Not every vegetarian has an a-ha moment, but I did: It struck me halfway through a bowl of Campbell’s Manhattan Clam Chowder. In fact, it struck me smack in the middle of trying my darndest to masticate one of those rubbery little clam-like things, trying to break it down enough to where I could swallow without it being a choking hazard.
(I don’t know if you’ve ever attempted a bowl of Campbell’s Manhattan Clam Chowder, but the above is not an easy task.)
The self-realization came while I was standing at the kitchen counter, eating the too-hot soup out of a too-small bowl; the tomato-flavored liquid threatened to escape if I wasn’t careful. It was a dish I’d eaten for dinner every night for nearly two weeks, and at first I really appreciated the stubborn texture of the clams—especially in contrast to the starchy crumbiness of the cubed potatoes, and the baby-food mush of tiny carrot half-moons.
I was 13 years old and in the eighth grade, finally feeling myself something of an adult. Largely, that adultiness was due to the fact that I had become responsible for my own dinners, my mother working full-time daytime hours and holding down an evening job as an adjunct Ready Level 1 professor at a local community college.
My older brother’s nightly routine was to make himself three servings of Stove Top Stuffing and call it dinner, and he always forgot it long enough to burn bits black and hard to the bottom of the pan; it took a lot of knuckle-down effort to scrape them off of a night, even after soaking.
I could be trusted at the very least to dilute and heat up a can of condensed soup, and so I had a stash any bomb-shelter interior decorator would envy: An entire shelf of the pantry lined with those perfect red-and-white cans, all the same flavor (on account of a 4-for-$1 sale at the local A&P), and all for me.
Chicken Noodle didn’t cause a moment’s stir, and neither did Beef Barley. Even New England Clam Chowder had been acceptable, though I got sick of it very quickly.
That Manhattan Clam Chowder, though. That’s what pushed me over the veg edge.
To be totally fair, I’d been gearing up to become vegetarian since I was 8 years old, when during a weekend visit to my father’s house he’d looked up at me over his pint of Coors Light and said, “You like animals, right? Come on, let’s go.”
We proceeded to drive down the dirt trail that led to a slaughterhouse his friend operated out of what looked like a shack, set on about 3 acres of land most of which was taken up by crates and pens full of mangy rabbits-for-food, and pigs with open cuts on their backsides from throwing themselves against the fence posts. I watched as a goat got strung up by its hind legs and lifted up off the floor, high enough so two men in dirty overalls could bash its head in with a sledgehammer. They drove long slits down its sides while it still wiggled in the air, letting the blood run into giant floor drains. The bottoms of their pants both were stained that sickly shit brown that blood turns on clothing when it dries.
Yes, I did like animals. Very much.
Even at 8 years old, however, I realized my righteous Lisa Simpson–esque indignation about what I’d seen wouldn’t fly in my mother’s house, and it helped anyway that the meat we ate most nights didn’t typically resemble anything found in nature: Breaded and pan-fried boneless chicken cutlets, meatloaf, cold cuts. (Show me a pig that looks like a cold cut and I’ll show you how to finally make meat-eaters understand.)
So I’ll admit that yes, I coasted along on that meat-and-frozen-vegetable diet so commonly found in middle-class suburban homes, the broccoli cheese pile eclipsed by a mountain of chicken fingers doused in ketchup, or applesauce obscured by pork chop.
It wasn’t until I started heating my own meals that I began to consider what food was and where it came from—not just from a can, or a plastic-wrapped styrofoam clam shell package. Not just from a plastic bag inside a box. From somewhere else. From out there.
And what about the particular sadness of condensed Manhattan Clam Chowder that brought this realization full-circle to me I still don’t know, except perhaps the very unmistakable fact that the can describes this food as having an animal product in it, and yet the animal product in question is so distinctly unrealistic as to be deeply disturbing.
Does the human brain really click on the light underneath a picture of “CLAM” when the human teeth are tearing and ripping so desperately at what is by all other indications some totally foreign man-made clam-like object? Can we really be eating the things we think we’re eating if this kind of wildly disparate food experience is happening before our very eyes and in our very mouths? If I’d never actually eaten a real clam in a bowl of one of these reconstituted soups, then would I ever really want to? Could I jus say no?
I put the bowl down on the counter and looked into it, like a bent old carnival fortune-teller reading tea leaves. A whitish glistening hunk of something more or less fishy bobbed on the oil-slicked surface of the murky red broth; the unnatural orange of those carrot pieces circled it like sharks moving in on prey. My nose instinctively scrunched up, and I tipped the whole thing into the sink—not at all expecting the big chunks of whatever to get caught in the drain, but there they were. I mashed them through the separators and rinsed the massacre away with hot water from the faucet.
“I’m a vegetarian,” I thought, deliberately. “I just am.”
The next night, my brother made an extra serving of Stove Top for me, and we ate it silently together while sitting on the couch watching Comedy Central. He even cleaned the pan himself.