“Are you sure you don’t want one of these hot dogs?” the lady behind the folding table asks, smiling and wagging a weenie in front of my face. “They’re real good.”
“No, thank you,” I tell her as I stuff a $5 bill into the Tupperware container at the beginning of the serving line. “I’ll have some of those chips, though, and some of those baked beans.”
“You sure, Hon? We have plenty.” Using the weenie in her glove-clad hand as a pointer, she indicates the mound of hot dogs in one of the aluminum pans lined up in front of her.
There are probably 40 or 50 weenies in the pan, huddled together, all pale pink and nekkid, glistening with grease and steaming in the cool, mid-morning air. They are wretched-looking and slightly obscene, and if I strain my ears a bit, I can almost hear them mewling pitifully like a nest of new-born and orphaned baby rats exposed to the harsh light of day.
I look away.
There’s a whole bunch of other people around me and we’re all gathered together at a community fundraiser in one of the subdivisions down the road from my house. There’s one of those inflatable, bouncy house things in the middle of the street. It’s filled with screaming kids. And there’s a lady painting faces, and there’s a bake-sale table, too, covered with zip-lock bags of near-burnt cookies studded with M&M’s. I don’t know what they’re trying to raise money for, but I saw the sign when I was out for a run/walk earlier in the day and decided to come back later and give $5 so I could feel good about myself for half an hour or so. But now I wish I hadn’t, because some lady is poking a hot dog in my face and insisting that I eat it.
“Um, no, thank you,” I repeat, then lean toward her a little bit. “I don’t, uh, I don’t eat meat,” I whisper.
The weenie in the woman’s hand freezes in mid-wag and the smile falls from her face. It plops to the table then darts away to hide behind a squeeze bottle of Hunt’s ketchup. I can see frost forming on her eyelashes and she gives me a look as if I’d just kicked a Cub Scout.
“You, you’re one of those vegetarians?” she asks, her overt contempt warping the air around her a bit.
“Uh, kinda, sorta,” I mumble as my face burns red and my shoulders slump.
Hoping to create a diversion, I snatch one of the tiny bags of Lay’s potato chips off the table — don’t judge me, I already paid $5 — then run away to hide, oddly ashamed, on the other side of the bouncy house thing. A few moments later, I venture a peek around toward the food table. An unbelieving, slack-jawed crowd has gathered around the lady, and she is waving her arms frantically. She sees me.
“There!” she screams, pointing. “There he is! There’s the man who doesn’t eat meat!”
The crowd surges toward me and I run away, my heart pounding wildly but my blood flowing freely through my unclogged arteries. I halfway turn and stumble only to see a swarm of half-cooked hot dogs and thin, pre-formed, factory-frozen hamburger patties bought in bulk at Sam’s Club arcing through the air toward me like the arrow scene from “Braveheart.” I escape, though, making my way home by scuttling from shadow to shadow, pausing every now and again to hear the crowd wailing in the distance.
“What does he eat?!” they cry. “For the love of God! What does he eat?!”
For those of y’all who don’t know it, in some parts of the South, vegetarianism is as alien a concept as banana pudding without vanilla wafers or drinking unsweet iced tea. In Our Town, depending on who you’re talking with, admitting you’re a vegetarian is akin to admitting you don’t own a gun, that you don’t think Jesus was white, that you voted for Obama and that you can’t remember or — even worse — never knew the number of Dale Earnhardt’s car. In short, it is a very dangerous thing to own up to, and when and where, or if you choose to reveal your vegetarianism could be the most important decision of your life.
I am a kinda, sorta vegetarian and try my damnedest not to eat anything that had a mama. I’m also a big fan of fresh, green salads not coated with a thick crust of bacon bits, am suspicious of any meat product described as a “nugget,” and — although there is no mention of it in the Bible — am convinced no one can say with any certainty that the Pearly Gates aren’t guarded by an officious-looking, judgmental cow with a clipboard.
I am not militant about my dietary choices, though, and believe it is the right of every American to slurp up all the potted meat they want or to stuff all the salmonella-laced chicken or mercury-tainted tuna they can possibly fit down their throats. I’ll pass on all that, though.
Thank God for Little Debbie.