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Carnivore's Dilemma: My Husband Gave Up Meat

When her adventurous-eater husband gives up meat for good, the writer Maggie Pouncey wonders what (or whom) he might give up next.

For our five-year anniversary we did it up in grand style, leaving our Brooklyn apartment for a stay at the Bowery Hotel in Manhattan. We popped the chilled Prosecco waiting for us in our room, then wandered the East Village to see where the evening would lead us. When we walked by Prune, a sparkling jewel box of a restaurant where we'd shared several unforgettable meals, my husband eyed me.

"You know I'm not going to share the whole fish with you this time, right?" he said.

Of course I knew: Matt had been a vegetarian for months, ever since our previous visit to Prune. We'd shared the whole fish -- lemony, exquisite, with fresh herbs. It was the last time he ate flesh of any sort.

But I was fine with forgoing the fish. It was the shrimp toast I craved -- oh, the shrimp toast, an unctuous, briny pillow atop a crispy crostino. Couldn't we share just that, I asked Matt.

After all, it was our anniversary. I had an image of us leaning over a plate "Lady and the Tramp"-style, foreheads nearly touching, forks hovering in midair. I wanted to share. And in wanting to share the shrimp toast, I clearly also wanted to pick a fight. I knew Matt's new eating rule was simple, if exacting: nothing with a mom. We were seated at a cozy table against the wall when I peered over the top of my menu.

"Shrimp hardly strikes me as a maternal animal," I observed. But Matt just wasn't going to argue. "Get it for yourself," he said, in his irritatingly rational way.

Still, I stuck to my lost cause, even as Matt's platter of multihued seasonal vegetables arrived. Why was he so rigid? So rule-bound? For us, sharing now meant adhering strictly to his diet, to whatever he wanted. Wasn't marriage about give and take?

"Are you listening to yourself?" he asked. "You're being ridiculous." Maybe I was. This wasn't a night for bickering, for salting wounds. Really, who cared about shrimp? I'd never been the world's most devoted carnivore. So why did I feel so strongly about what my husband ate or didn't eat? We'd had different versions of this same fight over the past months. It seemed, on the surface, almost silly, and yet also a stand-in -- an ominous one -- for the entirety of our married life.

If on my wedding day someone had told me that my betrothed would become a vegetarian, I would have laughed. Matt's favorite food was lamb, but he consumed all creatures of land and sea -- veal, venison, octopus, oysters -- with equal gusto. On our honeymoon in Oaxaca, Mexico, he didn't shy from sampling the local delicacy: grasshoppers (I, on the other hand, wasn't so bold). On a trip to Greece, he watched a goat roasting on a spit, then he tore the still-hot flesh right off the bone -- an adventure that showed Matt as I loved him best, an ardent, grizzly enthusiast.

Since we'd moved in together at 23, after meeting in college, Matt had a series of passions that bordered on obsessions -- Tae Kwan Do, backcountry skiing, chess -- but the one that benefited me most, included me most, was his cooking. He was a natural in the kitchen and grew to love mastering complex recipes.

Matt was especially gifted when it came to cooking meat. There was the succulent duck a l'orange he made our first Christmas together, and wild turkey he steeped for days in thyme-thickened Chez Panisse brine one Thanksgiving. There were matzo balls for Passover, delicately held together by chicken fat he rendered into schmaltz. And the standing rib roast cooked to perfection according to the painstaking instructions in Cook's Illustrated -- my mother still rhapsodizes about that one.

Matt's unexpected conversion to vegetarianism came on one summer, precipitated by a reading of Michael Pollan's "The Omnivore's Dilemma." The ethical and environmental travesties of industrial meat production detailed in the book left him incensed. Also, Matt's diet was posing health concerns: A doctor had advised him to lower his cholesterol, in part by eating less meat. Then there was Matt's developing meditation practice, which had diminished his interest in things he'd once savored -- caffeine, alcohol, and most of all, eating animals. A trip to London finally pushed him over the edge. Tip-to-tail dining complete with coxcombs, pork butt, and chips fried in duck fat were his last hurrah. He came home turned off by his excesses and quit meat cold turkey.

Many of his reasons I could understand, even admire. I cared about cows, and of course about Matt's health. But why did his vegetarianism have to be a hard-and-fast rule? I didn't like his imposing new restrictions on our marriage, or on me. Because obviously, if the family cook was eschewing meat, then I was, too.

"Can't it just be a preference?" I asked. We could compromise: eat meat only once a week, or once a month, and then only when we knew it to be sustainably and humanely raised. Even Michael Pollan, I reminded him, eats animals as long as he knows and trusts their source. "Sure, there are more ethical ways of eating meat, and other people are welcome to do that" was his answer. "But I don't want to eat it at all."

There are marital transgressions far, far worse -- of a carnal, rather than carnivorous, nature. This was not abuse; this was not adultery. And I'd always accepted the dietary preferences of friends who'd switched to vegetarianism. But this felt different, more personal. Few things were as fundamental to our daily lives as the food on our shared table.

My mother's response to Matt's choice didn't help. "All eating rules are essentially some version of kosher," she said. I was beginning to fear that Matt was on some larger, spiritual "Eat, Pray, Love"-like journey that I would end up on the wrong side of, that my husband could suddenly leave me for an ashram in India. I'd grown up in a family that sneered at journeys of self-discovery. "Happiness is for pigs" was a credo of ours -- an ironic one, but just. And the fact was, Matt's search for contentment was making me more and more grouchy. I felt scared. Who was this alien? His abandonment of a passion made me worry: If he could give up something so integral to his everyday life so easily -- something once so beloved -- what might that mean for me? Was I next?

But really, I shouldn't have been so surprised that Matt wouldn't negotiate his vegetarianism. A man who can follow the rigors of a Cook's Illustrated recipe ("stir batter for six seconds") was not going to be haphazard in his principles. He hadn't changed that much.

In truth, Matt still cooks. And as I watch him put together a comforting dal with red lentils, or a beautiful orecchiette with broccoli rabe, I realize that he prepares these meatless meals using the same love with which he once doted over a duck a l'orange or a standing rib roast.

Now I'm a "mostly vegetarian" -- a monthly grass-fed-pasture-raised-burger-for-lunch, shrimp-toast-eating vegetarian, which to a real vegetarian like Matt is like being a "mostly virgin." Either you are one or you aren't.

It was the shrimp toast incident (and the near ruination of our anniversary celebration at Prune) that forced me to see what I'd refused to acknowledge: By making his conversion about me -- about how I felt betrayed, in a way -- I was the one making myself miserable, not Matt. What I took on some days to be a controlling act of will was actually a personal decision he had come to thoughtfully and organically. The fact was -- and maybe this was the hardest part -- it had nothing to do with me.

When you marry your college sweetheart, the relationship's success hinges on your willingness to evolve. But these renegotiations can be painful. A career upheaval, a change of heart about kids, a renunciation of old patterns -- the course correction of a mate can feel like a flash flood. The instinct is to build dams, pile on the sandbags. We're by no means the first family to struggle with our evolving relationship through food. We have a one-year-old now, and Matt and I have new questions to hash out. Will we raise our son as a vegetarian? (Yes, so far.) Will we one day find ourselves cooking different meals for every member of the household? (Ugh.) Perhaps, as Jonathan Safran Foer describes in "Eating Animals," it will be parenthood that awakens my own complete conversion to vegetarianism. As Foer writes, "Feeding my child is not like feeding myself: It matters more."

At least now Matt and I can order dinner at a restaurant without descending into grumbles and grudges. Sometimes we share the meatless options; sometimes we eat only from our own plates. And when last summer at a clam shack in Martha's Vineyard he could not deny himself the pleasure of a lobster roll, I feigned nonchalance and resisted the urge to self-righteously point out that the lobster had a mom.

There are still days when I find Matt's rigidity annoying, when I want to rebel against his rules. But I know that I don't have to understand completely why the lamb-lover I wed gave it up; I probably never will. I just have to live with it and, in some way, appreciate the mystery that is marriage: how someone so entirely familiar can suddenly feel like a stranger.

Special occasions have grown different, the frenzy in the kitchen cooled. On Thanksgiving, instead of the main course, Matt devotes his ministrations to side dishes like buttery turnips or parsnip puree and to desserts -- especially pumpkin pie, which he makes from whole sugar pumpkins. He spends the night before carving and roasting the tidy squashes, the earthy smell of their bright orange flesh filling our kitchen. We toast the seeds and nibble them as the pies bake, and I almost don't miss those wild turkeys. Almost.

Maggie Pouncey's debut novel, "Perfect Reader," was published in June 2010. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Any couple's dietary differences are reconcilable. Experts and readers alike offer their rules of dinnertable diplomacy.

1. Try to Be Supportive
"I had a good cry when my now-husband gagged through my spinach lasagna," says Lindsay Toppen, of Saco, Maine, who didn't eat red meat when she married a veggie-phobe. Eventually, they found common ground. "He even helped me start a vegetable garden."

2. Find Go-To Date Night Eateries
"If one partner is a vegetarian, Asian food is a great choice," says Cynthia Sass, R.D., a New York City-based nutritionist and coauthor of "Your Diet Is Driving Me Crazy." "One partner can order tofu, while the other gets a dish like beef lo mein." Browse menu sites like menupix.com or foodiebytes.com, or download apps such as Local Eats or MenuPages to find restaurants that cater to both your tastes.

3. Try the "Build-a-Meal" Approach
Start off with a veggie base and let the carnivore add his or her own meaty topping. For example, saute whole-grain pasta and spinach in olive oil, then top one serving with white beans and the other with shrimp, recommends Sass. Pizzas, stir-fries, fajitas, main-dish salads, and chili are other versatile dishes.

4. Make a Date with a Like-Palated Pal
Set up a monthly outing to indulge in foods that are off-limits for your significant other. "Never deprive yourself of something you love simply because your partner isn't into it," says Fairfax, Virginia-based psychologist Janet R. Laubgross, Ph.D.

5. Celebrate Differences With a Dinner Party
Throwing cookouts, says Tracy Kellogg-Brodeur of Wilmington, North Carolina, pleases both her vegan palate and her meat-eating husband's. "Our fake meat sausages and grilled pineapple are always hits." Buffet-style fetes also suit guests with varied eating habits, Sass adds.

Text by Holly Pezner

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