BACK when I was a vegetarian full-time, eating out was all about pasta primavera. Usually offensively bland despite the fact that its preeminence on restaurant menus was entirely determined by its wimpy inability to offend, the ubiquitous “pasta of spring” made eating out a rather dull prospect in any season.
BOY, have times changed. My town is chock-full of recovering vegetarians gorging themselves on the local livestock. Here in northern California, folks are now as likely to request gluten-free choices as they are to require meatlessness. Trying to cover both bases, the Seafood House lists the new, improved pasta primavera: butternut squash risotto. Perhaps not manageable for vegans, but what self-respecting vegan would go eat at the Seafood House anyhow? Clearly, I’ll get the risotto.
NEVERTHELESS, I pull out The List, the one I carry around to help me make intelligent, informed choices if the boys ask for fish. (And they do! You have never seen children with such a yen for slabs of raw fish. They actually get offended when I order the kind lying atop a compact glob of sticky rice. “More fish! Less grains!” they beg, unaware of just how many hours I would have to work to pay for the meal they envision, in which they eat until sated “just the fish” with no belly-filling rice at all. Clearly, nature, in the form of a genetic predisposition to crave sushi, has come out once again the victor over nurture, since these little heathens are being raised by someone who has completely internalized the Aquarium’s anti-fish-consumption propaganda.) The List tells me which kinds of fish are being overfished, which contain the highest levels of PCBs and mercury, and which are farmed using ecodestructive methods. I’m fooling myself, but I’m thinking today may be the day I plunge back into the consumption of marine life. I’ve had a LOT of butternut squash risotto and ravioli in the past few years.
SUE, with her clear love for seafood, is not one to be intimidated by a piece of paper. Nor to be embarrassed by eating at the Seafood House with a clearly over-zealous dissector of menu options. Sue is all for The List, as long as she can still eat whatever she wants. “Tell me what it says about clams,” she proposes, with the added warning, “but don’t tell me that I can’t eat the crab.” We talk through the pros and cons of a few of the appetizers listed, before the server appears, pad and pen poised for our order.
“UM, hey, before we order, can I ask a few questions?” I sheepishly blurt. Our server lets the pen droop limp in her hand, raising one eyebrow as she glumly acquiesces to the inquisition. I’m comparing the menu and The List, looking at the Fish-n-Chips with nostalgia for a long-ago trip to England. The List says that I can have the Fish-n-Chips as long as the cod is from the Pacific, which happens the be the ocean conveniently located only 20 minutes from here, so I’m thinking this one will be easy. “So, um, can you tell me where your cod comes from? Please?”
THE server thins her lips into an approximation of a smile, thrusts her chin forward, and answers crisply, “The ocean. Ha ha ha.” The laugh forced out in a transparent attempt to pretend she is not just plain fed up with my kind. When I persist, matching her own forced laughter with a faked chortle of my own, her face twitches with what appears to be a willful effort not to roll her eyes. She exhales slowly before reciting the flat words: “The cod is Atlantic cod. Next question?”
WHAT’S a girl to do? Keep pressing on in the face of clear indifference, or even resistance? I don’t think I’m educating the server, or pressing the restaurant to offer more sustainable options at this point, I’m just proving to her that all this fuss about fish is annoying. I venture out once more, asking if the clams are farmed or wild-caught, and the server claims her moment of superiority with apparent glee: “ALL shellfish in restaurants are farmed, it’s the law,” she gloats, the subtext of “oh you think you’re such a smarty-pants with your List, don’t you, and you don’t even know something like that” shining through her now-genuine smirk. The List drops from my once-righteous hand into my purse, defeated for now. Sue orders her seafood pasta, satisfied that it’s at least partially List-approved.
THE risotto is delicious and almost (but not quite) too filling to allow me to order the beignets for dessert. Sue listens to my confessions of human weakness, slaps me back onto the straight and narrow path, and pays up as we look around and realize we’re the only people left besides the regulars gathered at the bar, a familial group entwining the server and the bartender into their midst. They barely nod our direction as we press the glass door open onto the grey-lit sidewalk. The Seafood House doesn’t really want us back again.
BUT knowing my boys, we’ll end up there sooner or later, and then The List, wielded by eco-mom in defense of her minnows, will prevail. “We’ll be back,” I murmur, as the door slams shut behind me.