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Finish What’s On Your Plate

(by Eileen Vorbach Collins)


Sunday dinner was early, around 1 PM. After sitting still through Sunday School and church, I was always in a hurry to eat and get back outside where my friends, mostly boys, were playing cowboys or soldiers, killing one another over and over.


A special Sunday meal I’d always liked was tongue. The meat had an unusual texture, and it was a pretty pink color. Nice and juicy.


One day, maybe it was raining. I happened to slow down and take a closer look.


“What are all these little bumps,” I asked. My brother, ten years older, said with a smirk,


“Taste buds.”


In that moment, everything became clear. That slab of pink on the yellow platter had once been the soft tongue of something big and friendly. Something that would lick a girl like me if I offered a carrot or a sugar cube or a dog biscuit. I was sick. Was it a horse, a cow, a dog? Whose tongue had we been eating and where was the rest of it? I cried. My brother laughed. My mother, never one to tolerate wasting food, said, “Finish what’s on your plate.” But I would not. Could not.


Aside from a few years of vegetarianism as a young adult, I continued to eat meat. But I never ate tongue again until my mother-in-law served it, cleverly disguised in a recipe, hidden among other ingredients. “This is delicious! What is it?” I was sorry I’d asked.


Three decades later, my daughter was in third grade learning about native Americans. Her teacher provided lots of opportunities for experiential learning. The children spent time in the wooded area on the school property learning about plants and building shelters. They made Kachina dolls and wrote stories about them. I still have Lydia’s.


The teacher’s husband had hunted and killed a deer. She brought in some of the hide so the class could experience using crude tools. Welding their sharp rocks, the children scraped fat and sinew. That was when my daughter had her Aha moment. She came home and declared that she would never again eat the flesh of an animal.


When Lydia gave up the gummy bears she loved because they contain gelatin, I wasn’t concerned. When she refused a daily vitamin, I bought the vegetarian ones. After a few months, it became clear that this was not going to be a passing phase. I made an appointment with a nutritionist. The woman asked Lydia what prompted her to stop eating meat. “When we were scraping the fat from the deer skin, I thought about the deer, and that made me sad.”


Soon, my son, Daniel, two years younger, joined his sister in an act of sibling solidarity. While this made it easier for me as a working single parent, I cringe at the memory of so many peanut butter sandwiches and pasta dishes.


My daughter remained a vegetarian for the rest of her short life. She also developed an eating disorder. I’d thought the running was her quest for fitness and believed her when she said she’d eaten at a friend’s. Her journals told a different story, one of thinking she was fat, counting every bite of food, sometimes limiting her intake to fewer than 100 calories a day.


Daniel remembers the first time he ate meat after his sister’s suicide. He was 12 or 13 and on a flight to Israel with his father and stepmother. No one had thought to order a vegetarian meal for him.


Now grown, my son once killed a rattlesnake. He hadn’t wanted to kill it, but the dog was in danger of being bitten. Rather than waste that life, Daniel cooked and ate that snake. So many bones. So much regret.

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Eileen Vorbach Collins has a degree in nursing and a master's in pastoral care. Her book, Love in the Archives: A Patchwork of True Stories About Suicide Loss, is forthcoming in November 2023 with Apprentice House Press. She lives in Garner, North Carolina and can be found at www.eileenvorbachcollins.com.

Vegetarian Chili


(Measurements omitted, not because this recipe is a haphazard thing, but because you’re too busy for precision, and maybe you don’t like a lot of garlic. It’ll be different every time, but always delicious. And always a surprise.)


olive oil

garlic, peeled and minced

onion, chopped

green and/or red pepper, seeded and cubed

carrots, peeled and sliced

sweet potato or butternut squash cubes

large can crushed tomatoes

beans: black, red, or pinto (canned or dried and soaked overnight)

chile powder

paprika

cumin

cinnamon

optional: cocoa powder

corn or hominy for color contrast (or not)

optional: bulgur (just a little will do)

to serve: sliced avocado and sour cream or Greek yogurt


Cover bottom of large pot with olive oil.

Add garlic, onions, peppers, carrots, and sweet potato or squash.

Cook over medium heat for a few minutes, stirring often.

When sweet potatoes are softening, add crushed tomatoes.

Rinse beans until all the bubbles are gone, and add to pot.

Add spices of choice, including a bit of cocoa powder.

Add corn or hominy.

If using bulgur, steam it to soften first, then add it to the pot. (The texture will fool carnivores. They’ll think it’s ground beef.)

Cover loosely, and let it all simmer for a while.

Serve over egg noodles.

Top with avocado and a dollop of sour cream or plain Greek yogurt.

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