I married a vegan.
Actually, I didn’t. I married a perfectly normal, omnivorous man, who was perfect in every way.
Top-tier MBA: check.
Likes art and movies and plays and concerts: check.
Reads science fiction: check.
Loves to travel: check.
Likes my cat: check.
Likes my parents: check.
My parents like him: double check.
He was also kind, thoughtful, romantic, and funny — and had unbelievably exquisite taste in jewelry.
That was 29 years ago, and I was even luckier than I first realized. It turned out that Don and I had much more important things in common than the superficial list of my youth. We agreed about how to raise children (two of them – now wonderfully launched). We agreed about how to save, spend, and give away money. We agreed about how to care for aging parents, and we agreed about the most meaningful ways to grieve when they died. And we both agreed – at about the same time, for about the same reasons – to bail on our high-octane corporate careers to run local nonprofits instead.
We were a perfect match. But then, eight years ago, everything changed.
The betrayal started innocuously enough. Don thought it would be interesting to go see Forks Over Knives, a documentary about the environmental and health benefits of eating a plant-based diet. I was amenable. I like movies, and I like our local arts theater.
The film was persuasive — I came away thinking it we should cut back a bit on the red meat. Don came away thinking he’d like to learn more about vegetarianism. So our son, who had recently become a vegetarian — though he drew the line at sushi — lent us his copy of Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer.
And that’s when it all went wrong. Suddenly, Don no longer wanted to throw a big, fat, juicy steak on the grill. Instead, he wanted to talk about the evils of factory farming.
As with any highly emotional issue, like attracts like. Don started collecting articles and books and people who were deeply concerned about the unethical treatment of animals. He piled on articles and books and people who were committed to a plant-based diet for environmental reasons, then those who were committed to a plant-based diet to improve their health. By the time he was done collecting facts and friends, Don had given up red meat, poultry, pork, fish, eggs, milk, cheese, honey, and pretty much everything else that comes from an animal.
It wasn’t until Don began forgoing most of my favorite foods (fried chicken! Cheerios and milk!) that I realized what a major role food played in our relationship. I had fallen in love with this man on our first date because he ate garlic butter shrimp with his fingers. I had figured that any guy who was that unselfconscious the first time out would be a lot of fun to have around. And I had been right — only now he given up the shrimp, and the garlic butter, too.
Fortunately, Don is not the judgmental, proselytizing type. He does not really seem to care what I eat, and he doesn’t feign gagging when I cut into a juicy rib eye or look pointedly at my not-as-slim-as-it-could-be waist when I slather butter on a piece of challah toast.
We are kind to each other. Don doesn’t show me pictures of cows crammed together in squalid barns; I don’t mention the fossil fuels it takes to transport organic produce across the country. He’s also not a martyr type; when we are at other people’s homes he is unobtrusive about eating around the meat. He honestly cares about not making other people feel uncomfortable or inhospitable, and he is impeccably even-handed when it comes to compromising on restaurant choices or at-home menu selections.
But here’s the sad part: We are always compromising. What used to be a lustful, adventurous, mutually delightful element of our relationship has become measured, respectful, and transactional. Food used to be something we enjoyed together, fully and completely. Now it is something we give to each other in measured bites – sometimes out of generosity and sometimes out of quid pro quo, sometimes altruistically and sometimes resentfully.
Eating together now resembles sex with someone who doesn’t really want what you want, but you love them so you do it anyway — and then next time it’s your turn. The pleasure is sequential, and while it can be satisfying, there is always the unspoken awareness of who is sacrificing and who is receiving. It is not the same as all-out lovemaking where my pleasure is your pleasure is my pleasure is your pleasure.
Instead, every meal we eat together underlines this new difference in our preferences and our worldview. Whose turn is it to pick the restaurant? What could be modified to work for both of us? Whose cravings are so insistent that they warrant jumping the line and taking priority, even when it isn’t their turn? Who is feeling generous? We have shifted from spontaneous, joyous choices to careful negotiations. And, unlike sex, we eat meals together multiple times each day.
We are working hard to make our “mixed marriage” work. Grilling is great — it’s easy to put a burger alongside veggie sausages, and we both love grilled onions and tomatoes and mushrooms and corn on the cob. Pasta, too, is a good base, with vegetables and tofu for Don; cheese and pesto for me. Saturday mornings often feature a treat that requires no compromise at all: steel-cut oatmeal with fruit and nuts and agave.
Now, I indulge my most depraved cravings outside the home. Among colleagues, I have become known for always choosing hamburger joints for weekday lunches. I savor the occasional dinner – sometimes quite elaborate – at favorite carnivore-friendly restaurants with my friends. Don does the same – he meets his needs by eating out with friends with like-minded food preferences.
Despite these accommodations, I desperately miss our first 21 years together, back when we ate whatever we wanted; back when we made our choices based on variables like location, price, service, and what flavor sounded good that day. And I will always miss the give-and-take of sharing a meal with someone who eats what I eat: “Here, try this. Do you want a bite? It’s fabulous!”
Nonetheless, of all the ways one can click and all the ways one can miss, I still think I’m profoundly fortunate to have found such a good match. Even if Don never slurps garlic butter shrimp again, I suppose there’s now more for me — and maybe that’s a hallmark of a good match, too.