I used to be a vegetarian. I think the correct terminology is actually lacto-ovo-pesco vegetarian since I also ate fish, eggs and dairy products.
The first time I chose to cut out meat I was a teenager. But as a teen, I basically ate just as terrible as many teens — just sans the meat. “Is that instant ramen vegetarian?” Thankfully that phase didn’t last long.
Things changed as I grew older, moved around more to other places and learned more about myself, what type of a person I wanted to be and what the world around me is really like.
After moving to Tennessee on the outskirts of Nashville, my boyfriend and I decided to go vegetarian together as young adults. This time, I actually ate well.
We would take trips to the international K&S World Market grocery store that was loaded with goodies from around the world. They had fresh veggies and fruits and even live fish and eel you could have prepped for you right there. It was there that I discovered the pungent smell of shiitake mushrooms as I started studying Japanese and wanted to try out their traditional foods.
At this time, I also started jogging. Me. Yeah, I never thought I would be the jogging type — but here I was a young Yankee in the Bible Belt, jogging in the foothills of the Smokies.
The irony here is that I was eating well and taking care of myself in some ways, but I was still a smoker. I probably focused on my lifestyle at that point more as an explorative phase as well as a diversion from the terrible jobs I took on (think cashiering and truck stop maintenance work).
This was about seven years ago, and after realizing I needed to return to Michigan and have a higher education and a meaningful career, I basically left a lot of my healthy life choices behind as I dove into my schooling. Shortly before moving back to the Great Lakes State, I at least quit smoking.
The vegetarian lifestyle didn’t stick and I ended up going in a different direction where I would eat a variety of food including meats that came from the area or from local farmers. Venison, rabbit, wild turkey, wild fish and even raccoon and squirrel were on the menu because I wanted foods that had been less processed.
I took on a new place during college and studied in Japan where I had the chance to study the language and culture. Nara, the Japanese city I lived in, is famous throughout the country for being the original capitol of Japan and also for having tons of deer.
I would spend days walking and hiking the knobby-hilled primeval forest and surrounding city after or between classes. I ate much leaner foods like miso soups, fish and veggies, real ramen and stuffed rice balls. There were also plenty of fried foods like fried octopus and my favorite savory pancakes known as okonomiyaki.
When I returned to life in Michigan, I couldn’t eat normal things we tend to eat because they tasted too salty, too sweet or too greasy. I continued to keep a similar lifestyle that I had in Nara but soon found my favorite Japanese foods were hard to find and much less affordable.
After meeting fellow international students from around the world who were also there to study in Japan, I came back with a hunger for things I hadn’t even really explored: French food and culture, German food, west African food, southern Indian foods, Vietnemese foods, real Chinese foods …
Last autumn I spent 14 days exploring pieces of seven European countries with some of those friends I met in Japan. One of my favorite things to do was watch and learn as people cook typical meals from their region.
Imagine my surprise when I saw the differences in the supermarkets in places like France and Germany where there were far fewer boxed meals and certain frozen dinners. They still seemed to have them but they weren’t on the scale we have here. Needless to say, I am now somewhat addicted to the tasty treats my travels have introduced me to.
The brie cheeses done in the French style almost always hit the spot, the icy, sweetened and quenching hibiscus flower tea I learned to make from Mexicans living in Tennessee is a summer essential and the savory Japanese okonomiyaki topped with barbecue sauce and mayo can help combat the dreary sunless days of winter here in the north.
Next up, I’m hoping to visit the northern Appalachians or Gulf Coast area.
Arielle Breen is a staff writer for the Gaylord Herald Times. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.