Four years ago, I spent a long weekend at the Vegetarian Summerfest in Johnstown, PA. I arrived a curious vegan, comfortable with where I was, but open to what I might learn. I left there radicalized. My already firm convictions against farm-animal exploitation turned rock-hard. My suspicion of the meat, dairy, and egg industries deepened into contempt. I also discovered a completely new universe I hadn’t known before: whole-food plant-based eating for health.
When I arrived back home after a seven-hour drive—plenty of time for resolutions—I told my husband of 18 years that I would no longer shop for or cook animal-based foods for him. He was on his own if he wanted to eat that way, I announced.
I waited for the blowback—confusion, anger, frustration, or some combination. But he agreed. He said he’d eat vegan meals with me.
Wow. Hooray! I thought the buy-in part would be the hardest. Was it curiosity? Respect? A desire to keep the peace? Not wanting to cook for himself? I didn’t ask. I’d wanted this for years but had never put my foot down. Sure, we didn’t have exactly the same tastes, but we’d find enough dishes we both liked.
I decided to take a systematic approach to this new chapter of our eating lives. I’d keep a record of every dish I cooked along with his reaction. I told him he could voice his true opinion. He didn’t have to hold back to protect my feelings. With clear feedback from him and careful records of his responses, I figured it would take maybe six months to land on a few dozen dishes we both liked.
I had a winner the first night: bean burgers and Cajun sweet potato fries. The second night he gave a thumbs-up to a falafel salad with roasted potatoes on the side. Three in a row with a yellow Thai vegetable curry the third night.
Then I hit my first failure, spaghetti with tempeh meatballs. They were too spongy for him. He ate only two bites. I opened my mouth to explain why he should like them but then checked myself and simply documented the failure.
And so it went for the first 18 months or so. I learned that he really disliked greens, cooked cabbage, Brussels sprouts, peanut sauce, olives, and slabs of tofu, seitan, and tempeh. I found out that less is more when explaining a dish. In fact, he once blurted out, “Please don’t tell me what’s in this!” He rejected about a third of the dishes I tried, which I considered not bad, given that he seemed to be a picky eater in general. My systematic approach was paying off.
Then something started to shift. I didn’t notice it at first, but more and more he rejected dishes that he’d liked just a few months before. I pointed out that according to my records, he actually liked what he was now snubbing, but that didn’t change his reaction. In fact, within the space of the next 12-18 months, major food categories that had previously been okay were wiped out. Sweet potatoes (except as fries) became unacceptable, no matter how I cooked them, as did “rice that stuck together,” including all risottos and brown rice across the board. A great Malai Kofta and my brilliant miso-infused stir-fried vegetables were history, without explanation. Every time I thought I saw a pattern, it didn’t hold. I lost at least half the dishes he’d like before.
He also mentioned more frequently that the food wasn’t filling. Then he told me he didn’t want a salad every night—every other night was plenty. He asked for ketchup more often, too. If there was any sign of potatoes in the dish, he soon fetched the ketchup bottle.
By that time, it wasn’t just vegan food he was flip-flopping on. His occasional trips out for lunch shifted too. He lost his taste for Subway sandwiches and the cashew chicken from his favorite Chinese food cart. He went back and forth on General Tso’s Chicken, a dish he’d loved unconditionally until then. Vegetable Lo Mein went the other direction—he’d never been a big fan, but he came to really like it. Now he loves my homemade vegetable Lo Mein and seems to be on a noodle kick in general.
He began waxing nostalgic about foods from his past. His mother’s peas in warm milk and butter and his step-mother’s Hungarian Goulash evoked wistful memories. When we went out to eat and he ordered a hamburger, Fettucine Alfredo, or pepperoni pizza, he ate lustily and reminisced about other times he’d eaten and loved them.
This is not how I imagined our shared eating would go. I was hoping that beliefs would follow actions—that he’d become a vegan once he started eating this way. But that’s not what happened.
I wonder whether subconsciously he was experiencing vegan eating like a diet, and after 18 months something inside just got sick and tired of the deprivation. Or maybe I’d completely disrupted his food preferences and left his taste buds confused. It’s like I’d scrambled the signals in his taste center, and it was having trouble processing the input it received.
These days I don’t experiment much. I’ve pared down my vegan menus to dishes I know he likes. If I’m not sure, I run an idea up the flagpole before going to the store (“I was thinking of making that basmati rice pilaf tonight—what do you think?”) and wait for the response. My system and perseverance are nothing in the face of his stubborn and complex tastes, mystifying to both of us, it seems.
Lest it sound like our dinner times are fraught with tense discussion about food, fear not. We are happily absorbed by a New York Times crossword puzzle every night over dinner, leaving little time to talk about much else. At this point we don’t need to say much about the food. I can read his non-verbals all too well, and he knows he’ll never go back to a time when he gets to eat what he likes best.
“Marriage demands compromise” sounds like such a cliché. But we live and eat our version of that cliché every evening around 6:30.