Tell someone you’re a vegetarian and you won’t get much of a response. Suggest that you don’t like vegetables and you’re met with a similar lack of surprise. But say that you’re a vegetarian and you don’t like vegetables, and they will be all over you! I mean, you’re going to get swarmed!
I speak from experience. I’ll tell you a little about it, but first let me clarify a couple of inaccurate points I’ve already made. There are standard responses offered by most people when they hear that I’ve been a vegetarian for twenty years. They are, in order:
1. “Do you eat chicken?” (No.)
2. “How about fish?” (No. I’ve never liked seafood of any kind.)
3. “Where do you get your protein? You really need to be careful about that…”
The first two questions seem to suggest that chickens and fish are not animals, which I don’t understand. But it’s the third question that usually knocks me back. It’s asked almost as a warning, as though somehow I’ve survived for the past twenty years without consuming this vital nutrient and have been unaware of my luck, which I’d better stop pushing right now. The biggest land mammals on earth are all vegetarian, I answer. Elephants, giraffes, horses, rhinos — they all eat plants. They must need more protein than I do. Pandas eat nothing but bamboo! How much protein could there be in bamboo? (True, pandas are almost extinct, and the ones that are alive don’t seem very happy. But still.)
The other point is that I do like vegetables. Some vegetables, anyway. The trouble is, they’re not the right ones. They’re not the ones other people think I should be eating. I eat salads almost every day, salads filled with lettuce, carrots, onions, celery, peppers, cucumbers, and olives. More questions: “What kind of lettuce?” (Iceberg lettuce.) “Iceberg lettuce?” (Eyes rolling.) “There are no nutrients in iceberg lettuce!” (At this point, I’m fantasizing about being stranded with this person on a desert island. We have no food, except for the eighteen heads of iceberg lettuce I have stored in my cooler. I don’t know how it is that I have a cooler on a desert island, but this is my fantasy so let me finish. The other person is crying, begging me to share my food and I say, “I wouldn’t do that to you. There’s no nutrition in iceberg lettuce!”)
Where was I? Salads, right. I like raw carrots, but not cooked ones. I don’t know why. That’s just the way it is. To balance out the equation, I love cooked tomatoes, but can’t even look at raw ones. When we’re in a restaurant and are served salad, my wife takes my tomatoes and I take her onions. It’s perfectly all right, apparently, that she doesn’t like onions, and most people will cozy up to her and confide, “I don’t like onions either.” Then they’ll turn to me and resume their lecture on why I should eat cauliflower. (We’re back on the desert island. I have a large box labeled CAULIFLOWER. I offer it to my lecturer, who opens it up only to find that it’s filled with onions. Adding to the horror, they’re Vidalia onions, which makes the revenge that much sweeter.)
“What about cooked vegetables?” (I like corn, potatoes, peppers, garlic…) Here I’m interrupted again. “Garlic? That’s not a vegetable.” (Yes, it is. Go look it up.) “Well, it isn’t a green vegetable.” Ah, so we finally get to the heart of the matter. It’s true, I don’t like the following: broccoli, asparagus, green beans, peas, spinach, or any of those mysterious spinach-like vegetables, of which it seems there are thousands. “This isn’t spinach. It’s swiss chard. Try it. Really, it’s delicious!” (My mother couldn’t get away with that when I was eleven. I’m not going to fall for it now.) “You just haven’t had vegetables that were cooked properly. It’s all in how they’re prepared.” (I believe that’s what they say about blowfish.)
Here’s how I see it. There’s Group One: the people who don’t like vegetables. And there’s Group Two: people who, at some point, decided to become vegetarians. Some of the people in Group Two will have come out of Group One. For them, and I’m assuming here that I’m not the only one, it’s difficult to will themselves to start liking vegetables (something they’d never been able to do before) just because they’ve stopped eating meat. The result, which seems to drive many people to the edge of their sanity, is that there are a few vegetarians who don’t like vegetables.
“Don’t you like any cooked green vegetables?” Yes, basil. “No, basil isn’t a vegetable. It’s a herb.” (At this point, I launch a double attack. First of all, I don’t subscribe to this person’s classification system. Basil is a green plant that grows out of the ground, and that I later pick, wash, cook, and eat. It’s a vegetable in my book. Second, I still pronounce it “erb.” There was a time when you sounded ignorant if you pronounced the “h,” as though you were saying the name Herb. Then, one day Martha Stewart called a meeting (which I knew nothing about) and announced that from now on, it was all right to say “herb” with the “h” and of course everybody wanted to sound as though they were in the know, so they obeyed Martha’s instructions. I, however, happen to have a mind of my own. I’m a vegetarian, and I don’t like cooked green vegetables except for basil, which I still and always will refer to as an “erb.” (I’m trying to conjure a final fantasy here involving the desert island, my tormentor, and a bunch of men named Herb. But if you’re still reading this, I think I have more luck than I deserve, and I should stop pushing it right now.)