Art is not the side dish; it's the meal

Years ago I was invited to dinner at a friend’s house. She’s a strict vegetarian who doesn’t drink alcohol and runs several miles a day. When her first child was ready for solid food, she pureed organic vegetables and squeezed organic fruit.

So it was with some trepidation that this steak-craving, sushi-loving, wine-collecting omnivore agreed to the meal. As a hostess gift I meekly submitted a tin of tea in unbleached bags that I hoped would pass muster. I didn’t dare bring packaged biscuits (even the household pets ate homemade).

“You’ll like this! I’m a good cook!” my friend proclaimed as I sat down to an appetizing starter course of leafy greens. What followed, however, was a dinner plate of three nearly identical lumps in shades of brown and gold. One lump appeared to feature beans. (Mung? I wondered. Fava? Something I’d seen in Saveur, a food magazine I get for the travel tips, not for the faintest hope of trying the recipes.) The second lump appeared to be root vegetables. The third contained rice. “Dirty rice,” she explained, which I’d always thought was a New Orleans thing, but folks in the Big Easy are not, in general, big vegetarians. I wondered if dirty rice in this case meant “laced with an organic mix of topsoil” but didn’t ask.

My friend poured more fresh-squeezed, honey-sweetened lemonade. She sat. I took a forkful of the bean lump and although the taste was barely discernable, I did appreciate the texture. In the root vegetable pile, there were onions, lending just enough flavor to stimulate a craving for pork chops and gravy. The rice tasted like rice; it looked spicier than it was, which disappointed me because I was going to pretend it was steak au poivre.

An expectant look. “Well?” my friend asked. “How do you like it? I’ve made golden brownies for dessert and they’re completely without refined flour and sugar!”

“Um…,” I began, and her face fell. “It’s good! Really!” I stammered. “But…do you ever just want something to chew on?” I asked her, sincerely interested in knowing why vegetarians bother to have teeth.

To my relief, my friend laughed. “Your problem is that you’ve been trained to think of beans and rice and vegetables as side dishes when really they’re the center of the plate.”

“If you choose not to kill and eat animals,” she added.

She was right, of course. I felt that something was missing only because I’d grown up in the Midwest, where potatoes were holding tanks for gravy, green beans were merely the colorful garnish to a slab of meat or fish, and salads (but not bread and butter) were optional. She’d been raised in California, the land of bite-sized entrees, back yard fruit trees and granola.

As my friend animatedly explained the possibilities of tofu and seitan, falafel and tempeh, to satisfy the tongue and the incisors, I warmed to the idea that a person could get used to munching vegetable proteins versus muscle. In her attempted revirginization of my palate, my friend opened the refrigerator door to a whole new attitude about eating. Now, years later, and after further tutelage by a couple of vegetarian boyfriends, I enjoy pasta with meatless marinara and spinach or baked tofu and couscous just as much as I relish a ribeye.

* * *

Recently I invited two girlfriends to go gallery-crawling with me instead of our usual bar-hop. They whined. “Art is fine but it’s not fun,” they said. “Maybe some other time. You can go see paintings or whatever, and we’ll meet you at Dixie’s.” No amount of cajoling or predictions of wealthy-intellectual-male-sightings could convince them, so I went in search of Tiit Raid and Lynn Geesaman while they sipped their same-old and sodas.

I was fine on my own (art galleries make the rest of the world disappear when I’m in them anyway), but I was frustrated. How could my friends view the buzz and excitement of a Friday-night gallery crawl as “not fun” and the bar scene as better? How could they blithely wave away the opportunity to drink in such aesthetic pleasure in favor of slurping down cocktails that made out-of-town salesmen with comb-overs look like takeout food?

Then it hit me. They’d never seen art (or theater, or the orchestra) on their social dinner plate, so they figured it didn’t belong there. To them, art was more peripheral than a side dish. It was the parsley on the rim of the plate: decorative but optional, and certainly not part of the meal.

After all, these two women were raised by parents who took the kids to Cabo on spring break and who bought decorator-framed prints to match their sofas, not to stir their souls. Whereas I was brought up by two teachers who organized school trips to the Guthrie and who used every penny of their savings to make sure their five children saw the Louvre, the Uffizi and the British Museum by age twelve.

Like bean casserole on a menu, art on a Friday night will not appeal to everyone. But it’s a healthy and delicious choice that I wish more people would make.

The vegetarians in my life haven’t been able to get me off ordering surf-n-turf once in a while, and I probably won’t be able to convert my barfly girlfriends into art-lovers either. But I’ll keep inviting them out to the galleries because one of these days, they’re going to give in. And once inside those rooms filled with energy and beauty and sometimes provocation, they’ll get a taste of why, for some of us, art is not the side dish; it’s the meal.

©2005 Anne Nicolai

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