnitas burrito ever again. I dumped fake sausage into our bean chili for extra protein and it blended right in. I had faux fried chicken that I swear was so good, so chicken-y, so free of ligaments, that I’d choose that over any other chicken out there. And I discovered something I may have simply ignored before: Sorbets are often richer, denser, and more flavorful than ice creams.
Besides, I think that eating fake steak is much more daring than real steak. Because what the hell is that stuff, anyway?
And that’s just the thing. It wasn’t about not eating something. It was about choosing to eat something different. I really didn’t have to explain my choices to anyone. I just had to order, smile, and eat.
In a funny twist, after a month of depriving myself of certain foods, my diet now includes a whole range of new foods I previously had dismissed as not worthy of my omnivorous palate. After 30 days of exploring various non-dairy and non-meat choices that I never before would have touched—and, yes, substituting some of them in my “real life,” post-challenge—I can honestly say that I really do eat everything.
Oh, everything, that is, except Veggie Slices. They taste like wood-flavored Play-Doh. But I can only say that because I tried them.