I had ordered the vegetarian burrito at a local restaurant, so I was surprised to find shreds and chunks of chicken in the mix.
"This has meat in it," I said to my companions. Then, because the waiter was nearby, I caught his attention. "This has meat in it," I told him.
I don't think I said it like you might say, "This is the heart of my firstborn son," but who knows. He may have heard it differently because he snatched up my plate and hustled away, saying, "It has meat in it! Oh my goodness!"
My friends laughed. "Think he was being sarcastic?" they said sarcastically.
Until that moment, I had assumed he was reacting with genuine concern -- a customer ordered one thing and received another -- oh my goodness!
Now that they mentioned it, though, I saw my friends probably were right. The waiter had been expressing his opinion, not of an unsatisfied patron of his restaurant but of a person who can't notice a little chicken in her vegetarian burrito without getting all hysterical about it.
"But I didn't want chicken," I might have said. People sometimes don't want black olives or hot peppers or tomato, and if those items are served accidentally, apologies are tendered and reparations offered. But let meat show up when no meat was ordered and you'd think a customer was smashing an on-the-house birthday cupcake against the wall. Lips are pursed, eyes are narrowed and judgments are made.
And politicized? Vegetarians, I've noticed, are grouped with tree-huggers, goody-goodies and champions of the snail darter. Not a bad crowd, but no one wants to be plunked automatically into any group. For one thing, it makes declaring one's true affiliations trickier because how can a person admit she's occasionally bawdy when she's supposed to be a goody-goody? It's like expecting the person who plays Big Bird to behave like a 4-year-old all the time: too hard on the person inside the bird costume.
I stopped eating meat almost 30 years ago when my adolescent daughter announced she was a vegetarian. When she convinced me she was serious, I became one, too. My younger daughter joined us soon after, and for years we all were vegetarians together.
They since have resumed eating meat, and I've thought about doing the same. What stops me has nothing to do with moral convictions or cow appreciation or even environmental concerns. It's that I never was that crazy about meat to begin with.
"Ooh, give me a good juicy steak," people would say, and I'd think, "Give me a nice sweet potato." I ate meat, sure, but I never heard the angel choir.
Every once in a while, I'll order something in a restaurant without realizing the dish contained meat -- bean soup with bacon, say.
After the first spoonful, I say, "Huh," trying to identify the funny taste. The second spoonful makes me wonder what kind of beans these are, anyway. And then I get there: It's meat. Unless it's shaved crayon or chopped ChapStick or diced Styrofoam peanut. I never meant for meat to become a nonfood item to my palate, but after all these years, that's what it is.
Well, too bad for me. I threw in with my daughters; they escaped and here I am, unable to eat a little chicken without wondering if the cook dropped a handful of shredded corks into the pot.
So now you know. I became a vegetarian more or less on a whim and the door locked behind me. Please don't send a rescue unit. I have plenty to eat, and I'm perfectly happy -- oh my goodness, I'm happy.
Write to Margo Bartlett at firstname.lastname@example.org.