If you’d told me, back when I was twenty-something, that in my fifties I’d be a romance novelist who got up at 5 am to write, practiced yoga, didn’t drink whiskey, and was well along the road to veganism, I’d have laughed. And then raised a glass of Jim Beam in a toast over a breakfast of steak and eggs.
I wasn’t amazingly reckless (except… okay, I was) but I didn’t see the point in planning too much of a future that might not happen. I could be hit by a bus tomorrow.
Now that I’m fifty-two, I still subscribe to the bus philosophy. I don’t want to be hungover, coughing up spittle, clutching my aching gut, and maybe not entirely sure what I was doing in the middle of the road when it happens, though.
Back in my early twenties, one of my boyfriend’s friends had a vegetarian girlfriend. She was lovely, really, except that whenever we planned an outing that included dinner, she’d want to eat at this one restaurant where all the dishes were brown. Not the plates and bowls, but the food. All of it. Brown bits and lumps in brown sauce. From memory, the shades of brown didn’t even vary. Every single dish resembled the third color on this chart:
The rest of us? We liked the Argentinian place up on Bridge road. After throwing meat at us for two hours, the staff would push the tables together, turn the music up, and invite us to dance. A great night out. Always.
Understandably, BFFGF (boyfriend’s friend’s girlfriend – let’s just call her Betty)… Betty didn’t consider a bowl of pickled cabbage much of a meal. That’s all they in the way of veggies on the Argentian menu. Green cabbage.
Now, Melbourne is the restaurant capital of Australia. (If you’re from Sydney, fight me.) Our choices for places to eat out, even thirty years ago, were wide and varied. We didn’t have a handful of favourites, we had tens of favourites, categorized by location, price, and cuisine. We never lacked for places to eat.
Betty always wanted to go for the brown stuff. But even though it was very tasty, to my mind, when you’re a group, you mix it up. You don’t eat brown stuff every second time you dine out. You eat brown stuff every tenth time, or maybe every twelfth, depending on who’s hanging out this month, or next. You don’t eat brown stuff weekly.
It got to the point where choosing somewhere to eat became an exercise in what’s on the menu for Betty, who, aside from being vegetarian (or possibly vegan, now that I think on it), was very picky. It was tiresome. Betty caused friction in an otherwise fairly frictionless group. But her boyfriend thought she was the one and so we ate brown stuff. A lot.
Let’s skip forward about twenty years. I’m married and I have a ten-year-old daughter who gags every time she eats meat. Imagine sitting to dinner and having the person next to you choke and cough up chunks. Not fun. She’d do okay with chicken, as long as I trimmed away anything that might catch in her teeth or cause her to chew. Same with hamburger, sometimes. She’d eat the center portion of a steak with no fat whatsoever, but if it got chewy, we’d be treated to a chorus of retching and a grey lump of half masticated meat on the side of her plate.
When she announced she was becoming a vegetarian, I think we all sighed with relief. And, at first, it wasn’t a difficult prospect. We already ate pasta on Mondays (usually meat-free), fish on Tuesdays (she was okay with fish), beans on Thursdays, and homemade pizza on Fridays. I only had to rethink Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays. Rethinking usually meant planning some sort of meatless alternative so we could all eat together, we the meat, her the alternative.
Long story short, as time rolled by, we were eating less and less meat, and it was for two very significant reasons. The first was that despite having a sort of set menu, we didn’t always eat the same pasta on Mondays or the same fish on Tuesdays or even the same beans on Thursdays. I like to mix it up. So I started looking for new recipes that didn’t include meat. The second reason followed on from there. I like to cook, so one new recipe led to another and so on.
Fast forward to June 2019 and my daughter asked if I’d partner with her on a vegan menu for the summer to help her prepare for her first year of college. She wanted to practice planning and cooking healthy meals before she went away. To my surprise, I agreed.
I’d already given up alcohol by then – mostly. I’d still have a glass of something now and then, but the now and thens were getting farther and farther apart because, damn it, alcohol kept me up at night. And made my legs twitch. And when you’re fifty, sleep is important.
Sleep has always been pretty important to me, but let’s not digress…
So, to recap, for three months, I would be giving up not only cheese (which no longer agreed with me, wtf, body) but BACON.
I love a cooked breakfast. I LOVED bacon. I ate bacon two-three times a week. With my eggs.
Her plan would nix both.
But this kid is my only kid and I thought her plan made sense, because as the mother of a vegetarian, I’d stumbled across the same issue that plagued our group (and poor Betty) all those years ago: unless you’re at a restaurant that caters specifically to vegetarians, there often isn’t much on the menu for you. There’ll be the one pasta dish or the eggplant dish or the salad.
I don’t know about you, but when I go out to eat, I don’t want a bloody salad – unless it’s Frank’s grilled portabella mushroom salad with pickled onions and blue cheese.
A college meal plan probably wasn’t going to do a lot better.
So we did it. Or, well, I did it. She still eats cheese and most dairy and fish. Mr. Jensen still eats meat and all the rest of it. Over a year later, I am mostly vegan.
It’s weird. It’s incredibly weird. The biggest reason why I am still doing this, though (not eating meat, not drinking whiskey, saying no the joint when it passes my way, turning my light out at nine, making myself eat apples for goodness sake) is that I feel good. I mean… really good. My stomach doesn’t hurt anymore. I can’t even tell you how long it did hurt for because it was such a regular thing. It was a part of being alive.
And it’s not as hard as I thought it would be. I love what I eat and look forward to curries made with split peas and meatballs made with lentils, and anything with beans. I’ve always loved beans.
I don’t miss bacon. I did, for a while, but not right away. A few months in, I found myself thinking about bacon so I tried some vegan bacon and it was horrible. Problem solved.
I don’t know whether I’m healthier or going to live longer, but I do know that I’m more likely to see the bus coming. If it does hit me, though, it’s not going to make a bad day worse. It’s just going to be fate – which none of us can get around.
The hardest part, really, is explaining to others why I’m doing this – and maybe explaining it to myself. This… This isn’t who I was supposed to be. Then again, at twenty-four, I had no idea I would be a mother, or that I’d end up living on two acres in Pennsylvania (which is a long, long way from Melbourne, Australia), spending a portion of every day (in season) chasing the deer away from my flowers. I have plants in my garden. Ones I haven’t managed to kill or simply let die. I have one in my writing nook, too.
I could never have imagined that I’d willingly give up drinking alcohol. It had never been a ‘problem’ for me.
The yoga… yeah, well, I could have predicted that. I actually got started in my twenties.
The romance author thing? NOT IN A MILLION YEARS.
But, honestly, it’s kind of exciting that my life has turned out so differently to what I might have predicted. It means that this time next year I could be on the other side of the galaxy sharing my stories with aliens.
Seriously, you just never know. What I do know, is that my gut will be feeling awesome and I’ll be feeling amazing (unless they make me eat weird alien snacks).
That’s good enough for me.