I was recently in Madrid where I did something life-changing. Adam and I were guiding our friends on a food tour of some of our favorite spots. We were in Casa del Abuelo, a 113-year-old brightly lit bar that specializes in sizzling shrimp in garlic and oil, the aroma of which wafts down the little streets of old Madrid. You sidle up the bar or a high top table and if you’re me, you order a cold glass of vermouth on tap and watch your friends eat their gambas al ajillo. I’ve been to Casa del Abuelo a dozen times. This last time though that shrimp looked so, so good which brought up something I’ve been thinking about lately: Do I still feel bad enough about killing a shrimp to not eat it? I took a swig of vermouth and announced to the group that after 22 years of being a strict vegetarian, I was about to eat shrimp. The taste was exactly what the smell was: Hot and garlickly. And the texture, oh my. Basically a wad of protein in the best and most tasty possible way. I’d say I have no regrets, but I’m really still figuring out what this means for me.
I’ve been a vegetarian since eighth grade when a classmate called me a hypocrite for eating meat after I declared it to be “so rude” that animals are killed for food. I agreed with this boy’s assessment. I was a hypocrite and anyway it was something I was already thinking about: How could I eat meat when I didn’t think humans should kill animals for food? One of the more difficult parts of being a vegetarian was giving up seafood and fish. Partly because shrimp cocktail was one of my favorite foods, also because the only thing that could beat Red Lobster for fine dining was a Chuck Muer restaurant, but largely because my dad’s greatest love in life is fishing. He’s been fishing since he was five-years-old and he’s very, very good at it. And I used to fish with him when I was a kid. Mostly it was fun, but sometimes it was traumatic like when the 100 perch that we caught ice fishing had defrosted by the time we got home. Dad handed me a hammer and told me to simply bash in the heads of 100 little perch. A few years later when I decided I would be a vegetarian, I told my dad we were done fishing together. I’ve felt kind of bad about that ever since.
Adam has been trying to convince me for the past year or so that scallops — incidentally one of his favorite foods — may not be animals at all. The thought being that bi-valves (hinged shell creatures that aside from scallops include oysters, clams and mussels) have more in common with a venus flytrap than with a cow because they close their shells via a muscle but perhaps not via a calculation in their brains. Because they don’t have brains. Shrimps, apparently, do have a clustering of cells that could be considered a brain. But because the science is still out on whether crustaceans, bivalves, and fish experience pain, I have up until now figured I had better abstain. But if I’m being truthful, I don’t feel a great deal of sympathy (or any) for shrimp, and definitely not for scallops. To me, these creatures have more in common with bugs. And do you even know how many mosquitos I’ve killed (answer: not enough) or how many times we’ve set ant traps in our homes?
I know there are a few other reasons it would be morally good to not eat any sea creatures, most of them environmental, but I’d be lying if I said I’m a vegetarian because of the environment. It’s an added benefit for me, but if I were to truly align my behaviors with the logic of environmentally-based vegetarianism, or with health-based vegetarianism for that matter, I would give up or drastically reduce my consumption of dairy and this post is about addition, not subtraction.
I’ve been mulling this Vice article questioning whether scallops are vegan ever since Adam excitedly emailed it to me last year. A food writer and former vegan was quoted in the article as saying that because scallops and other bivalves don’t have consciousness, they’re basically “sea vegetables.” This has raised a lot of questions for me, but I don’t have any firm answers yet.
And yet, I’ve eaten shrimp several times since the Madrid incident. I even bought frozen shrimp here in Algiers with which I made a Thai curry soup. It was delicious. Redolent of lemongrass and internal conflict. I bought frozen scallops from Picard in Marseille and I should probably save those to make for Adam’s birthday in a few weeks. If he’s not too uncomfortable seeing his vegetarian wife cook a sea creature for pretty much the first time then I think he’ll really enjoy them.
To be honest, I am worried about what others will think of me if I become a pescatarian. Being a vegetarian has been a large part of my identify for 22 years, so not only do I think of myself a certain way, but those close to me do too. I love to host dinner parties (see: the title of this blog) and one thing I love about hosting dinner parties is that I show people that food without dead animals can be satisfying and delicious. This is something I still believe (because it’s the truth) so how will introducing seafood into this equation change things? And will I eat fish? There still seems to me a level of sentientness that exists in fish that isn’t there in shrimp, scallops, oysters, and clams. (I’ve seen my share of fish flop and struggle to take in air through their gills). Is there such thing as vegetarian who eats bivalves and crustaceans?
What a fabulous post to read. I’m from Madrid. Not a vegetarian, but my 7th grade daughter and I often say we could both be easily pescatarians. I wonder how life in Algiers is. I’ll browse your blog for sure. I do believe one can eat wonderfully without any animal products, yes! But I also admit how much I love seafood and fish. (Maybe I won’t that much if I’d have been asked to do what you did to the trouts).