“It’s okay…I make lamb. Come!”
That scene from My Big Fat Greek Wedding kept replaying in my head as we flew to Buffalo for Christmas last month – as vegetarians. Sure, we’d visited in September, but it was only for a weekend – not an entire week centered around Mama Ro’s industry-size cooker filled with sausage and peppers, five-pound meatballs and heavyweight trays of baked lasagna.
But it wasn’t the meat I was worried about. It was those little Italian ladies teetering over the giant pots of sauce that scared me to death.
(Seriously, click that link up there and watch that grainy YouTube scene. It is seriously my life.)
And sure enough, every bite of food that we put in our mouths for seven straight days was watched like a hawk by my 93 year-old grandmother. She drilled me on every meal of the day. Our daily conversations for the first two days we were home went something like this:
Mama: “Well what do you eat for breakfast then?”
Me: “Toast, cereal or a smoothie”
Mama: “But what about your diet?”
Me: “Mama, it is just no meat. If it doesn’t have meat in it, we eat it. If it does, we don’t. It’s really not too crazy.”
Mama: “Oh. I don’t understand it. Can you have sausage?”
Sigh. I couldn’t help but laugh most of the time – especially when she asked Matt four times at Christmas dinner if he wanted a meatball.
I can’t blame them, for it probably seems super bizarre to them to see someone who ate nothing but turkey sandwiches, Chiavetta’s chicken and obviously, my Ma’s sauce for 26 years, drop it all one day in favor of bright green smoothies. But whether they knew it or not, my journey to becoming a vegetarian was a slow one – and one that was kick-started into high gear when my husband, Mr. “Chicken is my favorite food” Matt Izzo started digging it, too (get it – veggies? “Digging” it? Ah I kill myself).
To fast forward: we’ve been on the plant- eating side of the fence for about seven months now. We decided to give it a shot after many talks, research and meatless Monday meals. We both realized that our affinity for meat stemmed from the fact that we grew up revolving every meal around it, and therefore eating it had become more of a mindless habit than an enjoyable occasion. We really had no reason FOR eating meat, but we now had many reasons against it.
And to rewind: For the past few years, I had grown weary of meat and chicken after reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma, watching Food, Inc. and simply noticing how ginormous the regular chicken breasts were compared to their organic, grass-fed counterparts. (Also the ones I could never afford, at $20 a pack.) I started feeling uncomfortable buying packaged meat every week at the grocery store – I knew I was doing myself (and chickens, cows and all of the farmers under the choke hold of giant corporations) a disservice. Leaving the grocery store one day, I decided to try to go meatless once or twice a week. I have always loved fruit and vegetables – how come I didn’t focus on them more?
During this whole food-revelation thing, we also started running. A lot. Matt was always in training mode for some half or full marathon, and I ran along with him for various races, including my first half-marathon in Seattle last June.
As Matt was averaging 50 miles or so a week, the idea of food as energy shifted from somewhat mindless to serious. I mean, we have always been very healthy eaters, but for the first time we started focusing on the actual nutrients our food was providing us – not just calories. We still were eating chicken on most days but started to incorporate a lot more whole grains, greens and veggies. I found that my meatless days were really fulfilling, both for my always-growling belly and my always-analyzing brain.
Then one day Matt picked up Rich Roll’s book Finding Ultra and, after reading, decided flat out to go meatless. Cold tofurkey. And since I was on the platform for the meatless train, I thought what the hell! And jumped right on board with him.
Of course, the Vitamix came, too. (But more on that in another post.)
We’ve been vegetarians ever since and I really can say that I haven’t missed meat one bit. That said, I entered into this plant-based diet with an open mind and open palette – I was going to try it out, see how I felt and if in some case down the road, if I was ever dying to eat a bite of chicken or, let’s be real here – Mama Ro’s meatballs – then I would. This wasn’t supposed to be a restrictions-ladened path. I have agonized over enough meals in my life! This was to be a lifestyle choice, and as we all know, lifestyles can change whenever you want them to.
BUT so far, this has been the best lifestyle that I have ever experienced. We feel healthier than ever, with more energy, more motivation and more freaking fruits and vegetables in our fridge than the entire produce section of Wegmans (and Lord knows I’m not mad about that!). I have fallen even more in love with cooking (if that is even possible) becoming vegetarian has opened up a new world culinary adventures. Since we have to be a bit more creative with our daily meals, I am constantly in the kitchen trying new ingredients and whipping up new recipes that will make me – and that always-hungry boy I live with – happy and full. Or “satiated” as Matt keeps trying to tell me. :)
I also have started writing another post on how becoming a vegetarian has also completely changed the way I view- and treat- my body. As someone who used to count every calorie and agonized over my meal choices, I finally feel balanced. Liberated, really – just thinking about the way I feel now vs. the way I have felt all of my life is pretty damn amazing.
Also amazing – my brother Dave texted me last week and asked me to “send over some of those vegetarian recipes you made over Christmas” as he wants to give this whole plant-based thing a shot. And my brother and sister-in-law, Paul & Kyra, have decided to give veganism a go! While I don’t know if I could ever give up my beloved Greek yogurts, (or freaking amazing pieces of heaven called gouda, brie and Muenster) we are more than excited to have others along on this quinoa-filled, sweet potato-roasting, green-smoothie-loving journey.
I really encourage anyone who is thinking about slowing down their meat intake (or stopping it all together) a try. I know it is not for everyone (and I also know that people just LOVE telling you how much they love meat when you tell them you don’t eat it haha) but either way, it sure can’t hurt you to be more conscious about the fuel you are putting into your body, whether you eat meat or not. I know for me, making this change has given my mind and body the boost it has craved for my entire life. By simply losing meat, I feel like I have gained so much.
Aaaaaand now that I sound like a Special K commercial, I’m going to end it there. I definitely intend to keep writing about our vegetarian experiences here on ciao mama, as well as share some of my favorite vegetarian (and vegan) dishes, snacks and smoothies. I am also on a mission to vegetarianize (that is now a word, FYI) my favorite family recipes, so watch out! Mama Ro! I’m going to make you love lentil meatballs. Just wait. :)