When I was in high school, and I was highly active in church, and I took myself very seriously and held myself to a standard of perfection that was, by all counts, absolutely unreasonable, I gave up chocolate for a church fast. We were to give up something that meant a lot to us, to teach us to focus on God more fully.
My sister helped me decide what to give up. “Chocolate,” she offered. “You love chocolate.” It was true. I had my senior portraits taken in my Hershey’s t-shirt. My room was decorated with vintage metal Hershey’s signs.
So for 40 days, I gave up chocolate. I would like to mention that this was during both Girl Scout cookie season and Easter candy season. I don’t have to tell you how cranky I was for 40 days.
But what was harder than the conscious abstinence from my favorite food was the dreams I kept having. Most nights, I went to sleep and my mind played tricks on me: I would happily drink a Starbucks beverage, for instance, Dream Dana guzzling away, and then turn the bottle around and realize there was chocolate in it. I had sinned! Or Dream Dana would be happily munching on marshmallow Peeps, and then realize the eyes were made of chocolate. Sin!
My fast from chocolate was done out of religious conviction – I’m proud to say that I made it through the 40 days and ate no chocolate. But the stress I went through, the anxiety that I would sin – that I would be found wanting – haunted me throughout the whole stretch of it.
Recently, after Amanda and I gave up eating meat, I was at Whole Foods, interrogating the back of a bottle of oyster sauce. We had just spent a week in San Diego, and because I was sick, and because it was easy to get it vegetarian, I had eaten Thai cashew vegetables several days in a row, and I wanted to know how to replicate it at home. I had found several recipes on Pinterest and I was ready to start experimenting. And one of the ingredients was oyster sauce, which I picked up, put in my basket, and went on my merry way. But by the time I got to the yogurt, I realized. Oyster sauce = oyster = meat. Blast.
I went back to the aisle and began my negotiation. I did a search on my phone – was there a non-animal-product way to make faux-oyster sauce? Foyster sauce, if you will. There was – with pineapple juice and sugar and water and a few other ingredients, and it would take a lot of time, and make a big mess. And I looked at the bottle in my hand.
I thought of those dreams – the ones where I ate chocolate Peep eyes and drank chocolate coffee, and how I immediately felt crippled by the feeling that I had sinned. I had failed.
And it’s easy to apply that same logic to a new way of eating, which extends into a new way of living in the world – a new way of shopping and cooking and thinking about food. It’s easy to see this as pass or fail. And it’s easy to glom onto the moments of failure, to focus on them and shame myself. Because surely someone will notice if I use oyster sauce. Someone will out me as a fraud. Right?
I put the oyster sauce in the basket. I finished my shopping. Maybe someone will think of me as a fraud. Maybe it is a moment of vegetarian fail. Maybe it’s Peep eyes all over again. But at the end of the day, I think we’re all doing the best we can, and I think we’re doing great. That’s a mantra I say a lot, but I always mean it – we’re doing great. And at the end of the day, especially these days when my wife is away for duty, like, all of the time, what helps me is a big bowl of Thai cashew vegetables, made at home in my own kitchen, over a bed of fluffy jasmine rice and enjoyed in front of the TV. Vegetables, made with – yes – oyster sauce, and a little bit of perspective. I’m not Mary Poppins. I’m practically perfect in no way whatsoever. And that’s just fine.
Thai Cashew Vegetables
2 tablespoons Thai chili sauce
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon oyster sauce
1 tablespoon rice vinegar
1-2 tablespoons vegetable broth (or water)
Canola (or other neutral) oil
1-2 large carrots, peeled and sliced
1/2 onion, sliced
Crushed red pepper flakes
1 clove garlic, minced
1-2 red bell peppers, cut into strips
1 cup snow peas, ends trimmed
1/2 cup (or so) roasted and salted cashews
Prepared Thai jasmine rice (for serving)
Chopped cilantro (garnish – optional)
1. In a liquid measuring cup, whisk together the chili sauce, soy sauce, oyster sauce, rice vinegar, and vegetable broth.
2. In a large skillet, heat the canola oil over medium heat. Add the carrots and onions and cook 3-5 minute, stirring occasionally, until onions soften and carrots are beginning to brown a little. Add a pinch of kosher salt, a dash or two (or three, whatever) of red pepper flakes, and the minced garlic. Cook for 30 seconds or so, and then add the pepper strips, the snow peas, and the cashews, cooking for 3-5 minutes, stirring frequently.
3. Add the sauce to the stir-fry mixture, and toss to coat. Cook another 3 minutes or so, until everything is heated through and smelling fantastic. By that point, carrots should have only a little crunch left to them. (If you want them fully cooked (and soft), by all means, give it another couple of minutes.)
4. Remove the mixture from the heat. Spoon jasmine rice into a bowl, the stir-fry mixture on top, and then sprinkle with chopped cilantro.