Vegetables in Suburbia: My Story of Teenage Rebellion

(Image credit: Mallory Samson)

I grew up vegetarian, mostly because my mother didn’t eat meat. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a vegetarian diet for a kid, but there was one little problem with our approach to a meatless lifestyle: we didn’t eat vegetables either.

Sure, there was the occasional tomato slice in a cheese sandwich, and the carrots my mom says she sneakily grated into the Ragu as it warmed. There were the strange dehydrated potato slices in the Betty Crocker au gratin box that sometimes appeared on our dinner table.

This was the 80s and 90s; my family lived in a rapidly sprawling parcel of suburbia an hour outside of Philadelphia. Our “vegetarian” diet was “harvested” from this “foodshed.” I ate pizza, French fries, ice cream, and all the different flavor combinations of fat and starch that come frozen in a box.

By the time I came face to face with real vegetables, I was 18 years old. In the early days of my first semester in college, I stood confused in the cafeteria line, pointing at trays and saying to the workers: “What’s that?” (Lima beans.) “What’s that?” (Brussels sprouts). I was definitely intrigued by these exotic new foods, but nobody else was eating them.

At first I thought I’d survive on a diet based on the few things that were familiar to me. I bought an amber jug of Ovaltine (which my mom encouraged me to drink at home because: vitamins!) and mixed it liberally with cafeteria skim milk. I paired this beverage with Saltines by the plateful.

When that plan rapidly ran its malnourished course, I was back to eyeing up the vegetables. I heaped my plate high with overcooked greens on one side and my old friend French fries on the other. As it turns out, I was the kind of vegetarian who actually loves eating vegetables — even the soggy cafeteria ones.

In fact, I wondered where vegetables had been all my life. I always thought I didn’t like them, that green things were gross, but vegetables were my new favorites. When other people complained about the cafeteria food (as they constantly did), I was secretly and completely confused. How could you hate these lima beans, especially after topping them with a melty pat of butter and a shower of salt? By senior year, I had discovered the Union Square Green Market and was mistreating some of the East Coast’s finest produce in my dorm microwave. I was hooked.

After college, I returned to my parents’ home for several years while I was in graduate school. To my horror, I could not find a real farmers market in the suburbs. My mother took me to a nearby roadside produce stand, but there were mangoes and bananas on display. I knew enough about local food by then to see tropical fruit as the farmers market fraud marker that it is.

This was the early 2000s, and although there are great farmers markets almost everywhere now, back then it was a foreign concept in suburbia. I drove a half hour to the nearest gourmet grocer to spend all my waitressing money on Swiss chard, only to have my parents look on in horror as I tried to cook it, making the house smell like overcooked cabbage.

But I didn’t care — by then I had a glimmer of what my vegetable obsession was all about. It was my goodie-two-shoes version of rebellion. With every bite of kohlrabi or daikon radish, I was separating myself from the Happy Meals, chain restaurants, and frozen food of my childhood.

Each new kale recipe I learned distanced me from high school vending machines, car culture, my parents, and sitting listless in front of the TV. One bite of chlorophyll at a time, I could feel the cells of my body turning over, making me into a new person — a person who loves vegetables.

As rebellions go, it lacks the drama of marrying a Hells Angel or dropping out of college. To all the world, it looks like I have simply decided to follow that parental axiom “eat your vegetables.” But in my family, almost nothing could be more subversive. (Except for eating meat, of course; I do plenty of that as well now.)

I’m not proud to say I tormented my mother over her refusal to taste even one bite of roasted Brussels sprouts at a fancy vegan restaurant I insisted she visit with me. My father greeted the news that I’ve taken to fermenting my own sauerkraut recently by saying he doesn’t understand it; I just wasn’t raised that way.

And that is certainly true. I was raised on the same packaged food diet he continues to eat, the one that put him in the hospital earlier this year with a heart attack. It’s true that you can’t ward off all lifestyle disease with vegetables, but it’s a better plan of prevention than his diet of coffee cake and cigarettes. I enjoy the health benefits, of course, but that’s not what I like best.

I like the taste of being in a very different place, the opposite place, really, both geographically and nutritionally, from where I grew up.