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Happy Father’s Day: Hawaiian Pizza

20 Jun

In honor of Father’s Day, a few days late, I thought I’d offer this little anecdote from The Vegetarian’s Guide to Eating Meat — the book-in-progress — about the part my Dad played in my development into a foodie…sort of:

Both my father and I are incredibly picky eaters, while, for my mother and sisters, eating is a contact sport. Why anyone would bother to turn down a food they’ve never tried before is beyond their understanding. When I was growing up, they argued their position often, trying to convince my father and I that this restaurant’s Thai satay sauce didn’t really taste like tahini, or that really, a samosa is a lot like a French fry. We remained unconvinced, a fortress together. My father adamantly refuses any parmesan cheese on his pasta—in fact, refuses to eat pasta in any shape other than long spaghetti. With a father who turns down the cheese on a cheeseburger that he orders hockey puck hard, my aversions towards eggplant, lentils, broccoli, or mushrooms never seemed too strange.

Our shared food fussiness meant we were a team on the home turf, strong enough in our protests for anything too weird to invade the family dinner table. We certainly were not going to tolerate any ethnic food on our kitchen table. Once every few months, to indulge their taste for the spicy, my mother and sisters would have what they called “girls’ night out.” They would dress up a little, taking the excuse to use their curling irons to wear heels and eyeliner, and head out on the town for a more international approach to fine dining, and to catch a romantic comedy at the theater by the mall.

I stayed home with my father, relieved to have narrowly avoided getting roped into what I thought of then as far too girly a night, lucky to have missed out on the raw fish or the latest Meg Ryan flick. We’d order a couple of pizzas—plain cheese for him, Hawaiian for me—and he’d let me watch him watch ESPN while I ate off a paper plate on the living room floor. He’d drink a Sam Adams straight from the bottle while we watched the Celtics rattle the backboards at the Garden, him leaping up dramatically with each basket made. We’d laugh as I imitated him, launching myself into the air, coming down on one knee and pumping my elbow backwards, yelling yeah, baby!

These nights with my father were my private victories, my first little rebellions against the culture of womanhood, a culture that seemed to me based mostly on hair and makeup and a far too adventurous approach to food. I knew I shared more in common with my father than either of my sisters, despite the fact that they actually played on the basketball and soccer teams he coached. We liked pizza better than Indian food and we were never going to change.

I must have sensed at the time that I was missing out on something, watching them from a distance as they learned to use chopsticks and hair straighteners, wrinkling my nose at the mysterious cardboard containers they brought home, bottoms spotted with grease from thick yogurt sauces, or round aluminum plates with crumpled edges full of seaweed rolls and thin strips of ginger. My decisions not to go along with my mother and sisters were perhaps too voracious, too full of scorn. I decided I didn’t want to learn that way to be a woman—perhaps because I sensed I wouldn’t be much good at it.

I’ve branched out a bit since then, discovering an adult taste for a good California roll and a vodka martini, tuning in for my fair share of Sex and the City. But I was a quiet, clumsy girl surrounded by brassy, confident women, comfortable in heels or in the kitchen. People who met my family for the first time assumed I was adopted. Rather than be left out, branded the too-awkward tomboy, I chose a different identity for myself. My father was my closest physical analog in the family, and so I took my first steps in self-identity towards him, away from the kitchen. Away from femininity, and towards pizza off paper plates with ESPN.

What are your favorite food & family memories? Leave a comment, or email me to share your story!

We*Meat*Again Wants Your Stories!

15 Jun

We*Meat*Again has, over the last few months, featured a few guest posts from readers and friends telling the stories of how they became passionate about food. In case you missed them, you can read Marissa’s story, Steve’s story, and Liz’s story. I’ve truly loved seeing these — and a few others I’ve received in email that I hope to convert to blog posts in the coming weeks as well. And I want more!

Having written this blog for a little more than a year now, while simultaneously working on the book intensely for the first half of this year, I’ve discovered that the connective thread between the two projects, the thing that drives both and makes them, hopefully, relevant and interesting to readers, is the sense of community that emerges through food, and the sense of purpose so many of us have found in becoming intentional eaters. I’d really like this blog to serve as a community of its own, a place where we can come together to explore and discuss the complex ideas of food policy reform, share recipes, and discover what it means to care about food, today.

So this is an open call, to any and all out there, to find a way to tell your story, and possibly be featured in an upcoming post on We*Meat*Again. Whatever form your story takes, however amateur or gourmand you may be, whether you love or hate being called a foodie, we want it all! I don’t want anyone to sit this one out because they don’t feel their story has enough to it — the very notion behind my story was that I never thought much about food at all, until I did, and discovered just how big a part of my life it was, and should be.

Some ideas to get the brain juices flowing:

  • Tell your “How I Became a Foodie” story: Whether it’s a specific moment, or a lifelong reality, what made you passionate about food?
  • Tell us your going veg*n or becoming un-vegetarian story: Why did you go one way? What made you go back? What advice do you have to offer our readers?
  • Tell us a story of your favorite meal, or cooking achievement: Share a recipe and the story that makes it special.

If you’d like to submit your own post, here’s all you need to do:

  1. Write up the short story (100-500 words is the best length, but we can go up as high as 1,000 if need be) of your food journey. Feel free to be as personal, self-deprecating, inspirational, sarcastic or gross as you need to be!
  2. Anything goes — nothing is too small or tangental. (But please write something new — don’t just send us a link to an already-published post.)
  3. Email this story to us: marissa@wemeatagain.com. Use the title:WE MEAT AGAIN GUEST POST.
  4. If you have them, also send along 2 (or 3) photos to help illustrate your story (especially recipe posts)
  5. Include your contact information (name, what you’d like us to call you, blog address — if you have one, etc.)
  6. Be patient. I’ll get back to you ASAP — but publishing on the site may take several weeks.

Investing in Your (Food) Economy

13 Jun

As I begin my preparations for yet another move (this will be my seventh in as many years), and begin the process of integrating myself into yet another new community, I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of investment. The various paths to community.

The very first thing I do now when I know my new location is search out the good food options — is there a co-op? What’s the farmer’s market situation? What kind of CSA options might exist in my price range? My favorite resource to start looking (as I tend to also move great distances, and so must take the first steps remotely) is the great website Local Harvest, with a complex searchable database.

My new location appears to have a lot to offer by way of good food opportunities — no co-op, but lots of markets in the area, all of which run into the fall and offer links to local producers who offer shares into the winter months as well. I’m excited by the prospects and availability. I’m thrilled to get to buy meat directly from producers, to once again have my choices of leafy greens, to taste what the grass of Pennsylvania tastes like (via the cheeses!).

And I’m feeling somewhere in my chest the best and least tangible of all the benefits of local food — the ways in which participating in a local food economy makes you feel a part of the community.

Some of it is simple and direct, in that you meet more people at a farmer’s market than in a grocery store. And of course, you feel safer knowing and seeing where your food came from. You feel you’ve made less of an environmental impact. But there is a pride to handing your money over to another member of the community that immediately draws you into that intricate web of people and place.

There is a very real economic benefit to spending your food dollars locally. Local spending boosts a community’s overall income level, as it helps create local jobs, and as local producers will tend to spend their profits locally, too. And this time, I’m finding that my tendency to support local food markets is drawing me further into the community overall.

I research local food options in advance of a move so that  I don’t become complacent — so that I don’t just make that first grocery trip, quick and easy, to the mega-chain in town. And now, this time, I don’t want to let myself do that anywhere. It’s so easy, when you move, to stick to the familiar. To run to Target for those basics, instead of checking out the local Main Street general store (yes, those places do still exist!), or to swing by Best Buy or Barnes & Noble instead of finding the local — even if used! — book or record store. To open your new bank account at the national for-profit institution that played a crucial role in the current global recession rather than joining a credit union.

Nowhere do we fall more prey to this than food. On road trips, we stop at rest area McDonald’s, rather than drive off the beaten path to find a local diner. We eat at Applebee’s and call it “the neighborhood bar and grill.” But we rob ourselves of the opportunity to discover the wonderful specificity of our place by directing our investments to the branded, the familiar.

The financial rewards of a local investment — in food or music, books or banking — pay emotional dividends. The joy of discovering the character of your community, the taste of the soil, the personalities of zip codes. I know it all sounds very old-world romantic, very Little House on the Prairie, but it’s true. You may never become friends with the people of your co-op, but you leave that store with a purchase knowing you have invested in more than a profit. You have invested in a place, and that makes it  yours.

Becoming Food Advocates: Liz’s Story

6 Jun

A few months back, I asked We*Meat*Again readers to leave me questions they’d like answered about me on the site. Cristina posed this question: I know you don’t like the term, but what made you become a “foodie”? Lots of people like to eat, but what makes you care about the state of food.

Hence was born our very irregular series of posts on the topic of Becoming Food Advocates, wherein I’m gathering stories by readers and friends of the blog to tell us the story of how they began to care about food. Today, we’ll hear from my good friend Liz, who writes the blog Flexitarian Writer, about her story, which began in childhood.

Becoming Food Advocates: Liz’s Story

Food & food traditions are integral to the family I was raised in. I grew up making tamales at Christmas because my parents grew up eating them (they both grew up in central Texas), not to mention the more regularly featured mole, carne asada, and homemade tortillas. The “central” part of Texas is a key detail to why I grew up with strong food traditions—even though they often came into conflict. Central Texas attracted a lot of German settlers and on my dad’s side of the family contains strong German lineage. So, I also grew up eating sauerbraten, red cabbage with apples, noodle kugel, stuffed cabbage leaves, pumpernickel and rye.

That was before our food traditions got weird. In my early elementary years, my mom told my dad that she refused to eat turkey more than once a year because she really didn’t like it. I didn’t like ham. So our Easter meal became based in Middle Eastern cuisine—things that would possibly have been eaten during the “real” Easter—yellow rice, a yogurt-honey-goat dish, bitter greens.

By the time I reached middle school, a typical week of meals (by cuisine) might have looked like:

  • Monday – Mexican (perhaps a carne verde stew or a del mar something or other)
  • Tuesday – Chinese (Americanized, cashew chicken or chicken cabbage peanut; or more traditional – a soup made of cloud ear mushrooms and tofu)
  • Wednesday – Leftovers
  • Thursday – something moderately quick, but newly cooked — chicken paragonia was a popular one, as was stroganoff
  • Friday- something with fish or vegetarian
  • Saturday – tacos
  • Sunday – Indian or leftovers

My family almost always ate dinner together—an opportunity to communicate, an opportunity to bond, an opportunity to fight. There were times I hated this tradition, particularly in high school, after a brief family-dinner hiatus where we all got home at very different times. It seemed like an opportunity to stress—and there were a variety of reasons for this, not the least of which was simply me being a teenager.

In middle and high school, I made dinner a couple of times a week—I grew up helping in the kitchen, did most of the baking by high school, and my dad and I made something of a wall that shut my mom out of the kitchen pretty effectively. She got distracted, let things burn, didn’t cook other things enough. She was better at baking—she taught me to bake and then I took off with it. Sometimes I feel guilt for taking over this aspect of the family kitchen, but my impression was that she never really enjoyed baking or cooking. My dad and I bonded over it.

This bond suffered some when I became more conscious about food. At some point in college, I became hyper-sensitive to the “food as fuel” idea and started carefully trying to monitor the things I was putting in my body so that most of it was fuel. I couldn’t always afford organic on a student budget, but I avoided things with HFCS, with a lot of sodium, and anything with more than one or two ingredients I couldn’t pronounce was definitely out of the question. When I went home, I fought with my parents over food, refused to eat some of the things put before me, questioned their choices in the grocery store.

During my second year of college, I lived with a woman who not only had Celiac’s (the inability to digest gluten), but also lactose intolerance and a couple of other intolerances I can’t remember anymore. The list of things she couldn’t eat seemed too extensive to me, so I was always asking “Can you eat this…?”

Before that, I’d never heard of Celiac’s, didn’t understand how a person could avoid wheat (because it IS in freaking everything, just like corn & soy), but shopping with her and cooking with her opened my eyes to a whole new set of food issues, and also a whole new set of food experiences as far as baking, cooking, and eating are concerned. Now, I have a close friend’s son is allergic to wheat, milk, all nuts including legume-peanuts, soy, rice and possibly eggs. In other words, every major food allergy you can have and a couple that are less common like tomatoes and strawberries and I’m not sure how they eat, or how he’ll survive to adulthood – especially  since my friend is (trying) to raise him vegetarian.

One of the things I noticed as I became more food-aware is the extent to which most people aren’t food aware (and don’t seem to care) and this boggles my mind. A coworker routinely eats chocolate-covered gummy bears, chugs energy drinks, and eats canned soup. Another coworker seems to survive on protein bars, Starbucks, and bananas.

But I think there’s also this sub-culture that cares enough about where their food comes from—how far it travels, how it was produced, if it’s in season, if it contains GMO ingredients, that food activism and awareness has become something these “I don’t care…” folks actively push against — it’s seen as a neo-liberal movement, or elitist, or as something that someone can only care about if they can “afford” good food – and we see this again and again as we point out the racial and socio-economic lines in the “obesity epidemic” – and yet there seems to be so little that we do to combat this in the soup kitchens and other places.

When I volunteered in a soup kitchen in Ames, Iowa, where I attended grad school, I watched one very thin man horde loaves of bread, which he clearly wasn’t eating. I watched as the Head Chefs struggled to prepare nutritious meals when both the pantry and fresh foods were incredibly low and struggled as a Head Chef in the same capacity several times. It sucked when my options were sandwich meats, iceberg lettuce, canned peaches—and I didn’t even necessarily have all those at the same time. And I found it incredibly frustrating that people only really donated to the kitchen’s pantry during the food-drive times of year (and mostly crap-food at that), as though people weren’t always going hungry, as though most of the people making those donations would eat the foods they donated.

When we started gleaning from the farmers market in Ames, that made a huge difference to our produce supplies and our ability to create fun new dishes that the guests enjoyed—but only a few of chefs even pretended to be up to this task. Others just shied away from the produce, because they didn’t know what to do with it or had a strong bias against a particular vegetable or fruit.

I was there often enough that regular guests noticed when I wasn’t there on the days I was supposed to be, that they asked me about other volunteers who had moved or stopped coming. A few gave me hugs. I heard updates on apartment searches and job searches, on getting a forever-failing truck fixed, on a set of estranged children. I witnessed the community that formed within the confines of the church basement turned soup kitchen, was reminded of how much food helps build community – and then saw it repeated as I volunteered on other farms around Ames, at Mustard Seed and Onion Creek.

I grew up in a world where food was integral to our family’s community, as we forged our own traditions from our food habits. But so many of the people I’ve encountered out in the world have shown me that not everyone gets to participate in that community – their diets or incomes or schedules or abilities limit their access. But the possibility for community is always there, and it’s that I try to return to, whenever I cook with friends, whenever I welcome others into my kitchen.

Interested in sharing your story of becoming a food advocate? We’re looking for all variety of stories, from people of all walks of life, whether you consider yourself a casual amateur or a gourmet chef, whether you care about the environment, nutrition, your children’s health and safety or your local butcher. If you’d like to submit your own post, here’s all you need to do:

  1. Write up the short story of your food journey. What inspired you to start thinking about what you ate and why it mattered. What your wake-up call was. What’s changed. What your challenges have been.
  2. Anything goes — nothing is too small or tangental. (But please write something new — don’t just send us a link to an already-published post.)
  3. Email this story to us: marissa@wemeatagain.com. Use the title:BECOMING A FOOD ADVOCATE STORY.
  4. If you have them, also send along 2 (or 3) photos to help illustrate your story.
  5. Include your contact information (name, what you’d like us to call you, blog address — if you have one, etc.)
  6. Be patient. We’ll get back to you ASAP — but publishing on the site may take several weeks.

Of course, if you just want to read more, Y\you can read my story here, or the first Becoming Food Advocates guest post by Steve of Or Until Golden Brown

Organic Spinach Recall

1 Jun

The other day, I was checking out at the grocery store, and when I swiped my shopper’s club card, the cashier told me there was a recall notice that would print out on my receipt.

When I got the receipt, it turned out that the brand of packaged organic baby spinach I buy on pretty much every trip was being recalled for a potential salmonella contamination. I could bring the package back to the store for a full refund.

By the time I got the recall notice, the package of spinach was already empty and in my trash, so as you may guess based on the measured nature of this post, I did not, in fact, get salmonella. Since the contamination can cause nausea, vomiting, bloody diarrhea, etc. I think I would have noticed. But of course, this brings up some interesting issues to ponder here.

First, yes, even organic vegetables are in danger of becoming contaminated. For those who haven’t heard about the salmonella spinach, listeria cantaloupe, etc. of the last year or so, a brief refresher: many packaged produce products are handled at the same facilities, or shipped in the same trucks, that transmit contaminated meat products or animals, which are rarely cleaned. All it takes is one trip for potential contamination to occur.

Second, and larger, this is an important wake-up call for someone like me. I’m stuck in a situation where I resort to buying pre-packaged organic produce shipped in from distant ports (or, you know, California). And it’s important to remember that’s truly not the same thing as buying organic, local produce. Produce from a small-scale farm that doesn’t use chemicals. A farm with a small staff and easily-observable hygiene standards. A farm far from the potential contamints of the larger food industry because it’s not a part of that industry, but rather a part of a local foodshed. Produce from people whose hands I can shake.

Oh, how I wish all the produce was that kind of produce. Until we get there as a nation, let’s all of us, individually, remember to prioritize the local and transparent above all else, and not be lulled into the false sense of security a USDA organic label can give us. Organic is vitally important, especially from a larger environmental perspective, but organic can still be industrial.

Basically, the reminder here is to wash your veggies, even if you buy organic (whether for this reason, or just ot rinse of the lovely local dirt that comes with fresh farmer’s market produce!), and to keep yourself in the loop to advocate for stricter health and safety standards on a food industry way out of control.

A Conversation on Meat-Eating

30 May

A few months ago, a reader of We*Meat*Again named Heather sent me the first email below — a proposition…

I think being vegan is the ideal diet, and you disagree. Therefore, I have a fun proposal if you are up for it.

I would like to discuss the ethics of eating meat with you over email. We can go back and forth for a little while. Then, I’ll post the debate on a blog that I haven’t created yet. You can do the same at your blog.

I loved the idea of letting our ethics play out in conversation form, as it was a long series of conversations I had several years ago that led me back towards meat-eating. It wasn’t an issue or singular decision, so I thought this would be a great way to represent the myriad perspectives on the ethics of eating meat. Enjoy!

Heather

I’ll start off with animals. After all, protecting animals is the main reason I am vegan.

I think it is very important to protect animals from harm. They are defenseless, and we have the power to do anything to them that we want. But might does not make right.

Animals raised for food are almost all kept in factory farms where they are confined in tiny cages. Egg laying hens can’t even flap their wings and they stay in those cages for up to two years. Breeding pigs are kept in stalls so small they can’t even turn around.

A lot of suffering goes into producing meat, and it’s not neven a necessary food.

Marissa

I have a tangential thought, based on what you mentioned below about animals being defenseless. Of course, I know you mean domesticated livestock animals, but I wonder how this view of our obligation to protect animals might impact your views on hunting? Wild animals are certainly not defenseless, and defend themselves against predators all the time. But back to your initial thoughts…

As you mention, almost all animals raised for food are kept in extremely inhumane conditions. I completely agree, and this was the primary reason I had for becoming a vegetarian myself many years ago. I can’t abide those conditions and do not want to be a part of them. However, there is a small, and growing movement of much more small-scale humane conditions for raising animals. I’ve met and befriended many farmers and ranchers who treat their animals with love and kindness, who raise them in healthy, free-roaming conditions and who ensure their deaths are as pain- and fear-free as possible.

My view is that I can affect more positive change in the current food system by choosing to invest my meat-dollars by supporting those new, emerging models of agriculture than I can by opting out or boycotting the existing system.

There’s a lot to explore in the idea that meat isn’t a necessary food, too, but I’ll stay on topic for now…

Heather

I don’t think many animals that are hunted are able to defend themselves against hunters. Doves come to mind, as do ducks, rabbits, etc. but that’s a different issue.

I think those farms that don’t use factory farm methods are an improvement, but they still kill the animals. There is still suffering. For example, male pigs are still castrated. I think it’s an improvement, and for people who refuse to go vegetarian it’s a good alternative. But for those willing to go all the way, isn’t it preferable to not have any animals killed for the dinner plate?

Why kill if we don’t need to?

Marissa

The question at stake for me here is: what system of eating is without suffering? I think a lot of vegans and vegetarians are mistaken in the assumption that by not eating the body of an animal, they are avoiding participating in death or suffering.

A few examples: Most mainstream meat substitute products, including boxed products like Boca burgers, or tofu, are subsidiary brands produced by major multinational corporations. Boca is owned by Kraft, which also owns Oscar Meyer. Yves and Tofutown are owned by Heinz, which also owns several frozen meal brands, made with chicken contracted through Tyson (one of the worst-of-the-worst when it comes to inhumane and pollutive CAFOs).

Even on the smaller scale (for organic, locavore vegans and vegetarians) the very act of growing food often results in death. Even the most low-till farming methods neccesarily kill worms. Even the most natural pest-avoidance will likely cause the deaths of insects. And these are not non-sentient beings (I’ve always hated when people accuse vegetarians of “killing plants” — that’s just not the same thing). These are living creatures, many of which can experience pain, and have an equal right to life as a human, or a chicken, or a pig.

And so, if death is unavoidable in the process of growing and consuming food, I believe it makes the most ethical sense to be honest about it. To acknowledge the suffering I cause (in my case, in the form of an animal’s death) so that I can most responsibly invest my food dollars with producers who I know seek to actively minimize suffering.

Heather

I don’t agree that worms are equal to intelligent species like pigs, just like I don’t agree that pigs are equal to humans. However, let’s take your argument at face value. Assume that raising 8lbs of soybeans causes X number of worms and other insects to die. We can eat that 8lbs of soybeans directly and the number of insects dead is X. Or, we can feed that soy to a pig and get 1lb of meat. A farmer feeds roughly 8lbs of feed to a pig to get a pound of pork. So if we ate the vegetarian food directly, it stands to reason there would be 8 times less insects killed than in a form of food production where those crops are filtered through a pig first.

I don’t think buying vegetarian foods from a company that also sells meat is anything like buying meat from a company that sells meat. If anything, buying the vegetarian food shows these companies that there is profit to be made in plant based foods. Those companies are not going away. But if they see there is profit to be made by producing more ethical foods, that is a good thing.

So, in closing, one kills less insects that would be harmed in crop production if they eat the crops directly. Also, showing multinational corporations there is profit to be made by producing more ethical foods is a good thing.

I think those points reinforce the argument for vegetarianism.

Marissa

The flaw in the mathematical equations or soy, or corn, to meat production is that vegetarian food isn’t just soybeans. It, too, requires processing, and a balanced diet requires produce, which takes more land to grow, etc. So it’s difficult, if not impossible, to suggest that such a correlation between # of worms killed for one pound of vegetarian food is less than # of worms killed for one pound of pig. Especially because that equation still only takes into consideration animals fed a grown diet, as opposed to free-range animals.

But those small logistics aside, the more important thing is to note that we all — whether we eat meat or not — make a distinction between certain kinds of life. You acknowledge a worm > pig > human hierarchy, and the existence of such a hierarchy suggests that even vegans don’t necessarily have a problem with knowing some life died to create their food. That is much the same as my take. The real question is, why do we consider some life forms acceptable deaths and others unacceptable?

My issue with buying vegetarian foods from a company that also raises meat is that I don’t separate all those forms of suffering out. I accept that much destruction (of the earth), death and suffering (of animals, farmworkers, etc.) comes along with the process of any species attempting to feed itself. I try to minimize my participation in that suffering, because I look at the whole picture. I would rather buy a free-range, antibiotic-free, humanely-slaughtered side of beef from a local farmer who treats his workers with respect than a box of industrially-produced, long-distance, GMO-based meat substitute product from a parent corporation responsible for labor rights, clean air/water, and animals rights, violations.

If some people are vegan or vegetarian because they simply cannot stomach the idea of eating the flesh of a dead animal, I can wholeheartedly accept that. I just think it’s a personal choice, not one that, when judged in terms of the food system as a whole, is in and of itself morally superior.

Heather

Ok, I had not thought about produce requiring more to grow. But how could tree fruit affect worms in the ground? I don’t think it can.

Plus, there is no question people have lower rates of heart disease as vegetarians.

Marissa

It’s certainly true that people have lower rates of heart disease (and many other chronic health conditions) as vegetarians. But that’s because the only studies up to this point have compared a diet without meat to a diet of industrially-produced meat (even including processed meat like bologna or spam. ick.).

I’m all in favor of reducing our meat consumption as a nation dramatically. Americans far over-eat protein in general, and are especially fans of red meat, which is especially bad for the heart. But I think a diet that emphasizes fresh, whole foods and produce can include some meat and still be very healthy. In fact, the studies that have been done thus far suggest that many of the health issues associated with meat are a uniquely-industrial problem. So if we are supporting sustainable, chemical-free sources of meat, we can avoid many of those health problems.

Heather

Ok, that’s an interesting rebuttal.

We agree meat consumption should be reduced.

Basically I think there are 3 main reasons to be vegetarian, and they are:

1. There is no question that animals suffer greatly in factory farms. Anytime one buys a chicken sandwich, they are supporting that. Even when people say they eat free range meat, if they go to a restaurant or eat meat at a cookout, they are likely eating factory farmed meat. I don’t believe that people who say they exclusively eat free range meat really exclusively do. If they are telling the truth then they must eat vegetarian meals most of the time.

Even with free range meat, an animal is still killed for something unnecessary. Of course we are talking about animals like pigs, which are as intelligent as dogs. Chickens, turkeys, cows; they all are intelligent enough and aware enough to suffer and to be aware of their misery, pain and fear as they go down the slaughter line. I don’t think we can say that about worms. In fact, you can even cut a worm in half and it becomes two worms. Slice a chicken in half and she is dead.

Lastly, with grass fed cows, if we were to eat as much meat tomorrow as we do today, and all the cows are grass fed, we’d use half the country for grazing.

2. Clearly a vegetarian or vegan diet is healthier than eating meat. You did a good job of refuting my heart disease argument, but vegetarians do live longer than meat eaters on average. We have lower rates of stroke, lower obesity and all the problems that come with that, etc.

3. Meat production is an environmental catastrophe. So many more resources go into growing feed to feed to animals, and then raising, transporting and slaughtering the animals than if one just eats crops directly. There is also the issue of manure run off contaminating soil, water and air in rural communities. So much petro fertilizer has to be used to raise feed crops. It’s just a mess.

The three points together make a strong argument for being vegetarian.

Marissa

I have some responses to your three points individually, and then to the underlying assumption.

1. You’re absolutely right that choosing not to eat factory-farmed meat means absconding from meat in many situations (thought not at all restaurants), but I wouldn’t go so far as to say “most of the time.” Most of my meals are eaten at home, cooked by me. But to assume they are lying, or misinformed, isn’t necessary. You don’t have to believe they are always eating sustainable meat any more than they need to believe you are always reading ingredients list and never accidentally eating chicken fat or beef byproduct in your soup, crackers, etc.

The idea that the animal is being killed for something “unnecessary” is part of the problem I have. If an animal dies in any process of growing food (and somehow, somewhere along the line, I do believe that happens, whether worms and insects or animals slaughtered by parent companies of vegetarian products), then what kind of death is “unnecessary.” They are all, in some way, going towards a person’s eating. Couldn’t we take the next logical step and say it’s not “necessary” for humans to live any more than animals? Of course, such a position wouldn’t work. If death is inevitable, no death is unnecessary — but there is such a thing as an inhumane death or a death that happens in a way that isn’t necessary.

2. My response to the argument that vegetarians live longer than meat-eaters is the same as my response for heart disease — only because the only available data matches vegetarian against modern-day, red-meat-heavy, industrially-produced-meat eater. Vegetarian versus low-consumption, sustainable-produced, chemical-free meat-eater would look different. They may well be equal.

My response to your third point, about the environmental consequences of meat production, is similar to my response to your note about grass-fed cattle. Along with agreeing meat consumption should be reduced, we both agree on all the negatives of the current factory farming system. But if you add reducing meat consumption to attempting to reverse, undo, or change the industrial system, you can create a small-scale, sustainable system that produces less meat on less land using integrative practices that feed and fertilize the land, without the massive pollutive consequences of a factory farm. I’ve chosen to invest in the creation of that system, rather than just boycott the existing one.

At this point in our exchange, Heather threw in the towel, and admitted I had successfully rebutted all of her reasons for strict vegetarianism. I’ll close with my final response to her, which is the most important take-away:

My intention is never to get people to stop being vegetarians — just to start being more conscientious of the fact that the line between ethical/unethical eating doesn’t necessarily fall along vegetarian/meat-eating lines.

Artist as Activist

25 May

A recent interview in The New York Times with world-known chefs Thomas Keller and Andoni Luis Aduriz has caused a bit of a ruckus in the good food movement. For within this article, the two chefs suggest that for them, perfecting their craft of foodsmanship comes before any efforts towards improved sourcing or sustainability of that food. An example:

“Is global food policy truly our responsibility, or in our control?” [Keller] asked. “I don’t think so.”

“I agree completely, and it is a brave answer,” came immediately from Mr. Aduriz. “Of course I buy as many things as I can nearby,” he said. “But to align yourself entirely with the idea of sustainability makes chefs complacent and limited.”

Paula Crossfield has a strong rebuttal to that notion over at Civil Eats, wherein she argues that “the locavore movement is not a trend easily dismissed, but part of a greater paradigm shift around how we view and value resources.”

But here in this post, I would like to look at Aduriz’ accusation that locavorism limits chefs. By aligning “complacent” with “limited,” it sounds to me as if these chefs believe that the constraints of sourcing locally, or with a small carbon footprint (and, we could presumably add, with an eye towards the humane treatment of animals), places constraints on the chef-as-artist. Limited, as in, it limits our creativity. Our ability to achieve wondrous and spectacular things on the plate.

I absolutely think that great chefs are artists. I come from a family with three daughters — I am a writer, and my sisters are a photographer and a pastry chef. We are, all three of us, artists. Caitlin, the chef, (who works at this awesome farm-to-table restaurant in San Diego’s little Italy neighborhood!) can create shapes with fondant that I cannot with words.

And any good artist will tell you that often, our best work is done within constraints.

This is why poets experiment in sijo and ghazals and sonnets. This is why I try lyric and collage style essays, why I limit myself to writing nonfiction.

Anyone can create when you have all of the world’s resources at your fingertips, an endless amount of money, and a blank canvas — because anything you put on that canvas will be art. True artists thrive within boundaries, adhering to prompts. Because that is when creating art becomes a challenge, which is the only reason any of us make art.

The absolute best meals I’ve ever eaten were at locally-sourced restaurants (although, to be fair, Keller’s French Laundry is way above my pay-grade, so this isn’t a direct comparison). Of course, the food was delicious — I almost wept when I took the first bite of my lamb bolognese at Minneapolis’ Craftsman restaurant. But the meal was more wonderful because of the fact that it was locally sourced and sustainable. They made rabbit delicious! There were pickled ramps in the slaw! The salted caramel ice cream had been made right there in house!

This was food as art made more impressive by the limitations and constraints, the boundaries the chefs had been forced to challenge, the ways in which they had stretched themselves, and improved their craft by virtue of working within those limitations.

Nothing complacent about it.

Forks Over Knives Review

23 May

I’ve been catching up so far this summer on my Netflix instant queue, including watching some of my backlog of food-oriented documentaries, so expect occasional reviews in the coming months (and feel free to make a request if there’s a movie you’re thinking about seeing but want to know whether it’s worth your time). Up today? documentary about the vegan diet Forks Over Knives.

The basics

The documentary focuses specifically on the relationship between dietary choices and health — by which I mean both daily levels of comfort, but also chronic illness. In examining the connection between the consumptions of meat and dairy products and serious conditions like cancers, heart disease, and of course, obesity, the film explores and ultimately, advocates for the benefits of a whole-foods, plant-based diet (yes, by which they mean vegan).

What I liked

I particularly enjoyed that, despite the fact that they were refering to a dietary plan with a name — vegan — the doctors and filmmakers refrained from calling it such. This suggests, first, a flexibility on the part of those advocating for this diet. They did mention several times that reducing or minimizing the consumption of animal products was the goal.

And they also were careful to clarify the whole foods part of the dietary plan several times — that is, they were not suggesting a sharp increase in tofu or other meat substitutes, but rather a diet, focused on plants that were cooked but minimally processed, if at all.

What I learned

A lot of the health connections between meat and chronic disease were not a mystery to me (though I know they would be to some audiences) but the research in the film relied on international dietary models to form the basis of comparison, and I hadn’t heard much of that. Since science tends to be (rightly) focused on proving the causal connection between diet and health, American medicine doesn’t often look to other countries to see what might be different elsewhere, both in terms of what we eat and how it supports our body’s functions.

One especially striking statistic was this: the average annual number of prostate cancer — a disease causally linked to overconsumption of red meat — diagnoses in Japan is 18, compared to the American average of 16,000.

I also learned that rat-based studies have found an inverse relationship between diet and cancer tumor growth. That is, rats fed a diet high in red meat protein experienced growth in cancerous tumors. But when those same rats were fed a plant-based diet, they experienced a reduction in tumor size.

All of this is to say that the arguments for fueling our bodies with plant food, rather than animal food, is compelling. Not only in terms of avoiding serious illness, but also in terms of what works best for our bodies. (The film profiled several high-performance vegan athletes including professional triathletes and an MMA fighter!)

What was missing

When the film was over, I went back and checked what year it was released and was surprised to find that it was just 2011. I remembered it being recent, but after viewing the documentary, I wondered if I had been wrong. Because the information — but more than that, the perspective — seems dated.

I kept waiting for the point when the narrator and filmmaker, or the doctors who were at the center of the film, would discuss non-industrially produced animal products, and that moment never came, despite the fact that the ills of animal foods, according to the research, was mostly focused on the presence of hormones and steroids.

The notion of organic dairy and grass-fed meat are addressed on the film’s website, but not in great enough detail for me to be able to discern whether I believe the information is accurate. The registered dietician on that site writes that “Even organically produced dairy contain naturally occurring steroids and hormones, which can promote cancer growth,” but that is the extent of the detail. She goes on to note that there is no significant nutritional difference between grass-fed and grain-fed meat (which is true) but doesn’t address the notion that grass-fed meat is absent much of the fat and therefore, cholesterol of grain-fed meat, and is also absent synthetic chemicals, toxins, antibiotics, etc.

If the film addressed these ideas, and had the research to suggest that it would be better to reduce or eliminate meat than to simply eat antibiotic-free, pasture-raised meat, I could accept that. I wouldn’t eat that way, but at least I would know where they stood. But for a film made in 2011 to ignore the alternatives completely seemed strange to me.

The verdict?

Overall, some interesting info, but a pretty snooze-worthy approach to documentary storytelling with not much new for a reasonably-informed food advocate. Watch if you’re interested in learning more about a plant-based diet, and the science therein. But if you want an engaging film about the dangers of the western diet, try Supersize Me instead.

If you’ve seen Forks Over Knives, or have some perspective on the dietary plan, I’d love to hear what you think! Leave a comment and share your thoughts below.

We’re In This Together

11 May

The recent NYTimes contest calling for essays advocating for the ethics of eating meat produced some interesting responses. My take on it was similar in thought process to the winning entry. But for now, I’m interested in the reactions from around the world of food to the very idea of the contest.

In peoples’ responses, I saw evidence of the beginning of a splintering in the food movement, between those who advocate a vegetarian or vegan diet, and those of us becoming known as “selective omnivores”–who advocate a diet that includes meat but focuses on local and sustainable sourcing.

Here’s an example of the take that ethical vegetarians seemed to have to the contest:

Do ethical vegetarians…pose such a “threat” to the meat and dairy industries that the Times Magazine must now invite its millions of readers to shout them down? … We find it disturbing that the Magazine would organize such a one-sided contest, and moreover that Ariel Kaminer should introduce it with such frivolity. “Ethically speaking, vegetables get all the glory,” Kaminer writes, caricaturing vegans as members of a “hard-core inner circle” who have “dominated the discussion.” With her very breeziness (“Bon appetit!”), Kaminer seems intent on trivializing the warrant for ethical veganism.”

Michele Simon, a public health lawyer whose work I normally greatly admire had a similarly dismissive take on the notion that the ethics of meat eating are worth discussing:

Was this really a burning problem that needed solving, the lack of justifications to eat meat? What do you suppose has caused America’s love affair with meat in the first place? …  It saddens me that given all the pressing problems of our day, many of which caused by excessive meat eating (global warming, contaminated air and water, chronic disease, worker injury, and yes, animal suffering, just to name a few) the Times is promoting such a self-indulgent contest.

I’ve heard similar rumblings from some of the sustainable meat producers I know — those who raise grass-fed cattle or run small-scale slaughter operations — that the push for meatlessness is misdirected, and hurts those who are striving for a more sustainable, animal-friendly meat. One farmer friend suggested that “Meatless Mondays” should be renamed “Pasture-Raised Meat Mondays” to better support his business, and draw the line where it should be placed.

Ironically, after calling the contest self-indulent and accusing meat-eaters of being brainwashed by industry, Simon  finishes her entry by saying:

Moreover, we don’t need even more ways to polarize people over personal dietary choices. Let’s stop the infighting and focus on the core of the problem: corporate control of the food supply.

Overall, I find the notion of criticizing what the Ethicist column chooses to devote a contest to a bit frivolous in itself. But the end of Simon’s letter makes a good point, and is my point in this post: staying strong and united is in our best interests.

Ultimately, ethical vegetarians and ethical omnivores want the same things, and we need to spend more time thinking about what we have in common than on what divides us. Just as the civil rights movement, the women’s liberation movements, and now, the LGBQT movement have all struggled with this kind of splintering, the new movement of food advocacy will likely occasionally butt heads over territory or priority.

Advocating for a decrease in overall meat consumption is good for all of us. Most ethical vegetarians believe that we should eat less meat overall, and while sustainable meat producers may bristle at this initially, it’s in their best interests, too. Aside from being better for our health to consume less meat than we currently do, and better for the land overall, a smaller national hankering for meat is one that can be met exclusively by small-scale, pasture-raised operations.

When I met with Bartlet Duran of Black Earth Meats a few years ago, he made an interesting point by saying that his operation isn’t interested in getting into the large chain grocery stores. To produce enough to meet the demands of a Wal-Mart, or Safeway, or Hy-Vee, they would have to scale up. And they like doing things on their scale, because it allows for ultimate control over the animals’ diets, living conditions, slaughterhouse conditions and worker pay. Direct marketing to consumers makes more sense, and that requires being a smaller operation. So if ethical vegetarians get their way, and can convince Americans to eat less meat overall, small-scale producers will be uniquely suited to meet those demands at the most competitive price point.

On the other hand, supporting sustainable meat operations is in the best interest of veg*ns, too. In every conversation I’ve ever had with a vegetarian (including with myself) about her reasons for being one — be they environmental, economic, labor-rights, or ethical — those reasons can be nearly universally addressed by the sustainable meat industry. Every problem a vegan or vegetarian has with meat is actually one they have with the industrial meat complex.

Even vegetarians who are not personally comfortable with a reversal of their diet surely can admit that if some Americans want or need to eat meat, they would rather they come from family-owned, biodynamic operations than anywhere else. In advocating for those operations, no one is suggesting that we force anyone to eat meat — just that we all work to make sure the meat that is available comes from the best possible source.

So rather than fighting with each other, let’s turn our joint attention outward to our common enemy, the industrial food complex. Let’s focus on our common ground, and we can get some real work done.

To Feed

4 May

A few months back, I had an essay contemplating fertility and motherhood on The Nervous Breakdown. But when I initially conceptualized that essay, it had a much stronger agricultural connection than the final version. In light of recent posts here about parenthood and feeding our children, I thought I’d resurrect some of the scraps of that essay into a short, meditative post on motherhood and feeding.

In describing the sand dunes in the desert in her book, Refuge, Terry Tempest Williams writes “[t]here is musculature in dunes. And they are female. Sensuous curves—the small of a woman’s back. Breasts. Buttocks. Hips and pelvis. They are the natural shape of the earth.”

The earth and the body, shaped by the same forces of biology, and in many ways servicing the same greater purpose. We, the land and the woman, are the providers of food.

*

In order to maintain its fertility—the word fertility itself here is a reminder of the links between land and body. Fertile, noun, meaning: capable of sustaining abundant plant growth; producing or bearing fruit in great quantities; capable of breeding or reproducing. In which of these definitions is the woman, in which is the land?—the soil’s nutrient cycle must be strong, constant.

Soil requires a healthy, vigorous root structure, the silken threads of dangling plants umbilical cords, flowing nutrients to the stalk, above the surface. The methods for transferring food from soil to plant to eater. Soil must be fed to be healthy enough to feed.

Soil must also be maintained. Prone to erosion, the ground itself can be swept away by too much wind, water. A soil particle can become detached, dislodged, can become an individual separate from the entity we call land. The roots and the living elements bind soil particles together into an aggregate. Healthy farming practices that reduce tillage, that use the decay of organisms to create nutrients, that limit water runoff by planting only on strong, aggregate soil, all create the elements of this bond.

And because the soil is strong, the plants have food, we have food.

But, in the name of producing food, we are poisoning the food providers. The land is sick. The women are dying.

*

Between the 1940s and the 1970s, agriculture was revolutionized—that is, agriculture underwent what is now known as “the Green Revolution” which is also known as the widespread decimation of industrial agriculture technology. Words crop up in repetition here: modern, developed, improved, synthetic, science-based.

Mostly these technologies consisted of chemicals, and of mechanisms for distributing chemicals. Pesticides to increase per acre yields. Nitrogen fertilizer to eliminate the need for soil recovery time. Plants genetically altered to grow closer together, grow with less water, grow in spite of the pesticides. What we hoped, what the whole hungry starving unequal world of food hoped, was that all these chemicals would feed more and more and more people, that all these chemicals would stop so many from going hungry. We mixed and we doused and we prayed.

We were wrong.

And we’ve known for some time now that we were wrong. We’ve known that instead of nurturing the soil, that instead of feeding the plants that would become food, chemicals are poisoning the soil, are poisoning our food.

Herbicides, meant to protect plants by eliminating weeds, are gradually destroying plant root structures, causing fungal root diseases, reducing the plants’ abilities to absorb micronutrients from the soil.

All these chemicals, too, are creating monsters. Monster weeds and monster bugs capable of withstanding the poison of the chemical. Evolving past death by chemical. So we mix more and we douse more and we pray more even though it’s not working.

Even though we know these chemicals we thought would protect our food are killing it.

*

Author, researcher, cancer survivor, Sandra Steingraber writes, upon holding a vial of her own amniotic fluid, “It contains the sap of apples, the juice of oranges, the tea I drank a few hours earlier, and the milk I poured over my cereal that morning.” The food is the land is the body.

Rivers and creeks pass from the land sprayed, so quietly, with pesticides and planted with fertilizers, into reservoirs into tap water. Pregnant women are routinely advised not to drink the water in high-agricultural use areas. Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma occurrence rates are highest over the Midwest and Great Plains, the region of highest use of agricultural pesticides.

Our bodies tell us the story, if we are willing to listen. Pesticide residue is detected in body fat, umbilical cords, placentas, breast milk. Pesticides that crumple our genes to damaged shells of themselves, that erect walls around hormone production systems in our bodies, that smother healthy cells, that nourish and encourage tumor growth.

*

Feed is a verb. To feed. To give food to; supply with nourishment. To serve as food for. To produce food for.

Or perhaps, to feed must mean more than simply to produce a commodity that can be ingested. Perhaps to feed has come too much to mean to become a good, consumed.

Perhaps: To supply with something essential for growth. To nourish. To nurture. To sustain.

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