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Unlike a lot of folks, I didn’t buy or even demand any chocolate for Valentine’s Day.  I gave it up years ago (as I briefly mentioned in an earlier post) in my effort to cut caffeine entirely out of my diet – and, eleven years later, I’m still completely caffeine free.

My diet has long been a thing of fascination to my friends and acquaintances over the years – and to myself as well as it continues to evolve.

There was a single moment that changed my relationship to food that resonates to this day, nearly twenty years on.  I’ll never forget it.

It was a warm spring day in Auburn, Maine, and I was first in line waiting at a red light to cross over Center Street.  I was twenty years old, and I was working in and had just recently started renting an apartment in Lewiston.   In that moment, life was good.  I had the music up, and the windows down for the first time that spring.

The vehicle that happened to come to a stop in front of me at the intersection changed my life.

Rolling down Route 4 from the north in Turner came an open-sided truck from DeCoster Egg Farm, not carrying eggs, but the hens that produce them.  Hundreds of them, crammed thickly into cages.  Their movements were a terrible struggle.  Their cries of discomfort were unmistakable.   Feathers drifted free and were carried by a breeze over the long line of busy, mid-day traffic.

I turned off my radio as tears burned down my cheeks.

“That’s it!” I declared out loud to myself.  I was done being a meat-eater.

The seeds for this epiphany had been planted when I was a young girl.  I’d been a staunch supporter of animal rights as a youngster (following my mother’s footsteps) and used to bring to school all of the shocking literature that my mom received from organizations like International Fund for Animal Welfare, World Wildlife Fund and Greenpeace (just to name a few of the organizations of which she was a pledging member) and display it off the front of my school desk.  These mailings often included glossy, color images of baby harp seals being clubbed to death; household pets being sold in Asian meat markets; wolves shot by snipers from Alaskan helicopters; majestic humpback whales beached and bloodied by harpooning.  My teacher would often despair of my campaigns and would ask me to remove the photos; my classmates never tired of teasing me about it.  I didn’t care – in my mind, I was bringing attention to serious matters.

“We need to speak for the animals because they can’t speak for themselves,” I was often fond of saying.

“Well, why do you still eat meat then?” my classmates would sneer.  And I never had an answer.  I would simply stammer and blush with embarrassment.

During these same years, I was taking piano lessons from Helen Davidson who, along with her husband, owned and operated a farm in Hebron.   Sometimes after my weekly lesson I would go out to the barn with Helen to visit the cows.   She introduced me to one particular little calf, saying, “This is Malcolm.”

For the following months, I would look forward to the occasional visit to the barn to see Malcolm and to feeding him from my tiny hands.

Then, there came a day when Malcolm was no longer in the barn, and I wondered to myself where he had gone.

At the dinner table one evening, as I was a few bites into my dinner, my father looked at me and said, “How do you like your Malcolm burger?”  A sharp pang of sadness and outrage sliced through me.   I don’t remember what happened after that – I was only in fourth or fifth grade – but I’ve not yet forgotten that terrible feeling.

As a child, of course, you eat what your parents serve you, and so the memory of this incident slowly faded and I continued on the omnivore’s path, right up until the day I saw that truckload of chickens.

Red meat was easy to give up (I didn’t eat that much of it anyway).  Pork, seafood and turkey, not a huge deal either.  Chicken was a bit more difficult, as I had relied upon it as a staple.

Slowly, I learned to replace my proteins, learned how to do more with beans and nuts.  I fell in love with cooking, with experimenting with flavors and colors and aromas.

My detoxification didn’t end there.  The following year, I quit drinking – a huge hurdle to clear.  Eventually, I gave up dairy, too – I had become increasingly less tolerant to it, both physically and philosophically.  Soda was long gone, as were preservatives, food colorings, fillers.  Gone, too, were most simple sugars.   It would take me hours to go food shopping, carefully reading labels, researching ingredients.

Little shifts here and there have taken place over the years – rice milk instead of soy; hemp protein in my morning smoothies replaced spirulina; various vitamin supplements have come and gone; maple syrup and honey have made comebacks, as did eggs two years ago.

For me, all of these choices have been wise and good.  However, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this diet for everyone.  Being a damn-near-vegan can be hard work sometimes.  When you cut out meat, dairy, refined sugars, caffeine, food colorings, preservatives and additives, one fact is abundantly clear – you’re gonna be spending a whole lot of time in the kitchen, which I’m lucky that I do love to do.  Cooking is a creative process for me and, like any other creative activity, there are moments of… I guess you could call it “cooking block.”

“What the hell am I going to make tonight?”

One of these weeks – maybe next week – I’ll talk a bit about what I think should be included in a well-stocked pantry.   Stay tuned.  🙂

And for the record, I’m not one of those “meat-is-murder” vegetarians.  I believe that the Davidsons were absolutely right to raise their own beef.  Better that than to buy it in the supermarket, coming from some hideous factory farm in who-knows-where.

I couldn’t do it.  Raise a calf and then butcher it?  Or raise a rifle to a deer in the woods?  I admire and respect anyone who can and does.  Certainly in a matter of life or death, I imagine I could.  I figure, though, that if I can live without doing these things, or without asking others to do it on my behalf, then I will try for as long as I am able.