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Hail Seitan

Thoughts on a New South diet



So: It happens I was reading B.R. Myers' (justifiably) savage review of Michael Pollan's clumsy gustatory/ethical manifesto, "The Omnivore's Dilemma" in Atlantic Monthly the other day, and in between bouts of furious head-nodding -- Tony Bourdain wishes he had the real cojones of a Myers -- I thought about when I first became aware that eating meat (or, alternately, not eating meat) was an option. Strangely enough, Ronnie Van Zant figures in the equation. But back to that in a bit.

My first brush with the concept of vegetarianism came long about 1982, if memory serves me. I'd gone over to a friend's house, as was often been the case, to listen to records and watch Showtime broadcasts of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. My friend, let's call him Terry Helton, was a kid who had grown up fast. He grew up across the two-lane blacktop from us, a place nothing less than exotic to the kids in my little 'hood, as most of the other neighborhood's kids attended a different school than ours. As such, you had regions, you had rivalries.

Anyway, this friend, he had a 'stache before the rest of us, drank before the rest of us, smoked before the rest of us, smoked pot before the rest of us.

Perhaps predictably, he also dropped out of school before the rest of us.

One day, after dinner at his house -- steak (bottle of A1), baked potato (butter, dabs of sour cream), iceberg salad (French dressing), dinner rolls (pre-made) and sweet tea (homemade, as I remember), we retired to my friend's brother's room to look at his records and to scarf, rather Tom Sawyer-like, some stolen brownies.

More specifically, we went to look at his Lynyrd Skynyrd records. I can still name them in order today, as I used to do with the planets to impress my parents' friends: There was Pronounced Leh-nérd Skin-'nérd, Second Helping, Nuthin' Fancy, Gimme Back My Bullets, Street Survivors, Skynyrds's First ... And Last, Gold and Platinum, and the not-so-aptly titled Best of the Rest. (I don't count any post-plane-crash stuff excepting the last three cleaning-the-vaults releases, you see.)

So anyway, this friend, belly full of beef and butter and brownies, pulled out the holy grail of Skynyrd records, the out-for-three-days-only-and-way-too-close-for-comfort "flames cover" of Street Survivors, and, after making me wipe my hands, allowed me to hold it. Holy damn. Guitarist Allen Collins, on the left, was wearing a Tom Wolfe-meets-Jimmy Page white linen suit with tails, along with a T-shirt sporting an iron-on decal of a striated, Japanese-style sun. Guitarist Gary Rossington rocks a simple ensemble of cords and a black and blue shirt befitting the band's rough-hewn image.

Lead singer Ronnie Van Zant, in a thumbed nose to redneck literalists everywhere (see Sweet Home Alabama), rocks a Neil Young T-shirt, circa Tonight's The Night. Steve Gaines (who, along with Van Zant, perished in the crash), a plain red shirt tucked into Okie-befitting pair of plain tan pants. Bassist Leon Wilkeson sported a "My Grass is Blue" T-shirt and a top hat, the former of which, being only ten years old at the time, took me a few years to figure out (see also Gas, Grass or Ass, Nobody Rides For Free T-shirts).

And then there was drummer Artimus Pyle. Ol' Artie was sporting white-on-white tennis shoes, white blue and gold knee socks, cut-off jeans shorts, and, the piece de resistance, a blue T-shirt with a half-mooned "VEGETARIAN" written in white "Keep On Truckin'" style iron-on letters. I'm not even sure if I knew what Pyle was trying to get across at this time. What I know now as a vegetarian was, well, it simply didn't exist at that time, at least in my neighborhood. The crew I ran with thought of vegetarians as people who ate only raw vegetables. People truly did not understand that you might not want to eat meat, the same way something like an atheist was incomprehensible.

Not eating meat was seen as weak. Heck, even the phrase vegetarian sounded -- sounds -- rather fey. Anyone like myself who still cringes at the word "veggies" knows what I mean.

However, the word "vegetable" -- think of someone in a vegetative state, brain dead in a coma -- hasn't always had such a flaccid feel to it. According to Joseph Shipley's admittedly-not-classic Dictionary of Word Origins, vegetable has its roots in the French ("able to live") and Latin vegetabilis/vegetare ("To enlighten"). Vegere and vegetus mean "to arouse." Vigere means "to flourish" (see vigorous). It's a close cousin to vigilant ("wakeful"). And to be in a vegetative state? Means to grow like a vegetable, not sit there waiting to die.

Which, it is said, is something that Artie Pyle didn't do, not only surviving the horrible ordeal but running to get help after Skynyrd's catastrophic '77 plane crash. These days, Pyle says he eats fish and cheese "for the benefits of the oils and minerals ... but when I am ordering a meal in a restaurant, for the sake of simplicity I tell the waitress I'm vegetarian. It's easier than sending everything back to the kitchen because it has beef or pork stock in it."

As it stands, he's at least healthier than the rest of the people still calling themselves Lynyrd Skynyrd.

Timothy C. Davis is an associate editor with Gravy, the official newsletter of the Southern Foodways Alliance. His food writing has appeared in Gastronomica, Saveur, The Christian Science Monitor, and the food Web site www.egullet.com, among other publications.

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