When I decided to become a vegetarian at the tender age of eight, my meat-worshipping family were devastated. To them our Sunday roast was Holy, our BBQs' sacred and tasting a carefully seasoned kebab was the closet you could get to God on a weeknight. Just about the only time the whole family was in the same room was when Mum would bring out the steaming hot dish of spaghetti bolognaise (heavy on the bolognaise.) So announcing my decision to reject all meat it was understandably disturbing.
Who had given their chicken-nugget-loving-darling daughter the idea that meat wasn't a necessity but an option?
Well they had my eccentric, long haired, hippie cousin to blame for that. I only got to see my extended family every few years but when I did, I soaked them up. I learnt to cook from my grandmother, learnt to skate with my uncles, learnt to sew from my aunts. But my favourite member of the family lived up several sets of stairs, past beaded curtains, in a dark and incense-fuelled room. Virginia. She was everything I wanted to be. Dark, curvy, with long curly hair. Her room was decorated in posters, endless books and a rabbit that I'm not entirely sure her parents knew about. She was to be a constant source of inspiration for me (and a constant source of anxiety for my parents.) Before she taught me all about the world of music, grunge, drinking and boys, Virginia taught me about Vegetarianism.
I was too young to remember the exact moment when I arrived at the decision. I don't think it was anything as straightforward as Virginia saying she didn't eat meat, therefore I shouldn't eat meat. I think what probably happened was Virginia told me where meat actually came from. Until then I had been under the impression that the chicken schnitzel on my plate came from my mother who got it from the shops. As simple and as complicated as that. But when it was explained to me that my chicken schnitzel was once an actual chicken...
Like all little children I of course loved animals. Slightly less common, I loved all animals. I was forever digging up worms and putting them in my lunchbox to take home to show mum. I would pick up spiders and there was the notorious incident of a four-year-old me walking over to a two metre brown snake for a chat. To me, all animals were friends. I'm not sure how long it took me to try (and fail) to rectify eating my friends. But one night while sitting down for dinner, I proudly announced that I was now Vegetarian. And then my parents announced that I most certainly was not.
But if my parents couldn't get it into my head to not talk to snakes, they would never succeed at persuading me to not become a herbivore. Don't get me wrong – they gave it a fair crack. Suggesting, tempting, bribing, demanding, even sneaking meat into meals. And it did take me a while to fully commit – my mother pulled out the big guns by cooking my favourite meat-heavy dishes every. single. night.
But soon I resolved and became happily and completely vegetarian. And my parents were distraught. I'm sure they were worried about my health and potential problems that may occur. And there was the inconvenience of having to find new meals to cook alongside their Meat with a side of Meat (Potato bake and Cheese Muffins now had to be bacon-free. Soups were made with Vegetable Stock instead of Chicken.) Maybe it was partly the inkling that this Display of Will and Independence was just a taste of things to come with their youngest child. It was also so foreign. Vegetarianism wasn't huge in the nineties and trying to take a child out to dinner for a meal that had no meat in it was a challenge.
But no, I think the cause for their dismay was something akin to what Catholics feel when their children declare they're Atheist (Although I've done this too and they actually took the Vegetarianism worse, go figure.) A sense of loss, confusion and, honestly, disgust. Gone were the days when my brother and I would be hopping around my father as he carved up the roast, trying to pinch a steaming slice before my mother could transport it to our plates. We couldn't sit around a roast chook at a picnic anymore. Why would anyone choose to not eat bacon? Why would you have a veggie pastie when there was a sausage roll right there? I had turned my back on my parents' faith in meat. The youngest daughter had forsaken the life of her parents, grandparents, great grandparents. Meat was in our blood! Being Irish-Australian, all we ever knew was meat and sausages.
But like all good parents – after the obligatory guilt-tripping and oh-so-subtle hints – they accepted that their daughter would never again eat a meat pie. I would still join in on the family picnic and sit contentedly while they picked over the roast chook. Ten years on and my family has become a lot more accepting of salads and patties on the dinner table. Meat will only now feature in one of our dinner dishes. Sometimes – gasp – my mother even opts for the vegetarian option. I feel less like a heretic and more like a member of some distant but relatable sect. While it was initially something to be whispered – "Oh actually, she's become vegetarian" – it's now something that they are happy to discuss without the fear that my blasphemy will spread.
It turns out Virginia was actually only vegetarian for a matter of weeks. By the time I'd declared my new lifestyle, she was renouncing hers. Apparently my preacher was actually more of an agnostic. But never mind, when it comes to vegetarianism, I have kept my faith.