One Vegan, Making Chinese Red-Braised Pork For Love

Close-up of BBQ pork ribs
As a vegan, I never though I’d end up making pork — and more — for my husband, all for love. (photo by Charles Thompson)

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve made red-braised chicken wings, legs or thighs for my husband. They’re the chicken equivalent of his favorite dish, red-braised pork (or, to be even more specific, Chairman Mao’s Red-Braised Pork, which I’m sure appeals to his patriotic side). I’ve adapted the sauce to become a marinade, and turned the whole recipe into something I can bake neatly in the oven for 50 minutes at 400 degrees Fahrenheit. I have to admit that there’s even this small part of me that beams with domestic pride when I watch John devour the chicken fresh out of the oven in blissful silence (in my home, when John simply eats, instead of talking, it’s the equivalent of giving the chef his highest compliments).

But for anyone who knows me well, this whole scenario feels rife with dietary dissonance and makes them go “hmmm” (or, in some cases, “what?!?”). That’s because I’m a vegan, married to a Chinese man who can’t live without his meat and fish.

In a way, my marriage mirrors the life I knew when I chose to go vegan in college. At university, I poured over my dogeared copy of Diet for a New America, ran a local vegetarian group, and even advocated for more vegan options in the cafeteria. But at home, I had to learn how to navigate my diet in a family atmosphere that still believed in turkey on Thanksgiving and ham at Christmas. I tried vegan evangelizing once or twice with them, but it just wasn’t my style and left everyone with indigestion. And anyhow, they always left me “vegan stuffing” and made sure the table had plenty of veggies I could eat. So in the end, the vegan and the carnivores ended up sitting together, and letting dietary choices be.

That’s why I didn’t mind John’s carnivorous tendencies, which were far less than most of the nonvegan guys I dated in the US. John never cared for dairy or milk. He even used to joke that he was “80 percent vegan,” which I was willing to go with because he preferred to eat vegetables and tofu most of the time, and loved taking me out to my favorite vegan restaurants in Shanghai.

However, I never planned to become the vegan that saved Thanksgiving with the perfect Chinese-style turkey (true story for another day). In fact, one of the reasons I went vegan was because I detested handling or cooking with meat — even when I used to eat it. So when John and I moved back to the US in late 2005, I figured he’d learn to live with my vegan kitchen.

Yeah, right.

I can’t exactly remember when things started breaking down, but it must have happened after we moved out of my parents’ home into our first apartment together. That’s when the arguments — which were really, in a way, veiled “food fights” — began. We didn’t clash in any obvious, made-for-reality-TV sort of way. It was more like boiling water in a pot — before we even knew it, we were bubbling over in anger because we couldn’t seem to agree about what to put on the table.

Then it happened. One afternoon in March 2007, John was having a hard time. We remained just weeks away from the final news — that John didn’t get in this year and we would have to apply to programs all over again. But even that afternoon, he must have felt the impossibility of it all, pinning all of his hopes on just one interview. John spiraled into a deep funk and it made our house feel as gray and hopeless as the overcast skies outside. That’s when I remembered that pork John bought the other day, hoping to make Chairman Mao’s Red-Braised Pork for his own personal dinner.

I peered into the refrigerator at that pink lump of flesh wrapped in plastic, and felt my stomach churn with some vegan instinct I’d built up over the years. But the thought of John’s melancholy moved me to pull the package out, open my Chinese cookbook, and set to work on something that surely no Diet-for-a-New-America-loving-vegan would ever dare to do.

I’ll never forget how John arose from that room we called our “office” when the aroma started wafting through our apartment — the look of euphoria on his face, which I hadn’t seen in days or, so it seemed, weeks. When I finally watched him devour the steaming plate of pork, it was as if the meal transformed him and — most importantly — our marriage.

Thus began my food-based “husband management” program. Pork. Chicken legs, wings and thighs. The trout my husband caught in a high mountain stream. I cooked them all for him, turning each one into a sort of carnivorous love letter to my husband.

The cool thing is, though, he got that message loud and clear. Not long after my “program” launched, he encouraged me to buy all sorts of vegan comfort foods I’d had to let go because John didn’t eat them. Everything from tofu dogs and vegan sushi to vegan burritos and vegan macaroni and cheese. Instead of grimacing at these odd vegan cravings, he gave me a huge smile and encouraged me to stock up next time I went shopping.

Maybe I’m pushing the vegan limits by doing what I do for my husband. But the way I see it, John and I transcended our cultural boundaries to find love — so why couldn’t we do it with our culinary boundaries too?

Have you ever done something for your loved one, even though it seemed contradictory with your identity?

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12 thoughts on “One Vegan, Making Chinese Red-Braised Pork For Love

  • October 24, 2011 at 4:03 am
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    I’m not a movie person. And I especially am not a fan of romantic movies. (In fact I tend to make fun of romantic movies because they’re not my cup of tea.) When I first started to date my Korean ex, I ended up watching romantic movies with him. (The Classic, Art Museum by the Zoo, and The Sassy Girl, although I hated the last one.) Also, being with him, kind of encouraged me to try to learn some recipes from mom as well as being careful with the way I prepare tea for him.

    Reply
  • October 24, 2011 at 5:29 am
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    That’s a great loving compromise. Besides raging hormones, love is about compromise, no doubt. And you must be a good cook to boot for John to enjoy your labour of love.

    Reply
    • October 24, 2011 at 3:17 pm
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      @Sveta, that’s really sweet that you ended up watching movies with your Korean ex b/c he liked them.

      @ordinary malaysian, thanks for the comment. Yes, it is so much about compromise. I had to learn to let go of the “ideal” I wanted in terms of food and just learn to make room for him (which allowed him to make room for my quirks too). I didn’t figure out how to weave it into the story, but John and I often — at least for lunches — eat separate things. It’s kind of like a promise to one another, as if it is okay for both of us to just enjoy what we like. That the vegan and the carnivore can eat together in peace. 🙂

      Reply
  • October 24, 2011 at 4:01 pm
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    Jocelyn,

    I compromise all the time with my clients and my marriage. My wife and I were not on the same page decorating our home and finally we agreed later. I like to make everything simple so both of us are happy in every way.

    Bruce

    Reply
  • October 27, 2011 at 12:27 am
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    I have been reading your blog for a while now and find it really interesting. Thanks so much for keeping it up! I’m a vegetarian in China and am finding that in general vegetarianism is a really difficult concept for people to understand here. Did John always know you were a vegetarian? How did that affect you guys when you were dating? and is/was it awkward with his family? If you already have entries about this maybe you could like me to them. OR I could “Ask the Yangxifu” later :).

    Reply
  • October 30, 2011 at 7:13 am
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    I’ve been vegetarian since 1999 and this is the first time I have cooked meat for someone I love, it happened to be for my Chinese boyfriend. We live together about a year. He started asking me to cook typical Chilean food, that I didn’t know how to cook , but I started to doing it for love, I felt little gross at the beggining but then, when I saw his reaction and his happy face I will keep doing it.

    Reply
  • November 12, 2011 at 11:44 pm
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    I wish I’d read this post earlier. Man, you guys really love each other! I’m starting to realize how much food separates me and my boyfriend; I am a carnivore, and he avoids anything fatty and sticks to vegetables. This gets me down sometimes; I’d always imagined being able to bond with my partner over our love for food. We’re learning to compromise.

    Reply
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