If you want to host a vegan on a cattle ranch, the first thing you’ll have to do is find one. In bigger Texas cities, vegans and their more free-flowing party girl cousins, the vegetarians, are common. You can’t toss a stone without hitting someone who would chain himself to a cow before letting it die. Out here if you throw a stone, all you’re going to hit is the cow, possibly on its way to the sale barn. Vegans are diamonds in the rough, or in the cases of vegans who also have strong positions against diamond mining, synthetic stones glittering in the tall grass. But vegetable purists do find their way to these parts, often because I lead them here.
The first time I had a vegan friend visit me on the ranch, we started with a college football game in Austin. I picked her up at the airport, and we drove to the tailgate. Everything seemed to be going well, at the very least she had not melted in the Texas sun. But then she gripped my arm. I leaned in so I could hear her over the talk of offensive plays — not from the game but to get to the sausage about to be served.
“Does all of Texas,” my friend asked, “smell like meat?”
Above her head I could vaguely make out spindly, ghostlike tendrils, byproduct from the barbecue smokers facing off in the parking lot.
I took a deep breath and paused, letting that hint of hog fill my lungs.
“Thank goodness you came to visit,” I told her. “Without you here, that fact might have passed me by.”
Then, naturally, I gave her a hug, using the hand behind her head to signal for someone to load me up a plate of pork.
Lest I seem like a cold-hearted animal heart-eater, I will tell you that for many years I was a vegetarian. Now it can be tempting to see those years as a phase, but I like to think of the soy milk cup as half full. It was a time when the people who love me grew in the area of patience. It helps me now when I have visitors who are still tofu celebrants. I don’t apologize for what I do — throwing hot dogs on the grill or putting venison in the chili. But I do know how to purchase vegetables that will pair nicely with other vegetables. And I absolutely focus on what we can share. Beans with jalapenos. Black beans. Beano.
Maybe you’ve noticed that approval ratings for finding the middle ground have dropped significantly in recent years. The internet has turned into a tool that can filter people by beliefs so that you can surround yourself only with those who think you are brilliant and so right and oh my goodness what a cute picture of your kid — you’re such a good mom. But on these visits we are reminded there are things much greater than the rib shanks that divide us.
Things of hope and heartbreaks and ups and downs and sideways moments in life. Things that would seem crazy if you typed them and sent them into cyberspace, but there, in the light of the kitchen, leaning up against the counter, just seem human.
Of course, anytime you put enough adults in a room, even if they have symbiotic views on non-GMO whole-milled flour, you still run the risk of conversation going south. In case of social emergency, I am always ready with a backup plan. Gently, ever so gently, I steer all parties in the direction of our vineyard, which produces some delicious herbivore-friendly and carnivore-complementary wines. After a couple of glasses Texas still smells like meat, but no one seems to notice.