MY MOTHER-IN-LAW, Cookie, used to say that children are pretty much born as the people they become. Maybe I should have looked harder for signs of vegetarianism.
When my oldest suggested — at age 3 — that he was done eating living things, I assumed it was a passing phase. He told us while eyeing a seafood boil at the Crab Pot on Pier 57 (perhaps an insensitive dinner choice after our visit to the Seattle Aquarium on Pier 59?). “I would not like to be put in an oven,” he said.
Fifteen years later, around the time Cookie warned me a teenage boy would be downing half a roast chicken for an after-school snack, he’s stir-frying skillets of tofu or frying eggs instead. Early on, his younger siblings followed his lead, the youngest joining in at Thanksgiving at age 4, after musing, “I wonder what turkey is made from?”
Vegetarianism wasn’t a phase for them. Instead, it’s been an education for me — about the always-controversial issue of whether children should have a say in their meals, sure, but also about the gradations in the meaning of “eating meat” and how blind I’d been to animal products in common foods. It wasn’t that meat-based ingredients were nefariously concealed, but that I’d never had to pay such close attention.
Onion soup, a restaurant favorite, was the first to go, since we knew enough to warn our eldest it usually was made from beef broth. Many other soups or rice dishes turned out to be flavored with meat stock, too. (Hint: If items aren’t marked as vegetarian or vegan on modern restaurant menus, it’s a good bet that they aren’t.) Even at home, we accustomed ourselves to reading labels and questioning assumptions, realizing that some refried beans were canned with lard and some pastry crusts were baked with it, that some miso soup mixes are made with bonito (dried fish flakes), while many kimchis are fermented with fish sauce or shrimp paste.
We reached a stable point soon enough, accommodating both vegetarian and carnivorous tastes with remarkably little effort in what I call Omnitarian House.
Then, a disturbance in the Force: My youngest, a sweets-lover who considers baked goods, candy and bubble tea the three major food groups, started rejecting some of her most-coveted favorites. Downcast eyes met the friend who stopped by with a pack of her much-craved chocolate-covered gummy bears (don’t @ me; they’re good). She stopped speeding toward the Jell-O desserts at her favorite buffet (the late Bluefin Sushi — yes, really; the omnivores went for the fish, while the vegetarians piled their plates with tamago, inari and cucumber rolls). Hardest of all, she said no to marshmallows, nixing the best parts of summer s’mores and winter hot chocolate.
The common problem? Gelatin.
“What’s wrong with gelatin?” I asked, when my daughter passed on the cubed Jell-O. As she knew and I did not (or at least didn’t register), gelatin is rendered from animals — generally pigs or cows, specifically their hides and bones. The stricken look on her face as she informed me reminded me of the time I mistakenly thought it would be fun to read “Black Beauty” together. (Old horses go to the glue factory.)
After some research, I announced that some vegetarians believe the gelatin used in foods is so highly processed, so removed from its origins, it doesn’t even count as an animal product. An acceptable loophole?
She would have liked to believe this, too, just as she’d like to still believe in the Tooth Fairy.
I can’t do much with gummy bears, but homemade marshmallows had been one of the most thrilling and magical treats coming from our home kitchen (try David Lebovitz’s at davidlebovitz.com/marshmallow-recipe-candymaking/). I hated for her to give those up, even knowing we could buy packaged vegetarian marshmallows.
So? I ordered some agar, a seaweed-based gelling agent, and tried the most common vegan versions of marshmallows. Perhaps it was user error, but the results were revolting. Other promising recipes required soy protein compounds and other industrial ingredients (plus major warnings about the sticky mess), escalating beyond the level of “fun cooking project.”
Luckily, aquafaba, the liquid from canned chickpeas and an insanely useful egg substitute, made for sweet, gorgeous spoonfuls of — not marshmallows, exactly (though Joanne Chang’s excellent “Pastry Love” book calls them that), but something like marshmallow cream. It was easy and fast and a bit magical, too, though Ms. Sugar Bomb correctly commented that it was not the same as the real thing. That was all right, too.
For most of my kids’ lives, I would say that vegetarianism required no hardship on their part. They never seemed to miss the fried calamari or roast turkey or fish sauce that actually was made from fish. It was good to see my youngest say yes to upholding a belief even when it meant no to a dessert she enjoys. It makes me think of that famous Stanford University research experiment saying kids who can delay gratification develop useful skills for life. They call it “the Marshmallow Test.”
Looking back at her baby pictures now, I do see what was there all along: curiosity and resolve, and something so very, very, very sweet.
Makes about 3 cups
Note: This recipe was intended as filling for a vegan version of Hostess-style cupcakes; expect scoopable results rather than a mixture firm enough to cut into squares. It’s good frozen, too.
¾ cup aquafaba (liquid from cans of no-salt-added chickpeas)
¾ cup sugar
¾ teaspoon vanilla extract
In a stand mixer fitted with a whisk attachment, whip on medium-high speed for about 2 minutes, until the aquafaba gets foamy and thick. Slowly add sugar and vanilla, and whip on medium-high for 8 to 10 minutes, until the marshmallow is thick and fluffy. Use immediately.
Very lightly adapted from “Pastry Love” by Joanne Chang (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $40).