How So-Called “Pizza” Changed My Life

Or Why Food Shouldn’t Make you Sad (or dry-heave)

It was an unremarkable Wednesday afternoon when I walked into my high school cafeteria and into a rank potpourri of “food” smells.

I was a freshman and still innocent to the ways of the cafeteria. I didn’t seem to notice the majority of my peers were actively NOT eating cafeteria food and instead opting for vending machine Corn Nuts, homemade lunch or mid-day fasting.

Wide-eyed and trusting that the school board had my nutrition in mind, I wandered through the lunch line viewing the array of culinary atrocities I could purchase with my $2. I passed up both the Turkey Potpie and the extremely Sloppy Joe before settling on the one item that sounded least likely to cause diarrhea in the middle of 5th period — the deceptively labeled “pizza.”

The lunch lady plopped a single greasy slice onto my plate with the enthusiasm of someone who’d long ago internalized the fashion acumen of the hairnet and shunned the idea that children (specifically teenagers) are the future.

Almost reflexively, I stuck my finger into the center of the glistening object floating on my plate and imagined the resulting squishing noise it emitted could be heard throughout the cafeteria as everyone let out a collective gag.

Allegedly, according to the menu that day, the “pizza” was of the “cheese and sausage” variety. I assumed, since they were calling it pizza, that it also contained some quantity of bread. The trouble was, the crust was nowhere to be found as it appeared to be completely overwhelmed by a blackened, cheese-like substance and, if you were stupid enough to try to eat it with your hands, it drooped and wilted into your fingers like raw pizza goo. Though honestly, had the cafeteria advertised it as “Raw Pizza Goo,” I probably would have gone with the fasting option — so whomever was in charge of lunch menu marketing pretty much nailed it.

I’d heard rumors that the school lunch program was supposed to meet “minimal nutritional needs” as based on some vague “nutrition research.” But I had to wonder what sort of malevolent dipshit could possibly look at this ooze on my plate and ever, under any circumstances, think it met even minimal definitions of food. I mean, I guess if the alternative was eating rocks or licking salt off the inside of the football team’s helmets then well, maaaybe.

I took my sad little plate and sat down with my friends Dani and Melissa, both of whom had packed brown bags with nondescript sandwiches. I envied the fact that they weren’t frightened of their lunches and, when they bit into their sandwiches, oily streams didn’t run down their sleeves leaving unsightly grease pools around their elbows.

Filled with disgust, I declared quite loudly to Dani and Melissa, “I can’t eat this. Meat is murder!”

They both turned and stared, “Whuuu?”

In fairness, studying a rat turd-sprinkled cheese shingle to the extent I did that day probably tapped into some deep, reverse-survival mechanism and the impulse to go off food altogether took over. It was sort of like that insects and eyeballs dinner scene in Temple of Doom — suddenly, eating just didn’t seem all that necessary… ever again.

But it was more than just the stomach-turning appearance of the cafeteria food that actually propelled me to vegetarianism. I began to view that slice of pizza as an analogy for the entire school lunch program. To elaborate: Congress was the collection of rat turd flotillas (sausage pieces) drifting in a sea of corporate food lobbyists (grease pools), cradled in the nebulous and ineffectual arms of the USDA (aka The Undercooked Pizza Dough).

Or maybe I just thought of that right now as I was typing this and I like calling congress “rat turds” so it stays…

I didn’t really want to be a vegetarian solely, or even mostly, because of beef stew or school pizza. I loved our family dog and any other animal I happened upon. I, like nearly ever other young girl, spent a significant portion of ages 4 to like, 11 (or 35) wishing for a horse (preferably one with wings) and the fact that we ate fuzzy little things with beating hearts and big brown eyes or even feathered things with slightly smaller eyes, just made no sense. At a very early age even I knew it was flat out wrong to eat someone.

But those sausage droppings just accentuated the point in such a way that it finally all became clear: that sausage contained some degree of a pig’s muscle fibers — muscle she used, as we all do, to move through our day. In order for that sausage to end up on a thousand school lunch trays that pig, whose existence I honestly think tops any possible excuse for providing regurgitated meat nuggets to shitty little high schoolers, died and was dismembered — her parts sectioned-off and processed in an environment none of us would ever wish to visit. And somehow, at the end of that long, cruel process, pieces of her and others ended up on my plate on a Wednesday afternoon in a high school cafeteria.

I didn’t like the idea that my lunch was the result of suffering — regardless of species. I thought of myself as a kind and thoughtful person and I couldn’t reconcile that perception with my contribution to misery. So, from that point forward, I was determined to be kind in my meal choices.

Or at least kinder.

The Making of a Plant-Murderer

I’d casually entertained the idea of going full-vegetarian since I was a child sitting at the family dinner table staring down at a bowl of homemade beef stew. After everyone else had finished dinner, there I’d sit, observing the soggy brown chunks of what was purportedly beef suspended next to mushy potato and carrot, wondering why my parents hated me. Part of me wanted to accuse them outright, “I know you’re trying to kill me!” Instead, I just gagged and whined until they got sick of it and sent me to my room sans beef stew.

Worked. Every. Time.

I don’t remember growing up with a specific distaste for meat. During my childhood I certainly ate toy-laced kid’s meals and gnawed on ribs at more than one family barbecue. Because like many of us, I was raised to eat what was put in front of me and rarely questioned it — except for beef stew of course… and anything visibly healthy or anything I recognized as inedible or otherwise fatal if swallowed (meatloaf, cottage cheese, raisins, Brussels sprouts*).

* Broccoli, cauliflower, celery, bell pepper, eggplant, zucchini, turnips and entire subfamilies of beans.

I often wonder if I would’ve given up meat earlier, if not for the fact that, up to around age 12, I was mostly forbidden from feeding myself due to a tendency, when left to my own devices, to eat chips almost exclusively (my personal favorites being Fritos and Cool Ranch. I was just trying to avoid a goiter, obviously). This made me dependent on mom and dad’s cooking and thus on the sad notions of healthy eating in the 80’s — basically all things turkey burger.

Phase One Vegetarian: Just Add Cheese

Towards the end of my freshman year, both Burger King and Taco Bell moved onto campus, overtaking the less appealing if equally dubious, cafeteria offerings. And as the lines for burgers and tacos wound around the building, I’d proudly order my nachos without beef — “Extra cheese sauce please… oh, what the heck, let’s do a whole side of cheese sauce and some extra sour cream and chips too. I’m uh… sharing with a friend.”

The fact that I did not go into cardiac arrest every time we had to run in PE is a fucking miracle. *

*Note to PE coaches everywhere: If you’re letting a bunch of baby-fat-faced freshman play H-O-R-S-E everyday for six months, don’t suddenly blow your whistle in the middle of a June heat wave and scream, “RUN THE BLEACHERS!” Because I guarantee you some of those kids are exercise potatoes and unless you’re a masochist (most PE teachers — no offense) you don’t ask a teenager who’s freshly packed with Nachos Supreme to run up-fucking-hill in ninety-something degrees. Also, a little something I picked up as a runner: cardio conditioning shouldn’t start with vomiting. Or frankly, end with it.

For a time, I was naively content with my “superior” food choices. While this early transition to vegetarianism was a step in a less cruel direction, it would be many more years before my blurry awareness of how cheese is made (see: veal) caught up with my conscience. But I did eventually get there, right around the time that I added non-fried vegetables to my vegetarian diet (see: not dead yet).

If you read this post and don’t hate vegetables, please consider giving it a heart. Hell, even if you hate vegetables, you can still heart it (though you might want to seriously think about adding some leafy greens to your diet).

Other stuff I made that has nothing to do with vegetables:

More stuff about vegetables:

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