Thursday, April 5, 2012

the etiquette of secret meat

image from

A friend had me over for lunch last week. Spectacular sautéed spinach, some kind of super yummy rice that she turned out of a skillet, and the centerpiece: vegan chili.  Yum!  Except woops, scratch the vegan part.  She mistakenly thawed and served the wrong chili—the one made from bison and venison, not the one made from beans and vegetables.   

None the wiser, I ate it.

Lest you think I’m completely without my wits, I admit that I paused over its texture several times.  It had a coarseness I couldn’t explain.  Yet, I could tell it wasn’t ground beef.  Ultimately, I decided it was a very realistic and delicious soy product. I almost asked what kind. If I had, my friend would have realized her mistake. With a baby on her hip, she had cooked for me one-handed all morning. If she'd gasped and confessed her error as I sat, spoon poised in front of my mouth, what would I have done? Refused the meal? I’m glad we didn't figure it out until later.

I’m left wondering: What is the etiquette for “secret meat?” This is the third time in my vegetarian life that meat has surreptitiously wandered onto my plate. The first time it came in a meat sauce, served by a very well meaning, but forgetful person who I knew would be mortified if I reminded her of my vegetarianism. I had just ranted about how hungry I was, how good dinner smelled.

When we sat at the table, candles lit, toasting all around, I looked down at my food and knew instantly that it had once walked around in a field swatting at flies with its tail. This was my first secret meat experience, so, like any committed vegetarian, I panicked and, surprising even myself, began to eat.  It was harder to get down than I thought it would be.  I hadn’t eaten any meat in years; it felt gnarly and foreign in my mouth.

Worse, once I started eating, I realized that I’d only complicated an already impossible social calamity.  If the cook ever realized her mistake, her embarrassment at serving the meat would be compounded by the knowledge that I had choked down her meal then lied about how much I enjoyed it, just to spare her feelings.  

Despite all my good intentions, those seemed like the actions of a dirty rotten secret-meat-eating scoundrel.  Then I worried:  what if she remembered during the meal and confronted me?  I imagined myself, chewing incessantly, a thin layer of cold perspiration glistening on my upper lip and across my forehead, mouth full of gristle and voice full of the hollow insistence that I found my food to be perfectly satisfactory.


I vowed never to do that again.  

Until I did. This time for someone I was just getting to know.  She had already bent over backwards to feed Olivia who has multiple food allergies. (We are high maintenance to have over for dinner—don’t invite us!).   We had discussed my vegetarianism before; I thought my husband had reminded hers.  But in her focus on Olivia, she forgot about me and also served spaghetti and meat sauce.  Again I didn’t realize it until we were seated at the table.  Again I couldn’t bring myself to say anything.  Again I stressed about my choice (I tried to eat around it this time, but who am I kidding, since it was in the sauce, I just may have needed a microscope for that operation).

Clearly, I have a problem standing up for myself at the table. It’s not that I’m afraid to tell people I’m a vegetarian.  I always do so when invited for a meal.  But what do you do when someone forgets and they go to the trouble to cook?  As an avid cook myself, I feel that preparing food for other people is an extension of self that ranges on a spectrum from goodwill, to friendship, to love.  I just don’t know that you can reject the food without rejecting the gesture.  Can you?

This week I got lucky because I didn’t have to answer that.  My friend discovered the meat in our chili after I’d eaten it and gone.  I suspect her husband clued her in to the mix up when he got home and saw the vegan chili still corralled in the freezer, safe from any predators, while the bison and venison had been set loose on the unsuspecting guest. 

I commend my friend for her honesty in telling me. 

Would you tell?  What if a vegetarian guest refused to eat a meal you prepared in the moment when you sat together at the table?  Would you rather they secretly hid the meal in their napkin while smiling and complimenting your cooking?  Or should they force it down just to please you?    

Conversely, what would you do if you were a vegetarian presented with “secret meat?”  Does my “lessatarian” status make it easier for me to be flexible, or am I just being too passive? 

We (I) need to establish some rules of engagement, you know, some simple guidelines like no white shoes after Labor Day, and never wear socks with sandals (is that really a rule?).   Perhaps: never refuse a meal once it’s on your plate; or never force yourself to eat gnarly ground beef.  A little direction would help everyone, cook and guests alike, navigate their way out of the pickle (a vegetable, thank god!) of secret meat.   


  1. What?!? She didn't even notice while she was eating it?!? Babies are distracting. LOL

    You are a good sport. I hope you will also respectfully decline any time, for any reason. :-D

    Do you ever offer secret vegetables?

    1. that is very funny because, as a matter of fact, i offer secret vegetables ALL the time (to the kids)--esp. zuchinni which finds its way into everything in august when it's coming out of my ears. Although, the kids don't have any trouble turning it down if they figure me out!

  2. every time i think of this...i still laugh out loud!