My Daughter, the Vegan
How one dad coped with new tastes at mealtime and liked it
Not long after my wife and I got married — like, 20 minutes following our honeymoon — I became the de facto cook of the house. Starting first with a cookbook that might as well have been called Simple Pasta for Simple People, I graduated to clipping more complex recipes from The New York Times and Food & Wine.
My wife, as you can probably guess, had no objection. She even gave up her semi-vegetarian lifestyle when she tried my first filet mignon. From there on, it was steaks of all kind. Hanger, flank, skirt, you name it; if it used to say “moo," it was on our table. Chickens, too, were always welcome.
When our daughter finally got past the baby-food stage, she, too, started enjoying my meals. And to hear her friends tell it, the fact a daddy did the cooking was something of a novelty. A very welcome novelty at that, as a passel of them wound up making regular Friday evening pit stops for my legendary cheeseburgers.
No doubt, this was a family of unabashed carnivores. Yes, my wife made sure that I provided vegetable sides and/or salads. But those were just window dressing as far as I was concerned. Protein was king, prince, and duke in my kitchen, and I was happy to pay fealty to it.
A Mealtime Vegan Rebellion
Then my daughter started a one-person rebellion in our kitchen fiefdom.
It was minor, at first, as she started trimming the fat off the steak with the skill of a surgeon. Indeed, it often took longer for her to trim the steak than to actually eat it.
Soon, she was showing more interest in the salads and veggies than the strip steak topped with homemade chimichurri sauce.
I finally had to point out the obvious to her. “Y'know, you would make a very poor Eskimo.”
“Dad, it doesn't matter! I'm not an Eskimo!” Clearly, she didn't get my point, so I let it drop.
I put her newfound meat phobia down to “that thing girls do when they get to be that age,” like being embarrassed to be within five miles of their parents in public. But by the time she returned from her first year in college, a profound change had taken place.
My skirt steak-eating little girl was now a tofu-munching woman. The kid who had once derided Paul McCartney for being a vegetarian — “Eew! I could never do that!” — had become one herself.
Changes Around the Dinner Table
This made my cooking much more difficult.
I had mastered the art of vegetarian chili and could sauté green beans with the best of them, but my veggie skills were otherwise negligible. Each time she returned home on vacation, my daughter spent more time preparing her own meals.
By the time she was a junior in college, she had gone full vegan. Her excuse as to why everybody should switch to cashew milk from the dairy kind was, “We're not baby cows!”
“Well,” I replied sagely, “I'm not a baby cashew.” Realizing the futility of challenging my logic, she gave up trying to convert me.
Yet, a funny thing happened on the way to the dinner table. Those aromas wafting from the kitchen when my daughter was prepping her lunches were mighty tempting. She appeared to be lifting the humble lentil and quinoa into a meal fit for an avowed beast of prey like me.
She had somehow also inherited her mother's gift for whipping up simple, yet delicious meals without the benefit of a recipe. While I tend to follow cooking rules down to the last quarter-tablespoon, my daughter was sprinkling spices with the abandon of Gene Kelly dancing in a downpour.
“How do you know what to use?” I asked.
She shrugged, “I just look at what we have, and use what I think will taste best.”
I was thunderstruck. Think what will taste best? Why didn't anybody tell me you could cook like this?
New Options and Old Favorites
But it wasn't until she first served lunch to my wife and me that I discovered how good — and healthy — a veggie meal could taste, worthy of a hearty second helping. Grains, sautéed peppers and kale, pita bread with hummus — a fellow could get used to this.
However, I realized, my daughter would be returning to college any day, so if I was going to continue eating like her more often, I'd have to prepare it myself.
It was rather odd; while I had no problem following the most complex directions, the idea of improvising a simple meal intimidated me.
I'm now getting the hang of it, though. And I owe it to my daughter. The kid who made a very bad Eskimo wound up being a very good cook — one who taught me little grains could boast big flavor and that vegetables didn't have to be the opening act you had to put up with before getting to the headliner. In fact, they could be the headliners themselves, from time to time.
Maybe you can't teach an old dog new tricks, but you can show an old amateur chef to cut loose and eat healthy. And I was proud to learn it from my daughter.
But man, or at least this man, cannot live by lentils alone. So for those who want to know the secret to the perfect cheeseburger, it's cumin, Worcestershire sauce, salt and pepper. Mix well. Cook to medium-rare. Slap the cheese on three minutes before the burger's ready.
And sauté some peppers and zucchini while you're at it, with whatever spices you've got hanging around. Just like I (kind of) do.