It’s June, which means we are well into the barbecue season even here in the Land of the Polar Tomato. When I was a boy – yes, those are the five most annoying words any middle-aged person can string together – the only time my dad was likely to cook was when he would throw some animal flesh on the barbecue.
In all fairness, it was far more elaborate than simply tossing the dead remnants of a petting zoo over some hot coals. (By now you’re probably beginning to suspect I might have become a vegetarian since then. Yup.) First, my father would create the sort of bonfire that would have made a dead Viking proud: Some newspaper scraps in the bottom of the three-legged metal saucer we’d bought at the hardware store, a pyramidal pile of charcoal briquettes, and enough lighter fluid to burn down Rome. We’re talking the belching roar and phantasmagoric flame of the rockets that used to launch space shuttles. My job was to stand by with a bucket of water – though in hindsight, I think that bucket would have been like spitting at a wildfire if the nearby willow trees had ignited or the blaze had gotten so hot that the metal had started to melt.
There was a lot about the backyard barbecue that fascinated me, beginning with the reversal of my parents’ usual, gender-driven division of labor. But there was also the bacchanalian aura that enveloped the grill and the aroma of the sizzling meat. But the main thing that intrigued me – in the same way it interests most little boys – was the fire. It was awesome. I had a sense even then that dads barbecued not because they were trying to channel their inner cavemen, but because it was a socially acceptable excuse to play with fire. I couldn’t wait to grow up and start incinerating dinner.
Then, of course, I gave up meat. And while grilled vegetables are mighty tasty, let’s be honest: There is no testosterone rush from turning asparagus. No green pepper has ever dripped animal fat into the flames and scolded the dad with the barbecue tongs.
I became a vegetarian for a pretty basic reason. I didn’t wish to inflict pain on an animal with a sufficiently developed nervous system to feel it. I was, as preposterous as this sounds, the eighteen-year-old seafood cook at a mediocre surf and turf restaurant in the White Mountains, and among my responsibilities was cleavering the live lobsters and baking them. It turned out I was efficient and fast: I was the Hannibal Lecter of crustaceans. Even though I viewed lobsters as earwigs on steroids, by the end of the summer I was so disgusted by the number I’d killed that I was on my way to vegetarianism. As I grew older, I realized that by not eating meat I was also doing my heart a world of good.
Lately, however, I’ve learned that there are benefits to vegetarianism that transcend animal rights or my desire to avoid an angioplasty. Moreover, these are benefits that aren’t merely in my interest. They’re in our planet’s interest. Last month in the “New York Times,” columnist Mark Bittman cited a United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization report suggesting that almost one-fifth of the greenhouse gases triggering global climate change stem from livestock activities. That’s a high price to pay for a burger. Bittman added that it may take as much as 100 times more water to bring us a pound of beef than it does to grow a pound of wheat. Vegetarianism alone won’t reverse global climate change, but he argues convincingly how much it can help: “It’s seldom that such enormous problems have such simple solutions, but this is one that does. . .We can begin eating less meat tomorrow.”
My childhood memories of the barbecue – those savory Proustian madeleines –involve meat. But this summer I’ll see how my inner caveman does when the fire is charring only vegetables. I’m sure I can still build the sort of towering inferno that would have made my dad smile.