I stopped eating meat about eleven years ago, in the midst of a warm summer that filled my garden with tomatoes, bell peppers, watermelons, lettuces and every variety of hot pepper I could find.
We lived in a rented Cape Cod in a fifty-year old neighborhood in a small North Carolina city. The house was on a big corner lot bordered on two sides by a wooded area where we would occasionally hunt for morels. The kitchen and dining area were all part of a long, narrow room with a fireplace at one end. A door in the living room concealed a flight of stairs leading to an attic bedroom with excellent hardwood floors. Our bed was situated by the window overlooking the woods, and I would lie there sometimes in the afternoon under the sloped ceiling, reading and listening to the summer rains.
I learned to cook that summer -- not the kind of learning to cook where you master exquisite culinary techniques, but the kind of learning to cook where you create dishes that are satisfying to you, and perhaps one other person or two. I learned to make English muffins from scratch because it pleased me to do so. I spent nine hours making my first batch of croissants, and they were lovely. This was before I left meat for good, and I stuffed them with turkey, cheese and vegetables and sent them with my husband to eat by the river on the opening day of trout season.
I also grew many herbs that year, many of which I'd purchased as starts from a store in Old Salem, a nearby historical museum that was once a thriving Moravian settlement. My herb garden was a tangle of unruly, fragrant plants, and by the end of the summer, I had some left to dry.
It was, paradoxically, an easy place and time to forget about meat. North Carolina is barbecue, and everything had meat in it there, even the vegetables. But when I was home, I would just make some rice, throw in some plump cherry tomatoes, a fistful of herbs, and whatever else I had on hand. What need did I have of chicken, beef or ham? Very little.
Of course, when I declined to consume meat or meat-based items in public, the reaction was nearly identical to what one might receive upon declaring an expectation never to eat again at all. How might you do that? And whatever for? It's worth noting that eleven years has chipped away significantly at the formerly exotic veneer of vegetarianism. I think many more people, while not adopting the practice themselves, might acknowledge that North Carolina is not just barbecue, but the colors and scents of a ripened garden rooted and nourished in thick red clay.
But for me, it's a place I love, and can still see, in my mind's eye, through a window opened to the fresh air of summer.