My dear and accommodating friends and family always check before I visit, “Do you still eat fish?” They want to serve me food I can eat and not just side dishes, which is very kind of them. They want to make a meal everyone will enjoy, something special, and if they can’t serve me meat, they are pleased to prepare an elegant fish or shellfish entrée as the pièce de résistance. I really do appreciate these meals and how much concern and effort my friends and family show me. Yet the ungrateful side of me keeps thinking, one of these days I’m going to lie: “No, I no longer eat fish.”
People tend to feed me a lot of fish. By the time we return home from an extended trip visiting anyone, I feel like I am starting to form gills behind my ears and I’m exuding fish oil from my armpits. I am so filled up with fish and seafood that the first thing I want to tear into at home is a big bowl of anything but fish: veggies, pasta, beans, tofu, yogurt, and whole meals devoid of protein. I can go away from home for six days and consume fish and seafood more than twelve times, especially if I stop at my dad’s house and eat lox with breakfast. At home I eat fish about once or twice a week, depending on whether or not I’m at the supermarket with my husband Wayne and can steer him away from the fish department. If left to my own devices I would eat fish only at restaurants where the specialty is fish and nothing else on the menu is appealing.
The truth is, I don’t like most fish. Fresh lobster, spicy tuna rolls, and occasionally a particularly well prepared fish, scallop, or shrimp dish reminds me that I don’t want to give up food from the sea. For instance on our last trip, our friend Patrick served scallops that made me grateful I hadn’t forsaken fish. Most days, however, the real reason I still eat fish is because some restaurants don’t have anything I’m willing to eat that’s vegetarian and I can’t bear to say to people who are cooking for me, “no fish.” Some of them just wouldn’t know what to do.
Someone recently told me I was an easy-to-eat-with vegetarian. I felt warm and accepted for a moment until I realized that the only reason he said this was because he didn’t know me that well. In addition to meats and animal fats, I also cross of my mental list of possible entrees those that contain high fructose corn syrup or fake sugar, involve some kind of fake meat, are served in a creamy sauce, have an undue amount of cheese, use potato as a main ingredient, contain asparagus, or have prominent egg yolks. I am a hard-to-feed vegetarian who also happens to eat fish, and only sometimes and certain fish. That makes me a lacto-ovo-reluctantly-pesco-vegetarian.
I also realize that my excess fish consumption is at least partly my own fault. Last week my dad visited and I went food shopping with him before preparing dinner. I was thinking of creating some sort of veggie stir-fry or bean dish. At the farmer’s market I paced up between vendors, fretting over what to make. Dad suggested that since we also had to go over to the supermarket, we should pick up some fish. I felt my face turn into a half scowl before I remembered to politely pick up the corners of my mouth and say, “I guess we could do that.” I was actually thinking, “Plech. Anything but fish.” I reminded myself that sometimes I like fish. In fact Wayne makes a grilled mahi mahi that I actually enjoy. Dad likes fish, and this dish would be tasty, healthy, and I wouldn’t hate it. Also, I wouldn’t have to expend all the energy in figuring out a vegetarian dish that doesn’t have too many beans for Wayne, too much cheese for Dad, or too much effort for me.
At the fish department, my face went into full scowl before I noticed myself turning into my petulant teenager persona, the one who twenty years ago had no compunction about repeating aloud, “but I don’t like fish.” There was no mahi mahi in the grocery store. The tuna was big brown bricks that looked like they tasted fishy and were probably full of mercury anyway. I don’t eat bivalves except for scallops and those looked a bit yellow. The various whitish filets glinted slimily at me and a fat orange piece of salmon taunted me. “Don’t say salmon,” I told my dad, reverting back into whiny teen. I can’t stand cooked salmon with its salmony flavor that everyone else inexplicably loves and how tough and endless the wad of dry flesh feels in my mouth. Smoked salmon I love, but that’s an entirely different food experience.
The lack of mahi mahi was my opportunity to say, “Dad, let’s have vegetarian something-or-other!” He probably would have been just as pleased. Only, I couldn’t think what that something-or-other might be. I didn’t want to suggest pasta which he prefers not to eat or Mexican bean burritos which he doesn’t like, and no other possibilities came to mind whatsoever. It was as if I hadn’t been eating mostly vegetarian for the past five years. I had vegetarian cooking amnesia. For most Americans, dinner, and especially a dinner that we feel is worthy of company, revolves around a meat or occasionally fish. It occurs to me that if I can’t think of another way to do it when I’m cooking for guests, no wonder most of the time my family and friends want to serve me fish. My usual solution is to avoid fish when I can, and then put on a brave face for the people who cook for me. Still, dear reader, not to be totally ungrateful, but if you are planning to invite me over to dinner, may I suggest a lovely vegetarian chili?