“What’s that?” “Do you eat chicken?” Two of the three questions I’m asked most frequently since becoming a pescatarian can be dispatched swiftly: (1) A fish-eating vegetarian. (2) No. “Why?” is more complicated. My health and well-being, I might say, but I can’t just leave it there. I’m concerned about the welfare of animals, alarmed at the human and environmental cost of raising animals for food. So rather than embark on a monologue when asked why I don’t eat meat, I resort to Bartleby’s statement of passive resistance—“I prefer not to.”
My mother cast meat in a supporting role out of economic necessity: spaghetti, tacos, budget-stretching casseroles. I dutifully downed the chicken, hamburger, and pot roast that occasional graced the table, but I favored fish, any fish. Fresh corbina pulled out of the San Diego surf by my father, canned tuna baked with noodles and mushroom soup in my favorite casserole, processed cod molded into Gorton’s frozen fish sticks.
Lamb wasn’t in my mother’s repertoire. An aunt provided my first and only encounter with baby sheep as food, which I found disagreeable, “Gross!” in kid-speak. It’s said to be an acquired taste. I fixed lamb chops for a boyfriend once, at his request, but still couldn’t bring myself to try it. Decades later, living in a small English village for six months, I saw days-old lambs bleating and cavorting after their mothers as I passed fields and farms. One early spring day I met a young woman cradling a downy white bundle. His mother had died giving birth, she said. She passed him into my arms, held out a baby bottle. “Would you like to feed him?”
My last meal as a lukewarm carnivore was lunch with my daughter at the Prado in Balboa Park in the summer of 2007. I ordered the chicken chopped salad with mango and snow peas but found myself picking the chicken bits out and depositing them on the side of my plate. It struck me—as if a chandelier had dropped from the ceiling onto my head—that I no longer wanted to eat chicken. Or beef or pork.
Exceptions emerged over time. I occasionally succumb to a bit of bacon—that rich, salty taste. It’s said to have six kinds of umami, so why try to resist? But my weakness is dumplings, Asian dumplings: potstickers and gyoza and xiao long bao (soup dumplings). Some places make meatless variations—crab and scallion, shrimp and chive—but most are pork-filled. I claim an exemption for anything inside a dumpling. It’s filling, I say, not meat.
Pescatarians expressed relief when scientists asserted that fish can’t be conscious of pain because they have no neocortex. But more recent studies report that birds and amphibians also lack a neocortex yet have been shown to suffer. In one study, twenty-three pain receptors were found on the face of a rainbow trout. I’m sorry if my seafood suffers for me, but never having cuddled a salmon fry or fingerling, I indulge without remorse.
The protagonists of Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies don’t eat meat. Mathilde tells how she swore off meat at fourteen after she saw an exposé “about cows hung on hooks and flayed alive, chickens squeezed into cages that broke their legs and living out their days caked in their own shit.” Their pescetarianism comes to light when they’re shown eating salmon burgers.
Ellen DeGeneris, Brigitte Bardot, Billy Idol, Steve Jobs, Mary Tyler Moore, Montserrat Caballe, Martina Navratilova, Joe Namath, and Ben Stiller are notable pescatarians. Fish-eating vegetarians, as well as pollo-vegetarians (who eat chicken) and several hyphenated others may or may not be included in the five percent of the U.S. population said to be vegetarian. They shouldn’t be, says my vegan friend Michelle: “If you are vegetarian you do not eat flesh and fish is flesh.”
Some Brahmins who consider themselves vegetarians condone eating fish, calling them “vegetables from the sea.” They aren’t killing them, they say, just taking them out of the water, where they die, like fruit dies when removed from the tree. My father used to take me fishing as a child. The sea vegetables we extracted from the ocean were alive and flopping as we deposited them in a pail, but not for long. I can’t deny we were complicit in their demise.
Friends, non-southerners, make Hoppin’ John on New Year’s Day, a Southern tradition to assure good luck throughout the year. A ham hock, hog jowl, or other pork product provides the savory oomph in this dish of black-eyed peas and rice. When our friends went vegetarian (and then vegan) they continued the ritual but eliminated the pork.
“What will Don do?” friends said when I stopped eating meat. Even my daughter, out of pity for my husband, gave him a gift-wrapped package of frozen filet mignons wrapped in bacon for Christmas. I don’t cook what I don’t eat, but he isn’t helpless. He buys rotisserie chickens and packages of ground beef. He stretches them over several meals, putting them into scrambles and sandwiches, soups and what he calls gruels.
Mussels and clams were my shellfish of choice until the night I doubled over and passed out after feasting on steamed clams. My sudden and perilous brush with anaphylactic shock was the first sign of adult-onset shellfish allergy. It could have been just a bad clam, but when a cautious second attempt resulted in mild but recognizable symptoms, I swore off all shellfish. When I learned that my reaction might be to mollusks only, not crustaceans, I experimented carefully, then welcomed shrimp back into my diet. Along with salmon and yellowtail, albacore and anchovies, sushi and sashimi. I don’t feel deprived.