Finding a meal to satisfy both conscience and desire
PHOTOGRAPHED BY LAURA SILVERMAN
By now, most people have read at least something about the ill effects of factory farming on the quality of our meat. And it’s starting to sink in that the health of our planet, also in jeopardy, is inextricably linked to what’s on our plates. Like cows chewing their cud, many thoughtful eaters have ruminated over which diet is the best one, only to discover that there is no definitive answer.
On top of all the scientific information available to us, we must each consider a host of deeply personal issues—religious, cultural, medical and epicurean. Though the question of what to eat should almost certainly be decided on a case-by case basis, there are some overarching truths that cannot be disputed. There is a notable quote from Brian Awehali, founder and editor of the now-defunct LiP: Informed Revolt, an award-winning alternative magazine: “Everything in this world eats something else to survive, and that something else, whether running on blood or chlorophyll, would always rather continue to live rather than become sustenance for another.
No animal wants to be penned up and milked or caged and harvested, and you’ve never seen plants growing in regimented lines of their own accord.” Eating meat obviously involves killing, but what about eating vegetables? Scientists at the Institute for Applied Physics at the University of Bonn in Germany have documented that cucumbers cry out when they are sick and lettuces moan when their leaves are cut. In determining where to dine on the spectrum from vegan to omnivore, we’d do well to avoid an intractable moral high ground that is becoming increasingly hard to defend.
In determining where
to dine on the spectrum
from vegan to omnivore,
we’d do well to avoid an
high ground that is
hard to defend.
My own dietary equation takes into account not only Michael Pollan’s now-famous edict—“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”—but also Dan Barber’s recent book about the intersection of good farming and good food. In The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food, Barber explores our transition away from the “first plate,” at the center of which is a hunk of corn-fed meat, to a “second plate” containing a more thoughtful but still-problematic farm-to-table presentation of a smaller, grass-fed steak surrounded by a modest helping of vegetables “that are often ecologically demanding and expensive to grow.” His proposed solution is the “third plate,” one on which the steak is distinctly secondary, overshadowed by sustainable vegetables and grains like rye, barley, buckwheat and millet that promote ecological balance.
This last paradigm brings to mind the foods of peasants and indigenous cultures, where meat is most often a supporting player. From collards cooked with a meaty ham hock to tamales stuffed with morsels of spicy beef to pasta tossed with anchovies, there is a world of delicious inspiration out there that modestly utilizes animal protein.
An economic imperative helped shape these cuisines, but an environmental one can be equally motivating. And learning to eat this way brings about a much more profound lifestyle change than a well-intentioned but superficial measure like Meatless Mondays. There is a real shift that happens when you start cooking with meat as a seasoning and soon realize there is no sense of deprivation.
Some of my favorite winter meals are incredibly hearty stews and casseroles based on beans, grains and vegetables with just an accent of meat. Many of the recipes in the wonderful Japanese Hot Pots: Comforting One-Pot Meals by Tadashi Ono and Harris Salat (Ten Speed Press, 2009) are deeply satisfying, though seafood and meat take a back seat to greens, roots, noodles and mushrooms. I love to make pozole, the Mexican hominy stew, with a broth of pork bones and a garnish of crispy chicken skin. On cold mornings, nothing is better than a steaming bowl of congee, long-simmered rice topped with shredded chicken or a soft-boiled egg. And a dinner party favorite is a giant pumpkin stuffed with a ragout of vegetables, cheese and slivers of ham and roasted whole in the oven. In all these dishes, just a small quantity of meat adds a richly savory dimension. This way of eating is a revelation.