My brisket, his pot roast. My chicken, his lamb chops. My word, how life has changed since then. Nearly 30 years ago, when I met my husband, we both enjoyed a diet that was largely animal protein-based. He wasn’t a fancy cook—and neither was I—but we both enjoyed cooking, and most of our meals centered on meat. I was “famous” for my brisket, which I cooked without fail on every Jewish holiday, though not so much in between.
I had learned to cook standing next to my grandmother, in the well-respected delicatessen she owned in Pittsburgh. My husband learned while living on his own on Capitol Hill. He often cooked a large pot roast or a dozen or so chicken thighs, which served us well for several days during the hectic workweek. “Chicken, again?” was often heard in our house. Truthfully, I didn’t really have any desire to change this basic routine diet, but all that changed unexpectedly when my husband had a serious health scare. Thus began an evolution in eating that started him (and our family) down a road less travelled by most Eastern European Jews who were used to eating brisket and meat or poultry at every special occasion, including at most weeknight dinners.
As my husband recalls, it was a gradual process. “The changes I made started after my doctor told me that I really needed to alter my eating habits. I started by cutting back on dairy products, like cream and ice cream. At the same time, there was a mad cow [disease] scare, and that was an incentive to stop eating beef, which my doctor had recommended anyhow. I became progressively more conscious about what I ate, from both an animal-free and health-related point of view.”
He also joined a fitness club and Weight Watchers, where for the first time he started to focus on how certain foods affected health and weight loss. “It focused my attention on the consequences of what I ate,” he recalled.
Even though we had always eaten plenty of fruits and vegetables with some fish and seafood, before this change, these were never the main dishes. I had to unlearn many of my cooking habits, which made me apprehensive. Knowing that I had to avoid beef and poultry altogether was worrisome, and that was especially true around Jewish holidays. Furthermore, I didn’t want ours to be the kind of family that prepared different foods for each family member or when guests came over. My mother’s dinnertime mantra “I’m not running a restaurant” rang in my ears. Ironically, at my grandmother’s home, there were so many choices, it could be overwhelming. I was determined to change my ways. The result was that I learned to prepare more veggie-centric and fish-centric meals; I had to inject my culinary traditions with lots of fish, beans, fruits and vegetables.
For some people, this would be another day in the kitchen. But for me, it involved some adjustments and some work. I started exploring vegetarian recipes, and I bought a few vegetarian cookbooks. I tried new ingredients and techniques, and I became friends with the fishmongers at our local grocery stores. I learned about environmentally friendly, sustainable choices and began to actively seek out more wild-caught fish that contains fewer toxins. This year, instead of brisket, a sweet and spicy fish tagine will grace our seder table.
While navigating this new way of shopping and cooking often felt like work, it has become a habit. There is a long road behind us and I foresee a long road ahead, one where we adjust and change as we think about what is good for us, other creatures and for our world. Today, I look forward to holidays and to planning special meals, ones that are either entirely vegetable-based or include some bounties from the sea.