A Life Lesson with a Side of Pasta

by Abby on January 11, 2012

penne pasta with sauce and cheeseFor the most part, I am happy to go with the flow, smile and nod, let the little things go. I’m not a pushover, I just don’t see the point of making a fuss about something just because you can. But I draw the line at eating baby cow.

A friend of mine was given tickets to an exclusive cooking class at one of the best Italian restaurants in town when a couple she knew couldn’t go at the last minute. She invited me to go along. Under the direction of the head chef, we’d prepare and eat a complete meal over the course of 3 leisurely hours. Considering most of my meals are consumed in 5 min., standing up, and are often interrupted to change a diaper, this would be a real treat.

Then we got to the restaurant, and discovered the menu for that night’s class included Tuscan onion soup with pancetta; penne with tomato, mozzarella, and pancetta; and braised asparagus wrapped in veal over polenta with a Madeira sauce. Did I mention I’m a vegetarian?

Now, I am not a strict vegetarian, nor will I go into anaphylactic shock if a piece of meat passes my lips. I’ve been known to eat around the pepperoni on a pizza and ignore the fact that a soup was made with chicken stock. In fact, my plan was to simply leave the pancetta out of the soup and pasta, and skip the veal. I mean, come on: VEAL.

When we were ushered into the dining room, however, it became clear my plan wouldn’t work. First of all, it was more of a cooking demonstration than a class. The chef stood behind a table at the front of the room, while the participants were seated at a big, U-shaped table in front of him. He would prepare the food, explaining as he went, then serve each of us that course. Uh-oh.

I began to panic. Should I say something to the proprietor? How would she react? After all, it wasn’t her fault I was a last-minute fill-in and hadn’t looked at the menu. How could I possibly expect her to accommodate one person’s dietary preferences this late in the game? I decided I could either
a) say nothing and push the food around on my plate, missing out on a wonderful meal,
or b) speak up and hope for the best.

In the past, I would undeniably have chosen option A. In high school, I once forced down half a chicken breast a classmate’s mom had made us because I didn’t know what else to do. This time, I chose option B. We went around the table introducing ourselves and when it was my turn I said with a smile, “Hi! I’m Abby. I’m a vegetarian, but my husband will be so excited when I bring home the leftovers.” A few people laughed and a few people, including the proprietor and chef, looked momentarily concerned, then it was the next person’s turn.

When the cooking part started, the proprietor came up to me and asked graciously, “Would you like some minestrone? And how about pasta and marinara and eggplant parmigiana instead of the veal?”

“That would be wonderful, thank you. But please don’t go to any trouble for me.”

And just like that, the problem wasn’t a problem any more. I relaxed, I enjoyed myself, we wined, we dined. With the scent of browning garlic in the air and Christmas lights twinkling overhead, we learned secrets of Italian cooking and heard wonderful stories about interesting lives in faraway places. During the class, the chef mentioned to me that he was preparing a vegetarian feast for a group later that week. He showed us how to prepare a delectable polenta, and gave us tips for making a variety of sauces.

But besides the cooking tips, here’s what I learned: you can speak up for yourself. Be honest, be gracious, be free of expectations and assumptions. And you just might find that you end up having a delicious experience capped off by grilled pears with cinnamon mascarpone and marsala sauce.

COOKING TIPS O’ THE DAY: I was always taught that a little oil in the pasta water keeps the pot from boiling over. But according to this chef, that’s a no-no because it makes the sauce slide off the pasta. You want the sauce to “hug” the pasta, he told us. And always toss the pasta with the sauce before you serve it, don’t just put a blob of sauce on top.

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Ali January 11, 2012 at 8:00 am

I thought that, when vegetarians eat meat, it kind of shocks the system and results in… erm… many trips to the bathroom. No?

A lot of people today are vegetarians. Often there’s always a choice between meat and vegetarian entrees. I’m glad it worked out for you because if your post included anyone giving you a hard time, I’d have been quite frustrated for you.


Abby January 11, 2012 at 9:57 am

Lol! Happily, that hasn’t been the case for me. Though like I said, I haven’t eaten a significant piece of meat since h.s. For the most part it’s a non-issue these days, which is why I was so stymied in this particular situation.


Nadine Feldman January 11, 2012 at 8:36 am

Congratulations! I love reading posts like this. I’m not a veggie anymore, but I still won’t eat veal, and the alternatives he offered sound fantastic. I think chefs in general love to accommodate people because it’s about making meals that are pleasing to others, but what a relief! This post made me smile. Thanks.


Abby January 11, 2012 at 9:58 am

Thanks, Nadine! I had the impression that some chefs were divas who didn’t like their food to be tampered with or altered, but that was happily not the case with this one.


Lou Mello January 11, 2012 at 4:26 pm

Excellent, Abby, that was handled really well and turned out so good for you. My Lovely Miss TK and I don’t eat red meat and as I get older I do more and more veggie. We usually have no issues anywhere and try to sorta blend in, but, I like your approach with a little humor and will use it the next time.

I must guiltily admit that about once a year when we visit Ohio, I will have to go to White Castle for two of those lovely little burgers. Of course, I rationalize by saying that it’s not “really” red meat, it’s probably not even from this planet. 🙂


Krysty January 11, 2012 at 8:50 pm

Hey Abby – love your post! So simple, gracious, and elegant! I have been a vegan for a great part of my life and I still find food situations awkward – I don’t like to draw attention to myself – I just want to go ahead and eat something! Love the lesson as it can apply to the rest of my life as well – when you are uncomfortable with something – speak up!


Angie Mizzell January 12, 2012 at 5:53 am

What you said was brilliant. I was all in suspense, knowing you were going to say something… but wow. “You can speak up for yourself. Be honest, be gracious, be free of expectations and assumptions.” I need to write that down and stick it all over the place. I have a difficult time speaking up for myself…mainly because it’s difficult to find words that don’t make me feel like an ass. How’d you come up with that so quickly?


Malia Jacobson January 12, 2012 at 11:34 pm

Well said and well done, Abby. I like the way you didn’t let the situation ruin your well-deserved, rare evening out. I often find myself devoting *way* too much mental energy to what turns out to be a minor issue. Better to speak your mind, accept the momentary awkwardness, and move on to the fun part–enjoying yourself!


Abby January 13, 2012 at 9:44 am

I can’t tell you how many times I have gone over and over in my head how I *think* a conversation is going to play out, only to be completely wrong — in a good way. It’s true what they say when you assume…


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