I owned a cow once. When I was a kid, my mother demanded my father stop buying me extravagant princess dresses, and start buying practical gifts. So he bought me a cow from my uncle's farm. After a brief introduction, my hand reaching through the slats of the pen to pet the caramel and cream calf, I wanted to take it home with me. Months later, a honk in the driveway announced the arrival of our Christmas cow, tidily wrapped in butcher's paper. But enough said. I became a vegetarian.
In my teens, I became so pure that I was plagued by meat nightmares. In one, I was trapped in the food court of a mall, and everything I put in my mouth betrayed me with a meaty centre. I also suffered a masochistic vegan period when even milk and honey were forbidden.
But for any wavering, I've held onto my veginity for longer than most of my friends. I've watched with horror as hardcore vegans have been seduced by a quick fling with bacon and eggs at a greasy spoon. It never happens at a potluck or family dinner where gloating family members are waiting for it. The fall usually comes at a restaurant: a desperate, delicious, indulgent act, that can't be taken back.
As I've aged, it's become harder to hold onto my veginity. Now in my thirties, I have refined my interest in pleasure, and I'm less concerned about guarding pure virtues. I drink wine now. I go to good restaurants. And I have realized that I can't really continue down the slippery slope of enjoying life with such a long "don't" list.
So I'm ready to lose my veginity. But I want to do it with the added pleasure of indulging ethically. So I start looking around.
Where's the beef?
I start by considering beef. Earthsave Canada reports that producing factory farmed beef requires more than double the water that soybeans do: a figure that doesn't lead to guilt-free enjoyment.
Chicken? It requires much less water than beef or pork. While EarthSave warns against the health perils and cruelty issues of chicken and egg production, B.C. has many free range egg and organic chicken farms. The local production means these birds, after having lived relatively happy lives, travel less miles to market. So this seems a possibility.
And then I consider seafood, and I discover that not only does this option seem to be the most sustainable, but also the easiest -- a lot of the homework has been done for me. Programs like Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch and the Vancouver Aquarium's Ocean Wise program provide consumer-friendly guides to choosing sustainable seafood. Ocean Wise even makes it sexy; high end restaurants, with conservation-minded chefs commit to an exclusively Ocean Wise menu, or indicate which items make the cut. So I call up Jason Boyce, Program Manager for Ocean Wise, and ask him to help me lose my veginity.
The day has arrived, and I am sitting alone in a $1000 custom-made restaurant chair, designed specifically to make a person sit upright or slouch intimately in conversation. The ceiling is covered in 5,000 hand-stamped brass tiles, and the black slate table is making my clammy hands clammier. Jason is not late, but I am nervous and early.
They say that in order to seduce a woman, you need to engage her mind as well as her senses. Appropriate then that Jason Boyce is the kind of man who can put a lady at ease even when he's using big words and talking about the fate of an ecosystem. It helps that the restaurant I've chosen, Vancouver's NU, is so high style and expensive, just walking in the foyer makes you feel like you should put out.
Jason spreads his menu flat on the table, and in his warm, quick voice, begins to throw out suggestions. We ease into the menu with some veggie appetizers and then Jason starts to order.
First, we try the honey mussels. Grown exclusively off the B.C. coast, this type of aquaculture has a small footprint. Very self-sufficient little creatures, they strain their food out of the water themselves. The one on my plate looks like an apricot pit hiding inside a shell. As Jason suggests, I pair it with a bit of the curly endive. The bitter green offers me a familiar texture while bringing out the natural sweetness of the mussel. I like it.
Then I approach the side-striped prawns. I try to think of what this animal looked like when it still had its legs and eyes, but Jason distracts me by telling me that B.C. spot prawns are the sweetest, but these ones are also trap caught, not trawled, so there's no guilt to interfere with the mellow flavour. The melt-in-your-mouth texture of the prawn is contrary to what every wheat-gluten replica implied seafood would taste like. It truly tastes sweet, not like a sugary marinade imposing itself on flavourless soy protein. I think I could do this. I could be an omnivore.
Next, Jason introduces me to B.C. albacore tuna. Caught off the coast of the Queen Charlottes using barbless hooks to minimize by-catch, B.C. albacore is a recent addition to the Ocean Wise roster. The outside edge of the tuna steak is seared, but the inside is essentially raw. So now I am eating cold, raw animal flesh. Jason suggests I try it with a little sun-dried tomato.
Then we come to the lobster. I know these creatures. They live in aquariums at conventional supermarkets. Elastic bands silencing their pincers, the only noise you hear is the rustling of the plastic bag as they go home for a hot bath. It's the thought of the rubber band that occupies my brain when I take a hasty bite. And then I am gagging. The lobster flesh resists my attempts to chew it, and when I finally swallow it down, it is still one piece. Jason says, "Oh, your face was hilarious!" As I turn bright red, he says, "You know, of everything you've tried so far, that's the least sustainable one. The lobster fishermen do a great job, but there's an issue of by-catch." It's good to know, if the texture wasn't enough reason to never eat this again.
"You're doing really well," Jason comforts, and summons the waiter for our next dish. "This is going to ruin you for any other salmon." He tells me Fred the fisherman is a dedicated conservationist, who loses sleep at night thinking of the fish. The pink salmon arrives, a tight roll of salmon filet surrounded by a moat of béchamel sauce. Jason transfers half the roll to my plate. He cuts the salmon into bite size pieces for me, as he explains this salmon was caught with barbless hooks, then transferred to a stress recovery tank, which is like a chill out room for captured salmon, before moving to the ship's holding tank. When you're eating fish for the first time, it's a nice thought.
Before we leave, I ask Jason the hard question: what if vegetarians like me start eating fish? Can the ocean handle another mouth to feed? "People see the ocean as flat -- one dimensional," he gestures out the window. Little ferry boats chug from our side of the inlet to the other, darting around buoys as they go. Ferry passengers stand on the dock, gazing out toward the thin line of horizon. For many people, Jason points out, eating seafood is our only connection to the ocean, a deep connection reminding us to care for and protect what's going on below the surface. It's the kind of responsibility a righteous ex-vegetarian could get used to.
My head spins from all the information and protein, Jason offers me a ride back to my office in the aquarium's shiny white hybrid. It's the deliciously guilt-free end to our lunch, and my veginity.