I open the double-layered, wax-coated paper to reveal the slightly frozen chunks of bright red beef, each piece clinging to the others like magnets. Two pounds of the meat gleams from the white paper on the counter as the olive oil heats on the stove next to me.
Because my step sons love it, I am making beef stew according to a recipe given to me by their mother’s friend. “Grandma” Phyllis’s concoction is nothing like the beef stew from my mother’s kitchen, or that I used to make in loyal imitation. In the stew I am making, potatoes, carrots, onions, and beef float in a light, watery broth; there are no random peas or beans added in from what is left in the fridge. No corn starch-thickening is stirred in at the end, and never would a can of yams be thrown in as an experiment.
That would be iconoclasm.
And yet the very act of simmering beef in water, and submerging tubers and vegetables to the boiling stock is so contrary to my own kitchen ethic now as a vegan that I have begun to wonder if I will ever be able to perform a pure act in the kitchen again.
For the past year and a half, for health reasons that go beyond slim thighs or low cholesterol, I have removed all animal proteins and all processed sugars and artificial sweeteners from my diet. I don’t eat dairy, eggs, or meat in any form. And beyond a couple of pieces of fruit a day, and an occasional teaspoon of honey, pure maple syrup, or pureed fruit spread, I don’t eat anything that is sweet or contains sugar.
Enter a new husband and step sons.
While my husband is willing to eat beans and rice, or squash and quinoa, our boys prefer tacos with ground beef and chicken nuggets, French fries and burgers. I can try to hide spinach in the spaghetti sauce, but not even with ground beef cooked in will it fool them.
I make food I would never eat for people I love more than myself. Is this sacrifice or sacrilege?
My vegan, sugar-restricted diet is a source of endless curiosity to the 10-, 12-, and 14-year-olds that live half-time at our house. At least once a day, someone begins a question with, “Can you eat . . .?” which is quickly followed by “Oh yeah, it’s made from dairy” or “Oh yeah, it has sugar” when I answer “no.” They want me to be able to try the barbecue sauce they eat on their pulled pork sandwiches I have made them, or to sample the ice cream treats I bought them from the grocery. When we recently made a special trip to a gourmet candy store for chocolate covered peanuts and bags of cotton candy, they desperately wanted to share.
I love them for it.
But I say “no thank you,” and “you enjoy it,” and pray that my convictions about my health and what I eat aren’t true so that their dietary habits won’t someday harm them.
Is it wrong to make hotdogs and bacon for my sons after reading that processed meat is one of the greatest dietary risks for cancer and heart disease? Should I bake brownies on the weekend and buy juice boxes loaded with high fructose corn syrup when I know that too much processed sucrose and fructose can lead to fluctuating blood sugar, increasing the risk for diabetes and obesity and compromised immunity?
When I talk about my food choices with others, I mention my convictions about the research I have read and how my own experience has convinced me that I am doing what is right for me. But I also know that it’s hard to say “no” so often, that what we all buy at the store and store in our fridges and cook on our stoves isn’t just about cancer risk and blood sugar levels. It’s also about where we come from and what we can afford and how we treat ourselves.
When I talk about these choices with our boys, I tell them that I want to be as healthy as I can be, so I make the best choices I can. And I hope they will make good choices too. So I make the ground beef tacos, but I chop piles of lettuce, onions, and tomatoes to go with it. While I bake occasionally, I also set out bowls of grapes or orange sections during meal times. We also buy snacks like low-fat pretzels and high protein nuts.
And they watch and observe and ask.
“Does this bread have bleached flour?” our middle son recently asked. His teacher apparently had discussed the milling process in class.
“Yes, it does,” I tell him, explaining that most processed bread that looks white has been made with bleached flour.
“I don’t want to eat bleached flour anymore,” he tells me, though his appetite for the darker, grainy loaves I buy for myself is slim. Most days he still chooses the soft white bread I buy for their sandwiches. During a recent taco night, though, he watched me piling beans and rice and tomatoes into whole wheat tortillas.
“Do those have bleached flour?” he asked. When I told him “no,” he tasted and then chose one to eat with his ground beef and lettuce. Victorious does not quite describe how I felt about that.
Making multiple main dishes at meal time is a common occurrence in our house. Sometimes, it’s to accommodate a picky eater, one whose choices are limited by brand and cooking technique in addition to the food itself. But I have come up with a short list of items that everyone likes, and in order to simplify meal time on one level, I rotate through those. Most of the time, I am making extra food for me, to ensure there are enough vegetables and plant protein to fill me up.
Some people balk that I would make multiple meals. When they get hungry enough, they’ll eat, is the basic rationale I have heard. After some of the stand offs over vegetable soup and taco pie I’ve had, I doubt it. But since my food choices are often the outliers in our family, I hardly feel I can make everyone adhere to my preferences.
We have wrestled, both figuratively and literally, over food in our house during these first few months of living together. Where I have landed, though, is back at the table, one of the few places where we all come together and hold hands and bless the Lord. We don’t all eat the same food, but we all share the same space, if only for a few minutes. And those precious few minutes, for these precious few years, is worth all of the chicken I have fried and the eggs I have scrambled and the sugary frosting I spread over birthday cakes just this weekend.
Bringing food to the table with love is never a sacrilege.
“What’s becoming clearer and clearer to me is that the most sacred moments, the ones in which I feel God’s presence most profoundly, when I feel the goodness of the world most arrestingly, take place at the table. The particular alchemy of celebration and food, of connecting people and serving what I’ve made with my own hands, comes together as more than the sum of their parts. I love the sounds and smells and textures of life at the table, hands passing bowls and forks clinking against plates and bread being torn and the rhythm and energy of feeding and being fed.” – from Bread and Wine: A Love Letter to Life Around the Table by Shauna Niequist