…Meat-Free? Dairy-Free? Gluten-Free? Uh…Yum?

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The first thing I noticed the other morning was that my kitchen reeked like dirty feet. It took me a moment to realize that the source of the offense was not my husband’s gardening sneakers parked by the back door but, instead, the remnants of the previous night’s dinner-gone-wrong still fermenting in the garbage can. Even with the lid tightly secured, the odor socked me in the gut unlike any smell had since the first trimester of my pregnancies over two decades ago.

That dinner was the most recent installment in my ever-evolving culinary experiments. My husband—my long-suffering, gung-ho, real sport of a Guy (yes, that’s actually his name)—had forced a neutral look on his face as he bravely took the first bite of my latest creation. Over thirty years, I’d become proficient at finding mouth-watering recipes in cookbooks or online, then modifying them beyond recognition to align with my ethical concerns, ongoing health self-education, or doctor-advised dietary restrictions. Over thirty years, Guy has learned to adapt to whatever I placed in front of him.

When we first met, a McDonald’s cheeseburger with a side of fries and a large Coke was Guy’s lunchtime staple and, in his estimation, a well-balanced meal. It had meat, dairy, a bun, lettuce, tomato, and onion (so, basically, a salad), and potatoes. Sure, the Coke was pure sugar, but what’s one vice? he thought, since the rest hit all of the essential food groups. By the time we met in 1984 however, I had just quit an advertising sales job where one of my clients was a beef and pork product producer. I’d only gone once to that advertiser because once was all it took for me to refuse ever to return. Also, I never ate beef or pork again. So, while everything else in my McDonald’s lunch mirrored Guy’s, I opted for the filet-o-fish sandwich instead of the cheeseburger.

Through our early years of marriage, Guy enjoyed my cooking. I mastered quiches; soufflés in red bell peppers; baked lasagnas; even a quick, vegetarian modification of Hamburger Helper. I was a wizard with Salmon en Papillote and could whip up a mean Chicken Cacciatore. I tackled recipes like a defensive guard, and we rarely had leftovers for next day’s lunch. Our weekly restaurant visit was to The Chowderpot on Thursdays with an all-you-can-eat salad bar, including endless pick ‘n peel shrimp and bottomless soup bowls.

While I had given up red meat and pork before we met, Guy continued to satisfy his cravings when we were guests at someone else’s home or if he had a work lunch. When our son was born though, he had a sudden and absolute shift in how he viewed the food on his plate. In one fell swoop, he became a vegetarian. He gave up all red meat, pork, poultry, even seafood. With my husband’s shift in perspective, I chose to eliminate all meat from my diet as well. Since we decided to raise our child as a vegetarian too, I had extra incentive to provide a diet complete in vitamins and nutrients. This is when I began my foray into tofu, tempeh, lentils, black beans, and new, exotic-sounding grains like quinoa. We discovered seitan and a growing number of meat substitutes by Morningstar Farms and Quorn.

By the time our daughter was born, I’d mastered the meatless diet. With a colicky baby resulting in next to no sleep, I had little energy to make the planned, nutritious gourmet offerings my family was used to. A quick pasta dinner with a side of broccoli and a multi-vitamin was about all I could swing. When our daughter was ten, a savvy friend suggested her ongoing intestinal troubles may be connected to the dairy-heavy diet that television commercials had convinced me was essential for my growing children’s bone development. Back to the internet to learn how to safely eliminate dairy to see if that was, in fact, my daughter’s problem. Within days, lifelong symptoms disappeared and she claimed to feel better than she ever had. That got me thinking. Could my own battle with intestinal unpredictability be related to dairy too? A month later, I knew it was. Since then, even a small amount of butter or cream results in noise and pain from my gut that demand I be more careful.

With this recent revelation, I stopped buying dairy. With articles and reports about factory-farming in the egg industry, I ticked off eggs from my shopping list as well. I furiously sought substitutes that my family would find acceptable as I doled out their daily dose of vitamin B12. Soon, my son left for college and scurried to Vermont where he was free to indulge in as much Cabot cheese as he wanted. My daughter mysteriously had “other plans” when I’d announce dinner would be broccoli loaf or spaghetti squash with meatless balls. Yet my husband always chewed his food gamely, nodding in appreciation of my efforts.

Luckily for both kids, they were away at school when my doctor suggested I try a gluten-free diet to address lingering symptoms of Lyme Disease. That added a whole new level of difficulty to my cooking challenge. Finding gluten-free breads without that chalky after-taste and experimenting with gluten-free flours and gluten-free panko crumbs taxed my patience, but Guy kept eating what I produced. What I really, really wanted though, was a grilled cheese sandwich. To most people, that doesn’t sound like a big deal. But to me, it had been a lot of years since I’d indulged in the real thing. No butter, no cheese, and most recently, no bread.

That’s when I had my great idea for dinner the other night. Like a translation app, my mind has learned to read a recipe and automatically make the exchanges for ingredients I can’t use. For grilled cheese, I replaced the butter with Earth Balance. I bought Go Veggie! Cheddar “cheese” slices. And for the bread, I substituted cauliflower. I found a recipe online and followed the instructions for grating the cauliflower, squeezing out excess moisture, mixing with egg (I used Ener-G Egg Replacer), herbs and spices, and Parmesan cheese (I used Go Veggie Parmesan). I mixed it all together and created slices of “bread,” then constructed grilled “cheese” sandwiches. Served next to a steaming bowl of vegan “cream” of tomato soup, my husband eyed his meal with thinly disguised apprehension. I eagerly watched him take his first bite and awaited his verdict. Slightly disappointed that his eyes didn’t light up with surprised enthusiasm, I watched him finish chewing, then swallow.

“Well?” I asked.

“It’s…not bad. I can see what you were going for.”

“Going for?” I blinked rapidly. “It’s a grilled cheese!” How could he not know that?

“I’m thinking that maybe—and I’m not saying absolutely—but possibly the ‘bread’ could have been cooked a little more. It’s just a little under-done in the center.”

I’d show him! I dipped a corner of my sandwich into the soup and took a hearty bite. Instead of the gooey cheesiness enfolded between pan-fried-in-butter crispy toast that my mouth was anticipating, I chomped into tasteless rubber surrounded by foot-flavored granular particles. I couldn’t even pretend in the moment. Two chews later and I spit it into my napkin and threw the remains into the trashcan where it stayed, stinking up the kitchen until morning.

I recently developed an obsession with John Joseph, the lead singer from Cro-Mags and Bloodclot. He is vegan, a triathlete, and the author of a book about vegan nutrition, Meat is For Pussies. He is coarse, foul-mouthed, and deeply knowledgeable about living a healthy vegan lifestyle. I adore him. His video for making a vegan lasagna had me laughing and convinced me to give it a shot. Off I went to Whole Foods with my husband in tow. I was excited as my cart started to fill up with the ingredients to make John Joseph’s recipe. I snagged some plum tomatoes, broccoli, and blackstrap molasses. I skipped over the zucchini that John suggested for his recipe as Guy hates anything that looks remotely like a squash. I found the Kite Hill ricotta, Daiya mozzarella cheese, and Beyond Meat crumbles. I allowed Guy to choose tomato sauce. Finally, I went in search of the lasagna noodles. I scoured the shelves from top to bottom but couldn’t find what I was looking for. Always quick with the substitutions, I snagged a box of manicotti tubes instead.

“Look!” I said, proudly displaying my find. I was already envisioning how I would stuff the noodles with my lasagna fixings and it would still be delicious.

But Guy’s face had dropped. It had sunk so far to the ground that it seemed I had to look down at my 6’2” husband to meet his eyes.

“What’s the matter?” I asked, utterly baffled. “I thought you liked manicotti.”

With his mouth turned down, he jerked his head in the direction of the box I held out. “But they’re gluten-FREE!”

I burst out laughing. My poor husband. I’d sliced and diced nearly every edible pleasure out of his diet. I’d gotten him excited at the thought of a hearty lasagna, complete with fake cheese and fake meat, slipping in some broccoli for additional nutrition, but he’d forgotten my gluten issue. That was the final insult. I hadn’t seen him look that sad since the Yankees lost to the Red Sox in the 2004 American League Championship Series.

I’m not a heartless person. I could see that he had hit his limit on my creative food reconstruction. I had mercy on him and relented.

“Okay. No gluten-free manicotti. I’ll use eggplant instead,” I said, conveniently forgetting his aversion to all purple foods.

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