When I decided to become a vegetarian 21 years ago, I phoned my mom to let her know. “But you don’t like vegetables,” she said, the skepticism clear in her voice.
“Mom,” I announced, “I’ve learned to like my vegetables.” And then after a pause, “Most of them.”
As I spoke, I was remembering a stand-off with the cafeteria monitor in third grade. She wanted me to eat the cooked spinach that sat stinking in a little white bowl on my tray. I still remember that spinach vividly, as it resembled something my dog might throw up. I absolutely refused. She insisted, sternly. I remember her as a towering lady with an uncompromising face. I was resolute. Nothing would make me eat that stuff. As I recall it—though perhaps I’ve trumped up the story in my mind over the years—the rest of the kids went back to classrooms and I sat alone in the cafeteria, the monitor lady standing next to me, arms crossed like a policeman. I recall sitting there a very long time, though I doubt it was. In the end, I triumphed. No spinach for me that day—or many years to come.
Though there was not so much drama associated with other vegetables, there were many that didn’t cross my lips until well after vegetarianism ruled my kitchen: Brussels sprouts, turnips, broccoli, asparagus, yams, carrots. I do recall a carrot incident, with my mother in the role of cafeteria monitor. I guess I was a pretty stubborn kid, a shadow of things to come. My big brother, my hero, talked mom into giving up on the carrot thing.
My mother was terrific at many things, but cooking was not one of them. Even she would freely admit it, only slightly apologetic that it didn’t interest her in the way it was supposed to interest women of her generation. She used to keep a little plaque in the kitchen; my father gave it to her when they were first married. I’m sure my father thought it was there because she liked it. I know she kept it there as a joke; it’s in my kitchen now, in the same spirit as for my mother: “Little kitchen, you’re my throne, For ‘tis here and here alone, That my rule is held supreme, And I reign a royal queen. Here I come, and, day by day, Toil the precious hours away. Singing blithely while I make Fleecy biscuits, pies and cake. Little kitchen, would you hear Why this cooking art is dear? Then the secret I’ll impart: ‘Tis the way to Hubby’s heart.”
The act of cooking vegetables meant my mother boiled water, plopped the veggies in it, then either strained them onto a plate (carrots, for instance) or mashed them (yams). Soggy doesn’t begin to describe them. Mom never used spices of any kind. She had no sense of taste or smell and always worried that she’d overdo it. Bland, soggy, lumpy, tasteless vegetables.
I learned to like all my vegetables after becoming a vegetarian and, by necessity, having to learn to cook better in order to eat well. I discovered recipes that didn’t involve boiling all vegetables to their death. I discovered herbs and spices, and sauces.
Believe it or not, this does all have something to do with conflict. And I’m not talking about stand-offs and stubbornness. People in my workshops tell me all the time how much they hate conflict. How unpleasant it is. How upsetting it can be. How much it gets in the way sometimes.
I think conflict is like badly cooked vegetables. It’s not that conflict is inherently bad. It’s that the way we or the other person is doing it that’s unfortunate. We can make conflict palatable if we learn to change how we approach it.
This article was originally published in my regular column for The Monadnock Ledger.