This is one family's dirty little secret, the comfort of a bizarre, time-honored ritual: living off the fat in the hand.
The setting: Buffalo, N.Y. I am joining Lucy's family for Christmas dinner. (Names have been changed to keep the American Medical Association at bay.)
The cast: Dad is a retired architect; Mom, a registered nurse; Lucy, an M.D.; and the youngest, Judy, is a pharmacist.
The day: Cold, with a wind that picks up snow just to fling it in your face, a fire in the fireplace, an elderly dog snooping between naps, trying to cadge a snack. We chat in the kitchen during final preparations.
"Do you have special food at Christmas?"
"Why, yes, turkey."
"We like to have our pork roast. It's a tradition with us." With that, the women exchange looks—perhaps vulpine—and lick their lips.
Dinner is great: good food, wonderful wine, freewheeling conversation.
Then it strikes: The women begin to fight over who gets the coveted fatty, chewy, charred end of the pork roast.
"I'm the youngest; you never let me have anything all to myself."
"Oh, you always get your way."
"Girls! Think about how you'll feel when I'm gone. Can't I have it, just once?"
This continues until two simply give up. The winner yelps in delight. I half expect her to take the fat on a victory lap of the dining room. Instead, she takes a bite, savors it tauntingly, and then relents and passes the plate to Mom and Judy. They indulge. The ritual is complete.
Today: Lucy is married to a surgeon, Mom has retired, Judy builds her career. Dad remains a spectator at Fight Night. I wonder what the surgeon thinks of Christmas dinner; I hope he's a cardiac man and calls it job security.
If you really want to see a fight, just try to get anyone in my family to touch that unidentifiable, gelatinous substance known as Tofurky. The very name—not quite tofu, definitely not turkey—is enough to fill even the most hard-core vegan with the urge to giggle uncontrollably. And at $28 for the "Complete Tofurky Feast," the stuff's no bargain. So what's a vegetarian to do?
That's the question that's faced my family ever since I gave up meat ("stopped eating food," as my Mississippi grandmother puts it) more than six years ago. For the first few years, the solution to the problem was to pretend there wasn't a problem—the put-it-in-front-of-her-she'll-eat-it approach to vegetarianism. (Is desiccated ham a vegetable?) I think this is where most Families of Vegetarians draw the philosophical line: They'll tolerate a little eccentricity, but it means you'll spend the holidays cutting meat into tinier and tinier pieces and making a meal out of soupy green bean casserole. But about two years ago, my mom had, as they say in therapy, a breakthrough: She broke out the old health food cookbook, stashed the turkey baster in a drawer, and we had ourselves a vegetarian little Christmas.
And, believe it or not, it worked. Dad didn't complain (for more than about an hour, anyway), Mom didn't have to break her
back lugging a 20-pound bird in and out of the oven, and we all had a fine time eating stuffed squash, sweet potato casserole, glazed carrots, and pumpkin pie (all of which, for you meatheads out there, count as vegetables). For my parents, who work 80 hours a week and get two days off a year, a little less work in the kitchen meant a little more time to spend with the family. Now that I'm living 2,500 miles away, I might not make it back to Houston this Christmas. But I think I know what I'll be having for dinner.
ERICA C. BARNETT