by Laryssa Wirstiuk
If I were to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth in my online dating profile, it would read:
Vegan seeking tall, dark, and handsome omnivore, with just the perfect touch of emotional unavailability, to gradually convert to veganism through strategic feeding.
Currently, the first line of my profile does reveal that I’m vegan, but I don’t disclose the entirety of my secret plan. Most omnivores, when they message me, ask, “How do you feel about dating a non-vegan?” To them, I respond, “Take me on one date, and I’ll let you know how I feel.”
If I can get them to take me on said date, I usually pull them down a city street and point at each advertisement: “Now with bacon!”; “Twice the meat for hungry men.”; “Save a cow, eat some chicken.” When we reach the end of the block, I reiterate his question, “How do I feel about dating a non-vegan?” I have yet to find someone who wants to continue the date beyond this point. We usually part at the street corner.
Long before I adopted a vegan lifestyle, and when I still believed that marriage was something I’d definitely like to do, I had heard of a recipe for a dish called “Engagement Chicken.” Published in the women’s glossy Glamour, the recipe promises to inspire any man to drop to his knees with a shiny diamond ring. Making engagement chicken is easy – a woman needs only a whole chicken, lemon juice, sea salt, pepper, and fresh herbs (four rosemary sprigs, four sage sprigs, eight thyme sprigs, and one bunch flat-leaf parsley are recommended). What seems to me to be the real secret to engagement chicken is mastering the sixth step: “Pour the juices from the roasting pan on top of the sliced chicken—this is the ‘marry me juice.’”
Beneath the version of the recipe published on the Glamour website, more than 90 comments from readers either confirm the recipe’s success or pronounce hopes that the chicken will finally inspire their boyfriends to pop the question.
Before becoming vegetarian in 2010, I had enjoyed cooking and baking for my boyfriends: dishes like grilled corn, homemade pizza, white chocolate cherry chunk cookies, pulled pork, and couscous salad. Sometimes I wonder how different my life would be now had I stumbled upon the engagement chicken recipe earlier in life.
I have always loved chickens, the animals, not “chicken,” the poultry cooked thoroughly to 165 degrees. Only recently had I not been able to reconcile my love for them with my willingness to eat them. My fascination with chickens began at the New Jersey State Fair, held annually at the Sussex County Fairgrounds. In a designated exhibition space, young members of the agricultural organization 4-H would display their beloved chickens, hoping to win blue ribbons. Until then, I had believed that all chickens were auburn-colored. At the fair, I saw chickens with elaborate coifs, brindled chickens, chickens with feather-covered feet, chickens with iridescent coatings. Who knew they could be so beautiful and varied?
When I was a teenager, during a visit to an amusement park with my family, I discovered a chicken petting zoo, where I could enter a fenced area and hug chickens. Now, “huggable” and “cuddly” are probably the least likely adjectives a person would use to describe a chicken. For the first few seconds I pull one into my arms, I can feel the way its body communicates, “I don’t want any part of this.” But some chickens actually do appreciate physical affection and will soften in my arms like a warm, balled-up towel just removed from the dryer.
While my friends were hanging posters of ‘N SYNC and Backstreet Boys on their bedroom walls, I hung a poster illustrating all the chicken breeds, and for Christmas I asked for a wall calendar called “Extraordinary Chickens.”
Are you surprised, then, that I became vegan, first for the chickens? I was reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s nonfiction book Eating Animals on a whim and hadn’t previously considered becoming a vegetarian. About half-way through the book, I reached a two-page spread without text and with only an outline of a rectangle to demonstrate the space a chicken has to move on a factory farm. I must have stared at that shape for at least 20 minutes. I closed the book and couldn’t resume reading for a few weeks as I processed the image. As a result, I became a vegetarian, finished reading the book, and stayed a vegetarian. That was four years ago.
I’ve heard so many stories of women who give up on or compromise a meatless lifestyle to please a boyfriend, who just can’t seem to fathom life without meat. I’ve also had friends who, while in relationships, decided they no longer wanted to eat meat but didn’t feel like they had the freedom to do that. I’ve made a promise to myself that, boyfriend or not, my diet is on my terms. I refuse to bend my beliefs for any man and don’t feel I should have to compromise.
Walking in the park with my best friend, I tell her about all the men who message me asking how I feel about dating non-vegans. I try to compare my being a member of a vegan minority to another minority group, but I can’t, since most minorities are not minorities by choice. I try to compare veganism to religion, but it’s not religion, since I make the rules and don’t suffer any real or imagined consequences if I break them. I tell her about the omnivore who asked, “Why would your vegan lifestyle ever be an issue? Why would anyone have a problem with that?”
To that man, who clearly lacks forward thinking, I would like to list a number of potential problems: choosing restaurants for dates, a shared refrigerator and cooking equipment, grocery shopping, shared grocery budgets, feeding and raising children, etc.
“Have you tried dating vegan men?” asks my best friend.
I’ve given up on specifically trying to find a vegan boyfriend. If I do meet someone amazing who also happens to be vegan, then please disregard everything I’ve written in this essay. But I think that by beginning with the goal of searching for a vegan lover I am setting myself up for failure. I need to share so many other values and that elusive thing known as “chemistry” with another person. What I need for starters is a vegan sympathizer, someone who won’t kiss me immediately after eating a cheeseburger and tells his best friend to refrain from asking me the question about whether or not I eat other kinds of “meat.”
More importantly, like any woman, I like a challenge. I want to know that I’ve made an impact of the life of the man I love. I want to inspire him. Which is why I may or may not have a mental checklist, supported by Pinterest boards filled with vegan recipes, of dishes that I’ll make for my future non-vegan boyfriend while we’re falling in love.
My desire to make these recipes for my newfound boyfriend will serve two purposes: 1) he will see what a caring person I am and fall in love with my warm, hospitable nature and 2) he will taste vegan food like he’s never tasted before and fall so in love with it – in addition to falling in love with me – that he will want to try to be vegan too.
“Silly me – I always thought that vegans survived on alfalfa sprouts and soy beans,” he will say.
To my future boyfriend, who I will convert from omnivore to vegan, here is a description of the dishes that I will lovingly make for you:
First, I will craft a “meaty” vegan burger on a handmade, toasted sesame-seed bun with artfully placed toppings. As a side dish, I’ll probably bake you hand-cut sweet potato wedges seasoned with sea salt and cayenne pepper. The vegan burger will be made from organic quinoa and black beans, but I won’t tell you the ingredients at first. I’ll just beg you to try it and watch as you take an eager bite while some of the toppings exit the bun and fall onto the plate. You will remark at how filling this burger is and rub your belly when you’ve finished it.
Then, on another night, I’ll whip up some homemade hummus because it’s so simple to make yet so impressive. Who makes hummus? I do. Prior to this moment, you didn’t realize that anyone could make hummus at home without fancy equipment because you only buy it packaged in a plastic tub from the grocery store.
I’ll make spicy hummus because I want to date a man who loves, even craves spicy foods. I’ll soak and cook chickpeas the day before I hope to see you, and you’ll come over with a bottle of chardonnay. Eventually we’ll want to have a snack, and I’ll say, “Hold on, I’ll make some hummus,” clearly enunciating the word “make” so you don’t mistake my talent. You’ll ask me if I need some help in the kitchen, but I’ll refuse. My blender will whir, and I’ll return to the couch in five minutes with a bowl of freshly whipped hummus and a spread of crudites and pita chips.
“Vegan food is so effortless,” you’ll say.
One night, we’ll be craving something sweet, so I’ll make banana ice cream. The summer night will be so humid and stifling that my window-unit air conditioner won’t even make a difference. We’ll both be sweating and sticking to my pleather couch in our underwear. I’ll throw some frozen bananas in the Vitamix and pulse them until they are smooth. I’ll split the frozen banana whip in half between two bowls and top each cloud of sweetness with melted peanut butter, vegan chocolate chips, chopped dates, maybe some chopped berries if I have them handy, and Rice Whip if I have that too. I’ll pass you the bowl that looks like an ice cream sundae, and you won’t even understand. When I tell you it’s “just bananas,” you’ll hug me and proclaim that I have magical powers. You’ll want to be with me forever because I can transform bananas into heaven.
I’ll probably need you to be someone who doesn’t cook much, someone who had subsisted on peanut butter sandwiches before meeting me. Otherwise, you won’t be so awestruck by my skills and so spoiled by my home-cooked meals that you won’t care if they’re vegan, macrobiotic, paleo, gluten free, alkaline, or whatever. You’ll just be happy to eat something made with so much love.
One day you’ll wake up and think, wait, I’m kind of vegan, because you won’t even remember the last time you had a steak. And when you’ve gone that long without meat you’ll start to believe that maybe the lifestyle is possible to sustain.
I’m still searching for the tofu recipe that won’t disgust a man, or any non-vegan, for that matter. The very sound of the word “tofu” is appalling – one of the syllables is “fu” like “phooey,” a word used to express disdain. In fact, tofu could be the main ingredient in the most delicious dish in the world – and I’ve had some scrumptious tofu – but once I utter the word “tofu,” all hope is lost. I’m not seeking an engagement ring, but maybe once I find my “engagement tofu,” I’ll feel a little bit less like I’ve alienated myself from a dating scene that a “normal” 29-year-old woman should be enjoying. No magazine is going to chronicle that recipe for me. Then again, no women’s magazine is going to list “5 Ways to Love a Chicken,” and I’m pretty sure that, on my own, I’ve discovered that doing so is one of the most worthwhile experiences.
Laryssa Wirstiuk is a writer and writing instructor based in Jersey City, NJ. She teaches writing and digital media at Rutgers University – New Brunswick. Her book The Prescribed Burn won Honorable Mention in the 21st Annual Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Awards (Mainstream Fiction category). Her writing has been published in IthacaLit and A3 and is forthcoming in Instigatorzine, Hamilton Stone Review, and The Stockholm Review of Literature. You can view all her work here.