Salad Days: Becoming A Vegetarian To Remember Grandma

Some people won't eat meat because they think it's cruel to animals, or because of health concerns. My reason is a little different: it is love.
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SAN FRANCISCO -- For a period of a month sometime ago I became a vegetarian. Some people won't eat meat because they think it's cruel to animals, or because of health concerns. My reason is a little different: it is love.

I simply wanted to honor my grandmother's memory by not eating meat. A devout Buddhist, grandma spent a large part of her life as a vegetarian, and some of my fondest childhood memories in Vietnam were sharing a meal with her.

In fact, as a child, I learned how to appreciate food not from fancy dishes my mother regularly whipped up, but from the simple meals my grandmother prepared. In her presence a piece of crunchy green pickled eggplant was incredibly delicious, and fried tofu dipped in sweetened soy sauce delectable.


Often dinner with grandma would come with ghost stories and fairy tales she knew from her childhood in rural North Vietnam. And considering that grandma was the matriarch of our large clan with 42 grandchildren, I had felt extraordinarily privileged to dine alone with her.

After dinner, it would be time for prayers. I would help her light incense and candles and put up plates of fruits for offerings to Buddha and our ancestors. For an hour or so, she would chant and beat on a wooden fish, a percussion instrument made of a hollow wooden block originally used by Buddhist priests to beat rhythm when chanting scriptures.

Grandma passed away more than a decade ago. Now I am an adult living in cosmopolitan San Francisco, and incense smoke, wooden fish, vegetarian suppers and ghost stories are the rituals of a distant past.

But then one morning it occurred to me that I could no longer recall the sound of my grandmother's voice and it left me feeling bereft. So I decided to become a vegetarian for a month. It's something grandma would do as a way to honor those who died before her. And I could do no less.

In a city famous for its dining experience, this was not easy. I turned down several dinner parties for fear of offending the hosts. I avoided walking by restaurants where enticing aromas wafted in the air. My best friend wondered if I was going through a mid-life crisis. And gossip in my circle had it that I had shaved my head and was about to join a Buddhist monastery.

In truth, I wanted to break my resolve many times.

What got me through that month-long diet was this particular memory of my grandmother. Confined to a wheelchair in her last few years in a convalescent home in San Jose, Calif., and suffering from senility, she had largely forgotten who I was. But not what she was about.

I see again her trembling hand as she poked at the mash potato and green beans on her plate at lunchtime one afternoon, avoiding the meatloaf in the middle. Frail and sickly, she nevertheless meticulous kept a lunar calendar on which Buddhist holidays were honored by Buddhist sutras recitation and consumption of vegetarian meals. It was her way, and grandma followed it through to the very end.

And so for a month last year I, too, followed her way. I fried tofu, steamed vegetable, cooked rice and prepared soy sauce. I lit incense for the departed. invited friends who wanted to taste vegetarian food. And as we ate, I told them ghost stories I knew as a child.

Then one late evening, while dining alone and in solemnity, the lyrical sound of her laughter suddenly came back to me. I savored Grandma's favorite pickled eggplant. I remembered the dead.

New America Media editor, Andrew Lam is the author of "Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora" (Heyday Books, 2005), which recently won a Pen American "Beyond the Margins" award and "East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres." His next book, "Birds of Paradise Lost" is due out in 2013. He has lectured widely at many universities.