I grew up in a family where food was often the center of attention. There was rarely anything fancy or exotic on the table, but there was always plenty to eat and we usually gathered around to eat it together.
As a kid, I don’t think I fully appreciated the gift of family dinners, and my perspective on food has long been tainted by my own tenuous relationship with my plate. Overweight for most of my childhood, I used food as a sanctuary, an excuse, a place to hide emotions and feelings. Sometimes I still do.
A lot changed, though, when I was sixteen and my dad passed away suddenly. He had always been a presence in the kitchen, hovering over vats of spaghetti and meatballs, grilling burgers and steaks on the back porch and serving up homemade breakfast sandwiches on the weekends.
Out of a period of turmoil and transition and healing, I emerged as a somewhat defiant teenage vegetarian. I was full of conviction but clueless about how and what to eat and why.
My journey with food over the past nearly sixteen years has been transformational. I learned to cook. Slowly I began to explore my food choices and the impact what I eat has on my own body but also on other beings and the environment. I survived college and graduate school as a relatively healthy, self-sufficient vegetarian, and more recently committed to a fully vegan lifestyle. And I haven’t looked back.
Don’t get me wrong, I am far from perfect. Ask anyone who eats with me what kind of not-so-mindful relationship I can have with a plate of french fries. But for me, this transformation has meant the ability to connect more compassionately with myself and others, human and non-human, and to develop greater mindfulness and consciousness around food and body image.
What has been even more powerful than this inner transformation, though, has been the ripple effect that I can see emanating from my personal experience.
As a younger vegetarian, I felt like the odd one out at the dinner table (I often excluded myself as much as others excluded me) and I was sometimes hesitant to stand up and ask for what I wanted. Now, I try my best to be clear, in a non-aggressive way, about what I eat and why. And you might be surprised to know that people listen.
My formerly burger-loving husband, who has only known me as a vegetarian, has always eaten everything I prepared and accepted my choices (even the seemingly drastic shift to veganism that impacted his pizza habit). But today, he quietly makes his own conscious food choices. Not because I asked him to, but because he has evolved in his own right.
In the past few years, we have hosted both of our families for vegan Thanksgiving dinners (yes, that means no turkey). My midwestern-rooted in-laws have significantly cut back their meat consumption and adopted recipes I first prepared for them. And the meatless barbecue gathering is now a summer tradition at our house, appreciated by guests of all persuasions.
What I have learned over many contested plates: don’t be embarrassed about what you eat or choose not to eat. If you are, consider stepping back to look at your consumption habits from a mindful place. And avoid letting other people’s views get in the way.
When the intention is to gather family or friends, what is on the table matters less than who is around it. They will eat whatever you serve, and they will welcome you no matter what you choose. Adapted traditions – like my meatless take on my dad’s backyard barbecue – can be just as meaningful as the original.
And be grateful, as I am, for every opportunity to effect even the smallest positive change on how others view the food they eat. Let dinner be about the journey and not the destination.
In honor of summer, here’s a recipe for a family-style feast of grilled tempeh tacos that I serve regularly this time of year:
Baja-Style Grilled Tempeh Tacos
Adapted from Veganomicon by Isa Chandra Moskowitz & Terry Hope Romero
3 cups shredded purple or white cabbage (or a mix)
1 carrot, shredded
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
1 small jalapeño, diced
1 tsp salt
3/4 cup of Mexican-style beer (or substitute vegetable broth)
2 cloves garlic, crushed
2 tbsp olive oil or grape seed oil
2 tbsp soy sauce or tamari
2 tbsp lime juice
2-3 tsp chile powder (blended or use ancho or chipotle for smoky flavor)
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1 package of tempeh
12 corn tortillas, preferably organic
Mix all the slaw ingredients in a bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and place something heavy on top to weigh it down. Allow the slaw to marinate in the fridge for at least an hour.
Prepare the tempeh. Whisk all the marinade ingredients together. Slice the tempeh into strips about 3/4 inch wide. Boil water in a saucepan with a steamer basket over it, and steam the tempeh slices for about 10 minutes. Then place the tempeh into the marinade in a shallow dish, making sure it is covered fully. Allow to marinate in the fridge for at least 1 hour.
Grill the tempeh on an outdoor grill, or on a grill pan on the stove over medium-high heat. You can also broil the tempeh strips in the oven. Grill on each side for 5 minutes, brushing with additional marinade occasionally to keep it moist.
To assemble the tacos, warm the corn tortillas on the grill or in the oven. Assemble the tacos with the slaw and sliced tempeh. Serve immediately, garnished with sliced avocado or fresh guacamole, chopped fresh tomato, non-dairy sour cream, pickled jalapeños or your favorite hot sauce. Accompany with grilled sweet corn or a green salad for a fresh summer meal.