this omnivore's dilemma
Near Thanksgiving a few years ago, my then-new boyfriend said, “My mother’s friends are celebrating Vegan Thanksgiving” next Saturday. Wanna go?”
My boyfriend’s mother crusades for the well being of animals and, as a result, he’d been raised vegetarian verging on vegan—for animals’ sake. His mother’s friends formed their own vegan family unit as a safe space for their fervent animal-rights advocacy, environmentalism, and laser-focus on health. For this evening of Thanksgiving, he and I had been dating long enough for me to understand he wanted my company but I knew that this group would examine me down to microscope-slide detail. I feared they wouldn’t like what they saw.
“Sure,” I agreed.
At first everything went well, smiles flickered on faces, hands were shaken, awkward hugs were given, and then a group gathered in a standing circle around a traditional dining room table, already weighted with delicious-looking food. The hostess bustled from and into the kitchen. My boyfriend worked the room while I found myself in quiet conversation with a friendly lady shod in thick-soled, Velcro shoes, wearing a faded Hawaiian-shirt. I’ll call her Rhonda.
Said Rhonda, “How long have you been dating?”
“About five months.”
“And how long have you been vegan?”
“Oh, I’m not vegan,” I replied.
Rhonda’s eyebrows pinched together. “Vegetarian?”
“No,” I said, adding tinge of regret to my smile while noting that the room had fallen silent. Disapproval spread as if pecan pie had badly burned in the oven and everyone had caught the scent. Rhonda stared at me, all friendliness gone. For a wild second, I was certain “Get a rope” was uttered – old Pace Picante commercial style.
I said, “Rhonda, truly, I respect vegetarians and vegans. I’m looking forward to celebrating with all of you.” But even as I carefully picked words, I found myself quaking under what felt like an entire group’s disapproval. Just then, I wished I were vegan. Or vegetarian. Or that I had a magic red lever that opened the floor.
Soon conversations re-kindled. Rhonda turned her back on me to talk to another vegan, my boyfriend crossed the room to squeeze my hand and the celebration continued. Sadly, my most vivid recollections of that day were of Rhonda’s disapproval - but I do also vaguely recall that Vegan Thanksgiving was delicious in a healthy-cooking sort-of way.
Vegans, it often seems, are better known for their heavy shaming tactics than they are for having thoughtful, good reasons to no longer eat products derived from animals. Haven’t we all been told, “I don’t eat dead animals”? Haven’t we all stepped away from PETA protestors splayed in the middle of sidewalks, smeared with blood? Such moments leave me feeling ashamed, disgusted, and one tongue bite away from belligerent.
But, as I told Rhonda, I sincerely—greatly even—respect vegans and vegetarians. Because Michael Pollan puts it (better than so far have I), “For they have actually done the work of thinking through the consequences of their eating decisions, something most of the rest of us have not done... But we all have to decide this question for ourselves, and different people will come to different conclusions, depending on their values.”
This omnivore’s dilemma is that my values DO lead me to question eating meat. While I couldn’t find the hutzpah to have the conversation with Rhonda, what she and I do have in common is that I have done a lot of work, a lot of reading, and a lot of thinking on this subject. My interest began with Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation – the book that inspired me to regularize my farmers market runs and to stop eating fast food to the point that I was in New Delhi years after reading, unable to break my seven year no-McD’s streak by eating a McAloo Tikki burger. In years since, I’ve gorged on Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal Vegetable Miracle, all Michael Pollan books (starting with Second Nature before moving through to Cooked), along with Marion Nestle, Mark Bittman and even shed conflicted tears over Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals.
All that reading along with a few documentaries such as Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me or Forks over Knives, I’ve come across a few facts that I cannot ignore:
· According to a UN 2006 report, “Livestock are one of the most significant contributors to today’s most serious environmental problems.” Not to mention that, “cattle-rearing is also a major source of land and water degradation.”
By some accounts, factory farms produce some 13 times the waste that humans themselves do.
· Pigs, cows, chickens, fish, and other animals raised for food suffer and suffer unnecessarily on modern farms and in modern slaughterhouses.
· According to The China Study, “people who eat a whole-food, plant-based vegan diet—avoiding all animal products, including beef, pork, poultry, fish, eggs, cheese, and milk, and reducing their intake of processed foods and refined carbohydrates—will escape, reduce, or reverse the development of numerous diseases.”
And The China Study is far from alone with this line of conclusion.
All good reasons to re-consider the way I eat, cook and live. Yet many of my favorite foods (listed in my Will you join me? blog) involve animal products: bipbimbap brightened with roe, brulée that would be nothing without the crème, mac that is so much better with cheese, salmon rubbed in spices and so much more. Plus, perhaps more important than food as taste is my appetite for experiencing the world. In the moment and for long after, I treasure slurping food cart noodles in Bangkok, biting into crackling roast lamb shwarma wrapped in yogurt sauce in Amman's darkening streets, and sipping on creamy bowls of juicy oyster stew from the place next to my studio in Daegu. Experiences while traveling taught me food isn’t just what we eat, it is where we are from and who we are.
So when I consider becoming “the v-word,” I immediately imagine never again tasting the kiss of a bbq pork hum bow or turkey at Thanksgiving. My palate reacts to these thoughts with a big NO! So I've compromised. Meal-by-meal I decide between what I’m reading/learning/thinking versus what I bloody well tastes amazing. So far, inspired by Mark Bittman’s Earth Matters, I generally eat 2 vegetarian meals a day (gold star for vegan), 1 meal with meat.
But the best answer to this dilemma, I actually believe, is to naturally eat food that I love, that happens to be the v-word. As Andrew Knowlton of BA put it (while describing their top new restaurant), “It turned out to be a double-decker sandwich of silky braised collards, tangy coleslaw, and Swiss cheese on rye bread. It was vegetarian, but it didn’t taste that way.” That’s exactly how I see it… make food so delicious that it isn’t readily apparent that the food is vegetarian or—good forbid—vegan. So that’s how I cook. And eat. And my food rule #1.
- Rule #1: all food must be delicious, a pleasure to eat so the point that I feel excited and alive while I eat it. (Hence why this blog is called “this delish life”).
My other food rules:
- Rule #2: all meals shall be as vegetable, fruit, and growing-things-forward. (As much as possible. This rule is a bit of struggle for me.)
- Rule #3: buy and source knowledgeably and ethically. Seasonal = great. Organic = please. Local = preferable. Sustainable = only fair. Chemicals/unknown ingredients = NO.
- Rule #4: if meat is irreplaceable in an experience, enjoy the meat.
Anyway, I write about this here, now, at the beginning of this blog because vegan versus vegetarian versus omnivores, the whys and the tastes, underpins what I eat, what I cook, and the discoveries that I seek in the kitchen.
How about you, fair reader? Do you struggle with eating meat? Part of my hope for thisdelishlife is that you’ll join me in this line of thought… and that we’ll come to a new place together.
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Mangos and sticky rice (below) satisfies rule my rule #3 if prepared when mangos are soft and sweet – i.e. not just when they’re on sale at Safeway. Mango with sticky rice also satisfies rule #4 (no animal products – easy!), rule #2 (fruit + grain!) and most especially rule #1. So simple. So good!
Because my recipes from Thailand are locked deep into a storage unit (long story), I’ve not-quite-word-for-word excerpted from a favorite cookbook - Hot Sour Salty Sweet by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid – which I highly recommend. Bon appetite.
- 3 cups sticky rice, soaked
- Water or thin coconut milk
- 2 cups canned or fresh coconut milk
- .75 cup palm sugar, or substitute brown sugar
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 4 ripe mangoes, or substitute sliced ripe peaches or papayas
- crushed sesame
- fresh mint – garnish
- can opener
- measuring cups
- cutting board
- heavy pot
- If you are at Asian market buying the rice, consider picking up Southeastern conical steam baskets to use as steamer. If not, I use my fine sieve placed in a boiling pot.
Start the night before by soaking sticky rice in water or thin coconut milk. (Note: purchase from Asian store – black rice is good too, but go half white rice/half black rice and cook about 10 minutes longer).
Place soaked rice in steamer – water shouldn’t touch the rice - and steam rice until tender. While waiting, place the coconut milk in a heavy pot and heat over medium heat until hot. Do not boil. Add the sugar and salt and stir to dissolve completely.
When rice is tender, place in bowl and pour 1 cup of hot coconut milk over, stir liquid into rice and let stand for 20 minutes for flavors to absorb.
Peel and cut mangos. Plate individual plates with a scoop of rice and an equal amount of cut mango. Top with a little coconut heated sweet coconut cream, and/or sesame seeds and mint.
Picture note: usually mango and sticky rice is white… the blue tinge in this picture is (I was told) a specialty of the restaurant. I wasn’t convinced by the color but every forkful was delish!