Or, how I was outed at Trader Joe’s.
So you know how the employees at Trader Joe’s are all chipper and friendly? Well, my checkout clerk on that Friday afternoon was no exception. It was the end of a long work week, and though I was tired and anxious just to get home, there was still the shopping to get done. I wove my way quickly through the store, stocking my cart well. As I rounded the final corner from the far aisle, I was glad to see that there was an open checkout lane. With the late hour and the subsiding commuter traffic, this was likely to be my last stop for the day.
The checkout set up at Trader Joe’s is unusual. Your cart goes one way, while you go the other. Rather than allowing for the often awkward and yet inward zen task of unloading your own groceries, here, by receiving your full cart, the clerk both unloads and scans for you. Here you come face to face with your clerk more immediately and this results in your connection unfolding both more quickly and more intimately–and usually quite cheerfully. They maintain greater contact with your food–that which you have selectively chosen to feed yourself and maybe your family–than at most regular markets.
Having just turned over custody of my cart, I suddenly found myself in a conversation about cats. Apparently, if not for her mother’s allergy, my adorable, young clerk would have a cat because she loves them. I quickly realized that the cat food I was purchasing had prompted the comment and suddenly I was revealing that I had two cats. Most people I work with every day don’t know that about me.
I tried to bring the topic back to groceries by offering to help bag, but that resulted in a friendly argument. She counseled that I take the checkout experience as an opportunity to relax while I insisted that I did not find bagging to be stressful and that my help would expedite matters and could get me home sooner. I won that one, but clearly, in the process, our professional/client relationship had deepened. While I usually conduct my nutritional assessments and evaluations in the privacy of an office, this dedicated professional offered her services right in the checkout lane. As my purchases transferred rhythmically from her hands to mine, she hesitated and looked me in the eyes, and said, “Oh, I thought you were a vegetarian.” I looked down as she passed me the plastic-wrapped piece of salmon that was swimming along solo in the long queue of plant-based products.
I stuttered and stammered. Believe you me. I have stood on many a grocery-style line with a keen eye going through the contents of the carts around me. I am a nutritionist so I am apt to assess for the number of essential amino acids, calculate the percentage of the daily value for manganese and vanadium–and to make judgments. But, here, the tables were turned. The little punk of a young woman had my number. The words fell clumsily from my mouth as they tried to follow orders from command central. I could have just said it was for my cats. But, instead, I explained that I was a vegetarian, but that on occasion I do eat some fish. “Oh”, she corrected, “A pescetarian.” I balked as I felt I was being assigned to the wrong religion, maybe like being called a Methodist when you were, in fact, a Lutheran.
The arena of eating patterns does not make easy allowances for any gray areas. You either are or you aren’t. But still, I doth protested. The date of this encounter coincided with my 40th anniversary of becoming a vegetarian. It was a long time ago–I was a teenager– but I am pretty certain that it was in the month of May. During these forty years, I have only once eaten meat when I chose to have a few bites of turkey at a NOFA conference in Vermont. And, only a spoonful of times I have allowed a chicken stock-based soup to pass my lips.
But it is true that I have eaten fish and seafood. I have had years where I did not eat any, and in recent years have largely avoided it due to myriad reasons, but more than not it has been there as a backup. Some of these were times of surrender like when I needed to appease my mom; or when traveling made vegetarian options hard to find. But, more often it was a conscious choice–albeit a choice of exception. I mainly choose “pesce” when eating out–especially when at a seaside location; when I feel like my body needs a denser or “yang” protein; when I think that I might benefit from a dose of fish nutrients; or when it will just be nicely satisfying. A fish-based soup on a cold winter’s night might fit this bill. I eat fish maybe once per month. That piece of salmon that I just put into my shopping bag was likely to find itself shelved in my freezer for a while and might eventually be consumed by Pete–a 41-year long vegetarian who also just occasionally eats fish.
There is no arguable rationale, but I still clamor to consider myself a vegetarian. I carry an identity with this definition and it guides my ethical and social compass. In some ways, it does serve as my religion and it begs many questions regarding behavior as religion is apt to do. It is most certainly my favorite cuisine and I bask in nature’s brilliance and creativity of plant offerings. Nutritionally, it seems to serve me though I have little data for comparison. Forty years of many types of beans, kernels of grains, colors of vegetables, with nary a need for a table knife most certainly buys me membership in the club–maybe within an “essentially vegetarian” or “low pescetarian” category. At least, I should not have to be explaining myself or justifying this to a random check out clerk, right? Even if her parents are vegan and she’s been vegan her entire life as she then did go on to share with me at the end of my babbling. I would peg her at twenty-two years at best, so I still have a few nuts and seeds on her.
Still, the encounter did make me ponder my attachment to this aspect of my life and what it represents. Though maintaining a non-carnivorous diet is a lot easier than it was forty years ago, with vegetarian and vegan options now more widely available and even commonplace, the whole matter of who we are as eaters has become way more complicated with many different belief systems to be an adherent to. What did I need to defend and what else would I defend so stridently?
As I finished up my bagging duties, she said, “Oh, I see you didn’t purchase many dairy products”, further assessing the plant-based percentage of my diet. She actually got a good glimpse and did a pretty good analysis. Such work is much easier from that platform instead of relying on diet recalls or scribbled and food-stained dietary records as I traditionally have had to do.
I paid for the consult, I mean groceries and loaded the bags back into the cart. I started for the exit thinking we were done. But, there was one more thing. “Oh”, she giddily exclaimed as I walked away, “I love your socks!” Once again she had surprised me. I realized I was wearing a funky yellow paisley pair that was peeking out from the bottom of my skirt and through the top of my shoes. I smiled. Maybe we could just be friends.
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In health, Elyn
My Plate Haiku
Do you carrot all for me?
My heart beets for you, with your turnip nose and your radish face,
You are a peach. If we cantaloupe, lettuce marry.
Weed make a swell pear.