In 1989 I commenced the journey that would eventually lead me to become a hardcore vegetarian. And when I say “hardcore” it is directed only at myself. I am not one of those preachy or militant vegetarians. I think people should make their own decisions about what they put in their bodies and I usually don’t even mention my views on devouring birds, fish, cattle, etc., unless someone asks (or asks me to dinner). But I will make an exception today.
My decision was partly health based (I don’t need the hormones or antibiotics that are force-fed to factory farmed creatures), but mostly political: While I have no problem with humane hunting and farming practices, the imprisonment and torture of animals for the mass production of processed food is just wrong. If I were a more existential person I would perhaps posit that any life form guilty of abusing and slaughtering its distant cousins might eventually suffer horrible karmic retribution (Mad Cow Disease as an appetizer?).
My late mother, Gay Flint Notkin, was the first of many to be inconvenienced by my flesh-free diet. She was a gourmet cook who for decades lavished my father, brother, and myself with wonderful home cooked meals. But from the late ’80s on there would be no more breaded chicken cutlets, tuna steaks, pot roasts or escalope of veal for me, no matter how good they might have smelled. Many times Mom would cook something for the rest of the family, and then compose a second meal just for me. Yes, I was spoiled, but I was also tremendously appreciative. She learned how to fashion chick peas into hummus, experimented with all sorts of meat substitutes, and made a killer endive and blue cheese salad (I’m veggie, not vegan).
Our small family was a happy mix of non-practicing Jewish, non-practicing Christian and atheist/agnostic. As such, we made a tepid attempt to celebrate Hanukah and Christmas (as a budding environmentalist I was a fan of our small, reusable silver tinsel tree). Thanksgiving was special. Both my parents were American but spent most of their lives in Europe. They never forgot their roots, and so our annual Turkey Day was a heliocentric island of American tradition in an adored but slightly stuffy London. And Thanksgiving was the one exception I made: Out of respect for my favorite chef I would eat turkey one day a year, on the condition that it was a free range organic bird. My long-suffering mother went to considerable lengths each year to find such a thing. One dinner guest commented that same was “the scrawniest turkey I ever ate.” I explained that our free range bird had not been fattened up in a small cage on a corn-and-slop diet, but had enjoyed (I at least hoped) a happy and active life outdoors. My mom also made real cranberry sauce from scratch, exquisite (vegetarian) stuffing and all the other goodies. We’d set up the big table in the dining room, indulge in some excellent wine selected by my very worldly father and generally have a wonderful time.
Now that Mom is gone, I don’t really feel that comfortable at big Turkey Day dinners. I have been accused of being antisocial, but I think it is more that if the family I remember from childhood cannot be together, it feels awkward for me to participate in something festive. So, sometimes, I make my own plans. As recounted a few days ago in The Logical Lizard, this year I embarked upon an unusual and alternative Thanksgiving mission, traveling alone to the north shore of the Great Salt Lake to gaze in wonder at Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty.
For several glorious hours, I could have been the only person in the world. In the early afternoon, I saw a Land Rover pull up in the distance. Four people and two dogs got out, laughing and happy, and I felt a brief twinge of loneliness, wishing, perhaps, that I was with friends back in Tucson who would doubltess have welcomed me into the fold if I’d asked. I immediately decided to start the 110-mile drive back to Salt Lake City, but first went over to say hello to the new arrivals. The visitors were a delight: fun, vivacious Salt Lake City intellectuals (including a fellow journalist). They told me that they visit the Jetty every Thanksgiving, such a jaunt being “much better than sitting in front of the TV eating too much turkey.” I couldn’t agree more.
They invited me to join them for a picnic.
At first I declined, feeling I’d be imposing and perhaps secretly wanting to float in my solitary melancholy a bit longer. But they gently and kindly insisted and so I stayed. And it was my most uplifting Thanksgiving in many years. My new friends produced a truly amazing meal of smoked cheeses, stuffed olives, artisan bread, three different wines and a sense of humor that brightened up my day like an arc light. A little before sunset we all climbed up a steep cliff face to the north, and basked in an intoxicating view of the Spiral Jetty. At the hilltop I said my goodbyes and began the hike back to my truck. By the time I returned home to Tucson the following day, my new friends had found me on Facebook.
Long after dark I arrived back at my hotel near the SLC airport where I seemed to be the only guest. I checked that the restaurant would be open until 10 pm, then went up to my room for a couple of quiet cocktails. At 8:30 pm I walked back to the lobby to find the bar and restaurant entirely closed up. I questioned the receptionist about this and she said: “I’m sorry, there were no customers so the staff went home.”
“But you told me the restaurant would be open until 10.”
“I do apologize.”
“Can you help me find a local restaurant that will deliver?”
Well, no, she really didn’t know anywhere and went to get the manager. A tall and graceful Asian gentleman appeared, apologized repeatedly and asked if he could please make me a sandwich. “I’m not very good at making them,” he said, “But I will do my best.” A few minutes later he returned from the kitchen with a delicious swiss cheese sandwich on whole wheat, with lettuce and tomatoes and pickles on the side. He apologized again, and I replied: “Really, this is perfect, thank you so much for taking the time to make food for me.” He wouldn’t even let me pay for it.
In all my travels that was the first time a hotel manager personally hand made a tasty sandwich for me. And it was the second time in one Thanksgiving day that strangers had gone out of their way to sustain me. Mom would have been happy to know that somebody made sure I had company and fine food on Thanksgiving — even if it wasn’t free range organic turkey.
Photographs © by Geoffrey Notkin. All rights reserved. No reproduction without written permission.