The hardest thing to give up was steak.
I was in third year high school when I decided to become a pescetarian. I read how if everyone were vegetarian, we would have enough land and crops to ensure that no one in the whole wide world would go hungry. I was young. I wanted to save the world. I cut out beef, chicken, pork–anything that lived on land– reasoning that I would eventually stop eating seafood. I was a vegetarian for a week. I was a pescetarian for 10 years.
The thing about deciding not to eat meat in the Philippines in the 90s is that it was bad enough that you didn’t have many culinary options, what makes it worse is that nobody understands what you’re doing, automatically labeling you ‘crazy’ for daring to go against the norm. I wasn’t a preachy vegetarian; I believe that people should be free to eat what they want, or don’t want, as long as they don’t get in other people’s faces about it. I tried to be as unobtrusive as possible, given the circumstances, such as asking for a fast food sandwich to be prepared without meat and be willing to pay full price for it, just going for the vegetables at a party, or telling people in advance about my dietary concerns.
But while I was trying to quietly live a dietary lifestyle of my choosing while inconveniencing as few people as possible, everyone else thought it was their duty to impress on me their opinions on how insane I was. This ranged from bafflement to derision to uneducated concern to insignificance. Surely my not eating meat wasn’t serious, right? The staff at McDonald’s gave me weird looks when I would order a Big Mac without the patties (it was the only sandwich in the chain at that time with vegetables). Family members assumed that chicken didn’t count as meat, and tried to feed it to me every chance they got. Complete strangers would lecture me on how I was depriving myself of nutrients. On a school trip, the organizer completely forgot to have vegetarian food ready for me, even though I had been telling her about my dietary needs for weeks; she was too busy flirting with, well, everybody. When I started working for a TV show, I had to eat whatever was served on location, which more than once meant a cup of plain white rice because everyone was having a Jollibee meal. I remember being accosted more than one in church by well-meaning members extolling the virtues of eating meat. It didn’t matter that I still ate seafood; water-animals weren’t considered meat. Heck, even chicken wasn’t considered meat. Won’t I at least eat chicken? You can imagine the frustration I lived with on what I don’t think would be an exaggeration of I said a daily basis. But still I persisted, because eating less meat was something I believed in and because, in my own small, perhaps insignificant way, I was doing something for mankind.
Did I miss meat? Of course I did. I missed steak and bacon and Peking duck. I missed corned beef and Vienna sausages and Kentucky Fried Chicken (before it was KFC). Steak was what I missed the most. I would not be exaggerating if I said that I love steak. Give me a hunk of barely cooked prime rib and I’m a happy camper. In fact, it was my love for steak that indirectly led me to appreciate vegetables.
Let me explain: Growing up, my dad used to take us to Steak Town, a kitschy, Western-themed restaurant dressed up like a saloon, complete with bull horns, a piano player, and placemats decorated with posters from the old West. Steak was simply beef–not Angus, definitely not wagyu–served on a sizzling plate next to a scoop of mashed potato and some steamed vegetables, after which a waiter would come by and pour gravy–thick, regular gravy, just one kind of gravy–onto the whole thing. It was magical. I loved it. I learned to associate Steak Town with happy memories, which naturally led me to associate steak with good times as well. Of course, it helped that steak was delicious. It was, and always will be, my favorite food.
I didn’t start life as a big vegetable eater. Vegetable dishes at home were sad, sorry things that were either steamed or sauteed; and always, always overcooked. They usually had zero appeal, unless they were accidentally left crisp, or were really meant to be served mushy. I was not a fan, but that was all I knew about vegetables, that they were gross, colorless things that were supposed to be good for you, in the way that all things good for you were apt to be gross.
At Steak Town, I of course, devoured everything on my plate. Who doesn’t love mashed potatoes, especially doused in gravy? And the vegetables, though probably frozen, were a small delight–crunchy and bite-sized, providing textural contrast. I began to notice people congregating at a small booth on one side of the restaurant. I ambled over to investigate; turns out the booth was a salad bar where people made their own salad. There was iceberg lettuce, carrots, cucumber, tomatoes, young corn, and croutons. Since this was the 80s, Thousand Island dressing reigned supreme, though there were other dressings and vinaigrettes there as well.
I loved the idea of being able to do your own thing, of taking command of your food, of deciding how little or how much I would be able to put on my plate. But most of all, I was enamored with the dressing. Though this may cost me some friends, I’m going to come out and says that I am a mayonnaise fiend, and as a child, this translated into a love for Thousand Island dressing. But to get to all of that creamy, ketchup-mayonnaise-relishy glop without looking like an idiot, I knew that I had to cover my tracks and pretend to eat vegetables. So I made my first salad, and I loved it. The crunch of fresh vegetables, the smooth fatty slide of the dressing that coated them, I was in heaven. I had found my new favorite food next to steak, and it was a fresh vegetable salad. I was so in love with salad that I spent one summer eating nothing but lettuce and dressing and maybe some carrots if I was feeling fancy, just because I thought it was fun. This is also why it was fairly easy for me to cut out pork, chicken, beef, and other land-dwelling animals after I had weaned myself away from steak.
Did going full vegetarian ever cross my mind? Of course it did. Water creatures are animals too, and lessening fishing and farming would also go a long way in securing the welfare of human beings. But I also knew that I couldn’t do it. I admired people who were vegetarian, even vegan, but I was weak in that aspect, my selfish need for easy flavor outshining even my most noble intentions. Still, I was always wondering if I could make the leap. I promised myself no flesh for a week, a week that I still look back on with regret. It was in the summer, where I spent most of the time at home, thus having control over my meals. It was easy to turn down fried bangus and tuyo, even though I loved them.
Things hit a snag when we ate out; my dad’s best friend was in town, and we treated him to a small Chinese lauriat lunch, which featured mantis shrimp, a rare delicacy. If you’ve ever partaken of a Chinese lauriat, you know that it is made up mostly of meat and seafood, with dessert being the only truly flesh-free dish, and only if it was fruit. I sat there as everyone feasted on jellyfish and crab. Even the vegetables were off-limits, as they were covered in oyster sauce. When the mantis shrimp arrived, I almost cried. How I wanted to dig into that firm, yet yielding flesh and suck on its juices. Instead, I held firm, watching as everyone ate, citing a stomach ache when asked why I wasn’t partaking of the feast. I lived through the week as a true vegetarian, albeit a miserable one, and have since sworn to myself never to go through that ordeal again.
Slight emotional harassment aside, there were other side effects to cutting out land-dwelling animals from my diet. I lost 30 lbs in six months, felt lighter, felt better. In fact, I lost so much weight that I wasn’t allowed to give blood to my uncle because I was “too light.” To a kid who’s been overweight for as long as she can remember, this was mind-blowing.
I mostly ate vegetables, saving seafood for special occasions, because I liked preparing my meals and would only work with vegetables because they were easier for me to flavor. I wasn’t physically active and didn’t cut down on sugar (which, in hindsight, I should have). In other words, the weight loss was accidental, the better well-being even more so. I’m not saying that cutting out meat is for everyone, but it worked exceptionally well for me. But as the years went on, the small psychological traumas, much like a drop of water falling every second on your forehead, began to outweigh the physical benefits. And so, after ten years of standing up for something I believed in, I slowly transitioned back into eating meat.
With it came weight gain and a feeling of heaviness, which may or may not have contributed to the depression I’ve had all my life, but at least I got to eat steak. I ate so much steak (probably to make up for 10 years without it), that I became known for it. And when people find out that I was pescatarian for a decade, they are incredulous. They ask me how it felt.
This is what I tell them: It felt good at first, crusading for a cause. It’s something you do in your teens and early twenties: suffering painfully, in loneliness, for something you believe in–love, art, philosophy. But it slowly began to grate on me, how everyone kept poking their noses into my business, how what I chose to put into my body became cause for debate, even derision. It made me second guess my reason for giving up bacon, for giving up Kentucky Fried Chicken, for giving up steak. Ten years of not sitting down to a breakfast of crisp bacon, of not savoring it as it yields its flavors in my mouth, of not leaving the table with the oily sheen of it resting on my lips.
I realized that humanity wasn’t worth saving, at least not by me. And so I started eating meat again, even though to this day, I get a headache half the time I ingest the flesh of something that dwelt on land. There are many things that are wrong with this world. But bacon, bacon is good. Steak is better. Both were good before they got appropriated into everything, and will continue to be good after the fad passes. Because there is flavor in fat, and life is too short to be lived without flavor.
The one good thing about a decade without meat is now, whenever vegetarians try to make me feel guilty because of my food choices, I have the right to kick them. After all, if I can spend 10 years quietly living my dietary choices, why can’t they?
This essay first appeared in Esquire Philippines.