I am a vegetarian. More out of habit than religion. (I’m not very religious.) What that means, in practice, is that I don’t eat non-vegetarian food knowingly.
But it has happened unknowningly. Many times.
Until I was 22, I had not been out of India on my own, and things were fine. In 1998, I went to Charlotte, NC, for training. (On a KLM flight that placed me illegally in Germany, but that’s another story.) I was pretty groggy after an 8-hour night flight. So when I was woken up by the sound of breakfast, I bit into the big yellow thing on the tray in front. Sleepy as I was, I did feel a little suspicious. Didn’t quite taste sweet, like I was expecting it to. I saved it for the last, when Ram, my manager, walked past.
“Are you eating that?” (pointing to the nibbled food in front)
My nibble was small, and I was still hungry, but there was no way I could eat the rest of it. Unfortunately, that turned out to be my last meal for 24 hours. (But, like I said, that’s another story.)
At Charlotte, food wasn’t so much of a problem. A bean burrito for dinner from Taco Bell worked just fine. But we drove to Washington DC one weekend, and that’s when big trouble struck.
You see, a bean burrito contains beans. That’s why it’s called a bean burrito.
Presumably, therefore, a hamburger would contain ham. Why else would it be called a hamburger? I can’t eat that. Ham is meat.
But a cheeseburger is safe to eat, since it only contains cheese. So Ram, Gayathri and I (the vegetarians) ordered a cheeseburger each, while Kallol and Dev (the non-vegetarians) ordered some chicken.
As usual, I was the hungriest, and took a big bite.
It didn’t feel right. Neither the taste, nor the look of the big red blob that I had taken a massive bite of.
(mouth full) “Kallol, what’s this?”
(after a careful examination) “I think it’s beef.”
Aaargh! Meat is bad, but beef is a sin. My mouth was still full of it. Panic sets in. Spit it all out. Need to wash mouth. Where do I go? Does this country use tissue for that as well? Run into men’s room…
After a while, Ram (who HADN’T taken a bite) calmed me down. And I was wiser.
The person at the counter must have made a mistake. It was quite noisy at the Smithsonian Museum restaurants. She must have heard us say the “burger” part, and not the “cheese” part. Quite understandable.
So a few days later, under much quieter circumstances, we ordered two cheeseburgers (“with extra cheese, please”) each. For the night…
Two years later, at London Business School, Accenture’s pre-placement talk was scheduled just after lunch, and they were sponsoring lunch. Naturally, I was there. Wise as I was, I carefully picked the vegetarian sandwiches — after verifying with two people independently (and re-verifying after one of them had taken a bite of it.)
The good part about being a vegetarian is that desserts are OK. Meat doesn’t go into desserts. Or biscuits. Or snacks. Or so I thought.
The assortment of biscuits was good, and I helped myself to a few. One of them was a bit salty, and rather good. So I went over for a second helping. I couldn’t reach it from where I stood, given the small crowd that was busily discussing work at Accenture just near the table. So I politely walked over to the other side, from where the biscuit was closer anyway…
… and read the label.
Shit. Panic. Nausea.
This time I had actually eaten it. There was no mistaking the nausea in my stomach. I gulped three glasses of water before I calmed down a bit. Convinced myself that it’s OK because it tasted quite fine until I figured it was non-vegetarian. And ended up skipping the rest of lunch and the Accenture PPT anyway. (Too queasy in the stomach.)
Things haven’t changed much since 2000. I’ve managed to avoid non-vegetarian since. And learned that Pepperoni is not a form of pepper, nor is bolognese a variant of lasagna. But on the few occassions people try to point out to the beef fat content in Mentos or fish liver oil in a sauce, my only response is:
Don’t tell me. I’m OK with non-vegetarian if I don’t know about it.
P.S: I’m OK with eggs, though.