Valentine's Day

He Didn’t Realize Dinner Could Be Meatless—Until We Moved In Together

How my boyfriend and I learned to "meat" in the middle at the dining table.

February 12, 2019
Photo by James Ransom

Whether it’s a first date or 47th anniversary, it’s hard to separate romance from food. In With Love & Red Sauce, we’re exploring the ways these two interact—from newlyweds learning to compromise over dinner to celebrating your longest relationship (with noodles!).

“I love that we’re eating a full meal right now, but there’s no meat,” he said to me one night over a bowl of soupy black beans and rice dotted with lime-slicked avocado. Or was it chickpea crepes with garlicky greens and toasted buckwheat? What we were actually eating matters less than the sentiment, I suppose, because my boyfriend had just complimented something I thought he simply tolerated.

I don’t eat completely vegetarian, but I have for stretches of time. In college, when the norm was greyish mystery meat covered in red sauce or brown, it made sense to abstain. I do love the process of cooking a chicken thigh, skin salt-flecked and crisped in cast iron (the trick is to start in a cold pan and let the fat render slowly). It’s the eating meat that I could really take or leave. My body craves protein and iron from sources other than hunks of flesh. Eating meatless comes so naturally to me I tend to forget that it’s foreign to many.

I cook dinner almost every night in the apartment my boyfriend and I share. Ben’s job is unpredictable, and 12-hour days are common. He’ll come home drained, but sometimes with a chocolate babka from the bakery near his office or a good six-pack to go with dinner. It never bothers me that we’ve fallen into a kind of gendered domestic routine my mother cautioned me against—I genuinely want to cook, and he happens to eat here. Plus, he does the dishes.

Though he would never complain about something I’ve cooked, Ben grew up in a house where meat was intrinsic to meals. In fact, halfway through the first time I had dinner with his family, his mother returned from the kitchen with a second roasted chicken. “The emergency chicken,” she called it.

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Top Comment:
“His family is all about the meat, and rice and potatoes. Mine, eats meat, but around only three times a week. We've been together for a long time, and now he's embraced veggies, and fish, but from time to time I still get: "This is really good, but you know what would make it better? Bacon!"”
— Elisa.Bragunde

In my house, we didn’t so much observe Meatless Monday as we did Poultry Weeknights. (Okay, we didn’t actually call it by a name; we simply didn’t each much beef. Or lamb, or pork.) Once a summer my dad might giddily cook a skirt steak on his little blue charcoal grill. I think he was more excited about the fire than the beef, to be honest. But there was a lot of fowl, sometimes fish. My sister and I still sometimes joke that our childhood could be measured in baked chicken breasts or turkey burgers with a side of spring mix salad greens. Which isn’t to say that we disliked the food. I simply didn’t know how hard I could actually flex in a kitchen until I began playing with vegetarian recipes.

When I started cooking for myself, I was drawn to recipes that relied on flavor rather than animal protein. What does it matter that there’s no pork chop if it tastes fantastic? For Ben, at first, it did matter. Dinners with his family were what made a place home—everywhere else was, well, elsewhere. Because I was cooking such different food, I worried that our apartment would also be somewhere else. In fact, when I made a starchy rice and chicken jook last month (a rarer meat-including meal), he sighed deeply and said, “This tastes like home.”

It wasn’t completely about the meat though. As we sat together for meals, we’d often swap details from our respective family tables. Ben’s was so meaningful that he and his three siblings have an illustration of their kitchen table tattooed on their bodies. On that table, there was variety, but also a system: “It was a big central meat dish, like a roast chicken or two, or a platter of salt and pepper pork chops, with a starch—rice often, sometimes pasta,” he’s mentioned. A vegetable dish like braised bok choy with sesame oil and oyster sauce or salad was added to round out the meal. On some nights, the one-pot dinner was embraced, like ground pork teriyaki noodles or spicy laksa with poached chicken. Dishes like jook were reserved for when someone was feeling under the weather or needed a hearty snack on a Sunday afternoon.

The notion of meat-starch-vegetable as a formula for meals was also self-preservational. When Ben was young, severe allergies made it difficult to try new foods. Since pork, rice, and greens provided significant calories, there was little need for exploration. Though the allergies subsided, his dinner template remained mostly intact until we started living together.

When Ben talks about dinners at home, his face softens, like he’s thinking of simpler times. And they were, in a way. Through jovial personalities, faith, and probably a good bit of luck, his family gets along so well it astounds me. “I loved being able to come home and join my family for dinner,” he tells me. It’s sometimes hard to hear, as my own dinner table was much less peaceful. Though it mattered greatly to my parents that we had a family meal, raised voices and tears were common, as were deeply uncomfortable silences. We’re better at sitting together for dinner now as four adults, but suffice to say there will be no matching tattoos of that kitchen table.

There’s a line I think of often when Ben and I swap such stories: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Of course, Tolstoy meant it as an analogy for something larger. The principle that stems from the idea posits that there are many ways to fail in relationships, and the only way to succeed is to avoid every possible failure. But digging deeper, that might be hooey.

Sure, it may feel at times that there are more ways to feel unhappy with your partner than there are to feel happy. One leaves their dirty socks on the floor, the other is late for dinner, someone is bound to forget a holiday. Spats turn into arguments, and you’re suddenly up late debating who said what offending thing to whom. You go to bed feeling defeated. But then, I think, if there’s just one thing to value in life, it’s a connection made with another person. We’re living in strange times. To have such a relationship truly does make me happy, and that’s more than enough.

We don’t really talk about the future. But just because I do things differently in the kitchen than his family doesn’t mean Ben can’t think of our space as home too. Accepting (and eventually embracing) my legume-loaded sweet potatoes and grain salads—so far outside his comfort zone—was in fact the largest step he’s taken to demonstrate that our relationship is more than two people sharing a roof. This contrast from his norm will not be ascribed as unhappiness or a failure. These meatless dinners are ours and ours alone, and hopefully we can continue them for a while.

And sometimes I will pick up a rotisserie chicken, for emergencies.

Do you have a meat lover in your life? How do you compromise at the dinner table? Let us know in the comments below.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Jackie Duncan
    Jackie Duncan
  • Maureen
  • Zozo
  • Ttrockwood
  • Karen Spardello Sagaspe
    Karen Spardello Sagaspe
Rebecca Firkser is the assigning editor at Food52. She used to wear many hats in the food media world: food writer, editor, assistant food stylist, recipe tester (sometimes in the F52 test kitchen!), recipe developer. These days, you can keep your eye out for her monthly budget recipe column, Nickel & Dine. Rebecca tests all recipes with Diamond Crystal kosher salt. Follow her on Instagram @rebeccafirkser.


Jackie D. February 19, 2019
Being a vegetarian for 20 years and having a meat lving husband I can totally relate to this! It is very well said!
Rebecca F. February 24, 2019
Thanks so much, Jackie!
Maureen February 17, 2019
Beautiful article, and definitely inspiring for me! I often joke that my husband's biggest fault is that he doesn't like broccoli (and if that's the worst thing about him, I'm doing pretty well!). But I do hope someday he can learn to appreciate veggies as much as I do. Thank you for sharing!
Rebecca F. February 19, 2019
Thank you so much, I'm glad to hear that! And Hah! Best of luck to you and your husband's veggie journey :)
Zozo February 16, 2019
Hehe, my now husband has come around to a lot of our meatless meals. He even declares my veggie nachos better than any meat ones he's had!

Discovering a more diverse protein set when I went pescatarian at uni was one of the most valuable things I think has happened in my cooking and food life.
Rebecca F. February 19, 2019
Cooking with non-meat proteins is such an exciting way to explore new flavors and textures—so glad you agree!
Ttrockwood February 14, 2019
Thank you for sharing such a deeply personal story here, and in such an eloquent moving way.
I feel like all relationships are about the give and take and finding a new common ground together. Perhaps the two of you could cook together one night a week to make a comfort meal from his childhood and create your own tradition
Rebecca F. February 15, 2019
It's so true that relationships are about all about compromise, sometimes that's how the best traditions are made. I'm so glad you enjoyed reading!
Karen S. February 13, 2019
Rebecca, this is a beautiful story.
Rebecca F. February 15, 2019
Thank you so much, Karen <3
Elisa.Bragunde February 13, 2019
Haha, this reminds so much of my husband. His family is all about the meat, and rice and potatoes. Mine, eats meat, but around only three times a week.
We've been together for a long time, and now he's embraced veggies, and fish, but from time to time I still get: "This is really good, but you know what would make it better? Bacon!"
Rebecca F. February 15, 2019
Love to hear you've gone through a similar situation. And hah! To be fair, many things are better with bacon.
Nancy February 13, 2019
This article is lovely about the push-me pull-you of a couple finding a new foodstyle together, while still acknowledging and missing/not missing some of the food customs and memories of their original families.
Kudos to you, Rebecca.
And whichever editor(s) thought up this series.
Maybe name them so we can appreciate the origin of the series.
Rebecca F. February 15, 2019
I'm so glad you liked the piece, Nancy! I'm not sure who came up with the idea for this series, but it was edited by the wonderful Eric Kim.
Katie February 12, 2019
Love this. So relatable and beautiful!!
Rebecca F. February 15, 2019
Thank you so much <3