Finding balance.

During graduate school, I considered myself a vegetarian for about a year or so. Initially, I fell into this lifestyle after watching a couple of documentaries on food and politics and reviewing research on the topic. I wouldn’t have considered myself a huge meat eater to begin with but became much more restrictive during this period of time. I internalized the belief that being a vegetarian was healthier and would help me maintain a more slender figure. Which, to be quite honest, was absolutely true. I did not worry about my weight or body image quite so much and felt an overall sense of improved wellness. This was a lifestyle that fit for me during this season of my life.

However, I encountered two distinct turning points which significantly altered my eating pattern. The first occurred over the holidays during a typical family meal of homemade spaghetti sauce and ravioli, followed by a roast of some kind. This memory has always stuck with me because of the change it caused within. This experience forced me to come face to face with my fears of having attention drawn to me for going against the grain (in our family at least) and feeling as if I was a perceived burden on others. My mother’s spaghetti sauce consists of several various types of meats, including Italian pork sausage, ground beef, and a beef roast – obviously a significant amount of meat for a vegetarian to be expected to consume. Given my eating style, my mother agreed to make another sauce without the meat and I thought that would be the end of it and no one would know the difference during the dinner. In actuality, this is not what happened. My family, including some extended family, were seated at the dinner table. My mother served the pasta and announced my special request, precipitating a several minute conversation on my eating habits. The essence of it is that my grandmother could not understand why I could possibly want or need a different sauce without meat and made a big deal of it. I felt a utter loss of control and felt angered at that fact I had to explain myself to my family. While this event may not seem very noteworthy to some, it was the accumulation of small moments like this over the previous year in combination with certain fears and beliefs about my self which made it unbearable to maintain such a lifestyle much longer.

The second experience that impacted my eating habits came about a few months later when reading A Homemade Life by Molly Wizenberg. Molly’s recipes and stories of food seemed to have a transformative influence on my view of food. Following along with her accounts of how pivotal and intertwined food was to her childhood memories resonated with my own life. As I read, I wanted to cook every dish she included in her book. I also felt a longing for a more balanced life where I could eat and savor any possible food I desired in fear of missing out on something truly spectacular. I wanted to go to every well-renown restaurant in the city and be able to taste any dish I desired at that moment without feeling restricted. I remember having moments while reading when I would do  almost anything to get my hands on my father’s absolutely mouthwatering ribs, slow-roasted in the oven and finished on the grill; or to devour the perfect roast chicken while people-watching on the streets of Paris as I had in my earlier years; or make a steak at home for my husband and I simply because I felt like it.

I am amazed that a simple book could have such a profound influence on my lifestyle but it did, and was the ultimate turning point in my food journey. I began reentering meat in my life and have since practiced what I believe to be a more balanced lifestyle. However, time and again, while I do not want to be restricted by an eating style, I do not feel as healthy as I did while living as a vegetarian. And while I’ll never be able to be as restricted as ISalad Rolls was during that year, I will always lean toward a more plant-based diet which has lead me to this simple and refreshing recipe, modified from Tara O’Brady’s Seven SpoonsThis dish is perfect for a warm summer evening and is quite simple to prepare and modify to your own desire. While vegetarian (gluten-free and vegan), you could even add chicken if you so desire, as my husband suggested. However, I think they’d be quite nice with some large shrimp or baked tofu.

Salad Rolls (Serves 2-3)
Adapted from Seven Spoons: My Favorite Recipes for Any and Every Day

6-10 round rice paper wrappers, depending on the size of your rolls
4-6 Bibb lettuce leaves, rinsed
1/2 small head Napa cabbage, shredded
2 carrots, peeled and julienned
1 large avocado, sliced lengthwise
6 oz. Enoki mushrooms, cleaned and roots trimmed
Handful of cilantro

Sesame Dressing
1/2 cup tahini
1/2 cup vegan mayonnaise
3 tbsp. rice vinegar
1 1/2 tbsp. toasted sesame oil
1 tbsp. tamari
2 tsp. natural cane sugar

Tamari Dipping Sauce
2 tbsp. tamari
2 tbsp. Thai sweet chili sauce
2 tsp. minced fresh ginger
1 clove garlic, grated or minced
2 green onions, thinly sliced

For the rolls, fill a large shallow bowl with hot water. Dunk one rice paper wrapper at a time for 4 to 5 seconds until it becomes softer and more flexible. Lay the rice paper on a work surface. Place a piece of Bibb lettuces on top of the wrapper. Arrange a thin buddle of cabbage, followed by carrot, avocado, Enoki mushrooms, and cilantro on the roll. Pull the bottom of the roll up to enclose the filling. Fold over one side and continue to roll, keeping the roll as tight as possible. Repeat with the rest of the wrappers and fillings.

For the dressing, whisk together all ingredients in a small bowl. Set aside. Repeat for the dipping sauce. Serve rolls alongside the sauces which compliment the rolls very nicely.

Regardless of a more plant-based lifestyle, I know I will continue to seek out the occasional burger or pork carnitas, devour my father’s ribs, or occasionally put a steak on the grill. And I will also continue to share a meat recipe here and there. As this recipe journal is a means for me to explore the intersection between my life and food at various points in time, I want to include those recipes that have had an influence on my life throughout my childhood, such as my mother’s absolutely delicious spaghetti sauce. Because, ultimately, life is a continual pursuit of balance in all respects.

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