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.
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?