I Eat to Live

In middle age, with a body that breaks and wants and aches and heals, I understand how biological I am

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In the 1960s, when I would happily have subsisted on a diet of Pop-Tarts and SpaghettiOs, my parents ate a menu of repulsive delicacies: chicken livers and leg of lamb, shrimp whose dark veins had to be wormed out of their translucent flesh, veal (baby cow!) dredged in bread crumbs and sautéed with a splash of white wine.

There were frogs' legs flexed on a plate at the Beachcomber restaurant in Clearwater, Florida, where we traveled for spring break, and medium-rare sirloin that oozed into the baked potatoes. At home, we had a freezer full of cattle parts from Mr. Pierce, the butcher at the Reading Terminal Market, who smiled in his blood-stained apron and wielded a dangerous-looking knife.

Once, at a family party, someone served tongue—pink slices lapped mutely on the deli tray next to the whitefish with its baleful eye and amber scales. "Delicious!" the relatives pronounced, while I squirreled moist pieces into a napkin and stuffed them beneath the cushion of my chair.

I thought artichoke hearts were one more example of adults' barbaric appetites: helpless green nubs bobbing in a murk of olive oil, then arrayed on some Boston lettuce and stabbed with a salad fork. Mom. Dad. How could you?

It took several years before I realized an artichoke was not an animal, but a plant.

By then, I was an almost-vegetarian, my meat-eating limited to items as far from fleshiness as possible. I nibbled the occasional well-charred hamburger, napped with ketchup and melted American cheese. I'd consent to chicken only if it made a cameo appearance in a platter of lo mein.

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My aversion to meat was just that—a visceral recoil from scarlet-white striations of steak or slick ribbons of fat edging a lamb chop. Later, I discovered more philosophical reasons to refuse a Big Mac. In college, I wrote a paper in my Biology for Poets class, citing "Diet for a Small Planet" as I argued that eating lower on the food chain would be better for the world.

For ten years, my partner and I had an emphatically vegetarian kitchen, turning out crocks of Lebanese vegetable soup and platters of tempeh Reuben sandwiches. We used our edition of "The Moosewood Cookbook" so often it broke at the spine.

Then Elissa got pregnant. She returned from work ravenous and depleted, grabbing handfuls of raw tofu from the fridge before caving into bed at 5 p.m. It seemed as if the fetus, still the size of a lima bean, was ordering ("NOW, Mama!") from its own menu.

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The baby wanted protein. And so, we flexed our kitchen boundaries to include chicken. Later, when that baby turned 3 and developed a taste for hamburgers, we added beef (only from hormone-free, organically raised cows, of course) to the shopping list.

Now I'm the dietary outlier in my family—and often, the only holdout at tables of lapsed-vegetarian friends. For years, I felt certain and pure and even a little righteous as I tucked into teriyaki tofu while everyone else was supping on soy-glazed chicken. I could eat with an untroubled conscience; no animal had skulked to its slaughter to make my dinner possible.

Then I started learning how much plants know.

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This was the first ping: a riveting TED talk by a plant neurobiologist (yes, there is such a field), who noted that plants' sensitive roots can monitor 15 different chemical and physical variables. Plants curl up and sleep at night, then swivel to catch the morning sun. They flirt and barter, exchanging nectar for the transport of pollen (and the hope of propagation). They communicate—with animals, with other plants, with us.

That seemed a little fanciful. But a month or so after my father died, arborists misread a work order and chopped down the dogwood tree in our backyard, a tree that had arabesqued over our deck, blossoms falling like blown kisses onto our table each spring. I sobbed when I saw the ruined trunk, the litter of broken twigs, the cavity of air where something used to be. And the stump wept with me, oozing milky sap for days.

We're always trying to distance our human selves from other living things and rationalize our consumption of them. We call our food "beef" instead of "cow," "pork" instead of "pig." We have so many strictures about eating—whether drawn from Moosewood or Leviticus or Michael Pollan's "Food Rules" (my favorite: "Don't eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn't recognize as food")—that serve to police the boundary between our endless hungers and the world, between primal impulse and social self.

But when I stand before the open fridge, my blood sugar sub-basement-low, gnawing at a carrot I'm too ravenous to even rinse, there's not a thing that separates me from the stark ecology of predator and prey. More and more, in middle age, with a body that breaks and wants and aches and heals (but oh, so slowly), I understand how biological I am. How driven I am by appetite—for food, yes, but also for intimacy and physicality and joy.

I can't pretend that eating (mostly) plants makes me exempt from quandaries of conscience, nor from the violence inherent in survival. Where did my broccoli grow? How far was it trucked—and at what cost to the air, the water, the workers—to reach my plate? Were these apples smothered with insecticide, the tomatoes gas-ripened in a box?

When I volunteer at the local farm that supplies us, each summer, with a weekly harvest of organic veggies, it's clear that what I'm weeding is exuberantly alive: fed by sunlight, plumped by rain, then ripped from earthen beds. Beets matted with damp, warm soil. Small red potatoes blind in their underground cache.

Maybe it's just a species-centric myth that I'm smarter than the broccoli in my crisper, more sophisticated than the artichoke guarding its heart in a fist of spiny leaves, more civilized than any beast. At the end of the day, I am an animal: hungry, flesh-bound, fleetingly here. I consume what sprouts and flourishes and dies. I am cousin to the salmon and the dogwood tree. I eat to live.