At twenty-seven years old, I am confronted by some medical truths. “Your blood tests have come back. You are anaemic. You need to eat red meat,” the doctor says.
“I am Hindu, we don’t eat beef. And I hate lamb, it makes me nauseous,” I reply.
According to the Mahabharata epic and religious doctrine, he who kills a cow lives as many years in hell as there are hairs on the cow’s body. I am not sure why wearing leather is okay, but not eating beef is firmly a part of my religious conviction. My entire life passed on planet Earth with only an accidental bite of beef at some forgettable point. Of course, I am allowing for the exclusion of New York City cart hot dogs in this analysis; a treat after pediatric appointments in the City, bought from a vendor off the West Side Highway. No one can be sure what meat is in those anyway.
My mother did not cook beef at home, but if my siblings wanted something in a restaurant, she was a bit more flexible with for example, the occasional hamburger Happy Meal, whereas I was content with chicken nuggets. Even McDonalds in its Indian franchises abandons the iconic Big Mac for the Chicken Maharaja Mac with not only a jalapeño topping, but a habanero sauce. India’s Burger Kings have kept the Whopper, swapping out the beef for mutton. Even the corporate giants have to bow to the cultural pressure.
Beef is barely missed, easily substituted, but in this examination room, sat in a paper gown, after having legs in the air akimbo, my choices narrow.
“Well, Anuradha,” she begins, “either you learn to eat a bit of steak every now and again or I can prescribe you these iron pills. They will probably make your morning sickness worse. They can also cause constipation, which for a pregnant woman can lead to piles.” She is the only woman besides my aunt who calls me by my full first name. She is Italian, impeccable, and completely practical.
“How about spinach? What if I eat spinach or kale?” I ask hopefully, showing my obvious inexperience in all things pregnancy.
“You will need at least a pound of either in order to make a difference. You are pregnant and you need iron for the baby’s growth, but of course it’s your decision. I can write you a prescription for the iron,” she replies.
“Fine. I’ll try. I’ll take the prescription, too,” I say, putting my shirt back on.
I may not go to temple. I may not have an altar in my home. I may not remember to say my prayers every day, but this is the one thing that I have consistently done to show my faith. If there is another way, I am willing to give it a try.
Ferrous sulphate in tablet form. I choke it down for a week and it is as awful as she says. I can’t even keep the first trimester saltines down, and if I do, the pressure without relief, the constipation, is another layer of hell on an already arduous pregnancy. I am not getting enough nutrition at all, never mind the iron. Sitting on the toilet, crying from the nausea, the hormones, the pressure, I start to wonder if it’s all worth it. There is an easier option. I remember the magic words, whatever the baby needs. Thus marks the beginning of a lifetime of whatever is best for the baby.
I reason that the gods must forgive me eating steak for the sake of my in-utero baby, else I would not be doing my duty to her. Besides, some of my family have been eating beef forever and no karma has rained down on them yet.
I make Husband reserve a table at a swank steak house. If I am going to break the rules, I will try the best. If I am going to compromise on religion, I can’t compromise on the meat, I reason. At least the cows would have been relatively happy before slaughter, grass-fed and all. The signature Kona-crusted sirloin at the restaurant is every bit as good as described. The sirloin is rubbed with a mixture of ground Kona coffee, seasoning salt, granulated garlic, sugar, parmesan cheese and pepper. The cut is grilled over maximum heat to a perfect medium-rare-plus for me. This steakhouse allows diners to specify a degree of cooking more granular than the medium, rare, or well-done – each sublevel is refined with a plus or a minus as well, if one wishes. It is as if they have been expecting a pernickety diner like me.
I eat one steak per week for the first few weeks and then branch out to hamburgers, chilli, sloppy joes, pepperoni, and then back to steaks. The other permutations aggravate the pregnancy-induced heartburn.
I am hooked. I eat at every steak house I ever went to when I abstained from this wondrous food. In fact, I continue to eat steak long after my daughter is born, long after breastfeeding ends. I love it medium rare most of all. I love the sharing platters at Luger’s. I learn about green peppercorn sauce. I learn about steak tartare best accompanied with a dry martini, preferably after a long day skiing. I even learn to cook it myself for the family, using the ‘parts of the thumb pad’ test for doneness, thus besmirching what had been a Hindu compatible kitchen. I will never cook for my pious Aunt– not that I have ever cooked for her before.
A good steak has no comparison or peer. Try as I might to substitute another meat such as venison or lamb, it is not the same. Steak meat is buttery, the sear marks smoky and unctuous. It needs little embellishment. If the meat is dry-aged, then even seasoning is less important. The meat alone says it all. A cut with some marbling to it, sirloin, or rib eye – filet mignon is a bit too boring. Sauce or no sauce doesn’t really matter. I love it so rare that when you cut into it, the blood sauces the steak. It is a funny sort of revelation, to think that something can simply be itself on a plate. The hard work for a good steak is in the rearing of the animal, the butchery of the meat, and the aging of the piece the steak is cut from. The cooking for me is just to generously kiss it with high heat to sear the outside.
As I listen to myself describe all the ways I love the forbidden food, and the lengths I will go to for perfection, I am forced to reckon with Karma. It seems my beef eating, as well as millions of others who choose it as well, does have consequences. Increased levels of methane in the air. Industrial sized deforestation to create grazing land for all the beautiful cows intended for our plates. In essence I am an active, ashamed contributor to global warming. I wish I could say that I put my palate on the shelf. That I became a good Hindu again, or at least an eco-conscious consumer, eschewing the discovery of 2006. Instead, I use the psychological tricks the mind creates when one is on the edge of losing something precious: Rationalising and Bargaining. One steak a month in exchange for one vegan day a week, generously flexitarian.
May the Hindu pantheon give me strength to step ever closer to goodness and duty.
Anu’s essays and short stories appear in Caustic Frolic, Off Menu Press, and Angel City Review, among others. Her unpublished novel was longlisted for the 2021 Mo Siewcharran Prize. She can be found walking her unruly, shaggy terrier on the Common or on Twitter @AnuPohani.