It wasn’t bacon.
That’s the first thing I have to say about the end of my vegetarian stint. I use the word “vegetarian” loosely here—not least because I, like many pesco-lacto-ovo vegetarians, still chowed down on fish, eggs, and every conceivable kind of cheese during the two years I assumed the label. No, I was a vegetarian of a whole other errant conceit. Every six months or so, a vicious craving for bacon would overwhelm my senses – usually brought on by a fragrant street cart or a particularly tantalizing photo on Foodgawker – and I, the so-called vegetarian, would indulge it. Secretly. Shamefully. Feeling like a fraud and a cheater.
It was always bacon that led me astray, and it was always a disappointment. I know all trendy, enlightened foodie types worship bacon, pairing it with everything from asparagus to chocolate, but I’m just not a fan. Nine times out of ten, when I think I want bacon, what I really want is the smell of bacon but the taste of salt. I’m always caught off guard by bacon’s smokiness, and the fatty texture honestly grosses me out. Furthermore, nothing takes the taste out of bacon quite like unwarranted, self-inflicted guilt. There’s nothing trendy or enlightened about a bacon cheeseburger scarfed alone in an alley, or a Vosges bacon bar wrapper smuggled out of the house to a public trashcan.
Two and a half years ago, bored with “diet food” but only halfway through what would eventually become an 80-pound weight loss, I went veg. My decision had nothing to do with environmental consciousness or sad-eyed cows in PETA pamphlets. It was a weight loss strategy, plain and simple—a snap decision made because I couldn’t bear the thought of sucking down another bowl of chicken noodle soup for dinner. I figured eliminating meat would force me to be more creative with my food choices, not to mention shatter a plateau brought on by one too many late-night Taco Bell runs. Since moderation had never been my strong suit, I went for a lifestyle overhaul rather than simply shifting gears or cutting back. There was safety in the V-card. It left nothing to interpretation.
Banning entire food groups from one’s diet is common among eating disorder patients, many of whom welcome the label of “vegetarian” or “vegan” or “gluten-sensitive” as a catch-all excuse for bizarre behaviors surrounding food. While my weight loss aspirations were still fairly innocuous at this point, there were similar motivations at play. Going veg was about boredom, but it was also about fear—about eliminating foods that commonly led me to overeat. Plate after plate of pepperoni pizza bagel bites while studying in my sorority house basement late at night, for example, or a decked-out dollar burger I couldn’t comfortably finish, but did anyway. Vegetarianism meant I no longer had to make those choices on a regular basis. I no longer had to think or explain.
Of course, cutting out meat didn’t solve the problem. I found new foods like Chex Mix and ice cream to binge on, and the rest is a story for another day. That being said, my vegetarian experiment was far from pointless, and in the long run, going veg changed my relationship with food for the better in many ways. I learned to cook as a vegetarian. Fought my way back to physical and emotional health as a vegetarian. I credit my vegetarian diet in large part with my love of natural foods and passion for healthy living. But while I eventually got to a point where I ate well and sufficiently as an herbivore, the label itself remained tyrannical and foolish. Even healthy choices can come from an unhealthy place.
Two and a half months ago, still madly in love with quinoa, chickpeas, and the pounds of produce I consume each week, I shrugged off the label, cashed in my V-card, and ordered a sandwich. A spicy Cajun chicken and turkey sandwich with guacamole, pepper jack cheese, and housemade Jalisco sauce, to be precise. The sandwich is called the Hot Mess, and while physically it more than lived up to its title, my enjoyment of it was anything but messy. I ate my Hot Mess mindfully. I savored every complex, unfamiliar flavor. I stopped when I was full. I saved half for lunch the following day. Not a rash decision (or a rasher of bacon) in sight.
I knew that this return to carnivorousness would be the exception, not the rule. Now that I’ve operated as a (cheating, fraudlike) veggie for so long, I’ve realized that eating a mostly meatless diet gives me something far more valuable than weight control—vitality. I have energy. My skin is clear. I know and care more about nutrition and sustainability and the source of my food, and I love whipping up inventive meatless meals in my tiny kitchen. But I refused to start my life as a New Yorker in a dietary prison of my own making. If I wanted a pork bun or a bison burger or a slice of buffalo chicken pizza, by golly, I would eat one. I would keep it in its place, just as I would any other indulgent dietary departure. I would think. I would choose. And I would not settle for secret bacon.
Have you ever voluntarily followed a special diet? What was your reasoning? Also, bacon—overrated, am I right?