Pardon the slight preachiness that this post of mine will inevitably contain, but I think it’s as important a ‘this is a core part of my view of life’ post as any I’ve written so far, and one which I hope will be of use to others!
For some time now I’ve been singing the praises of Mark Bittman thanks to a chance encounter with his book How to Cook Everything, which good friend Stripey lent me a couple of years back when I was beginning to properly cook more at home in earnest — she’s recently reclaimed it and picked up a new copy for me, which was terribly kind of her. It’s a simply excellent text, because in its straightforward and wide-ranging way it establishes basics for a starting cook, covers a lot of different dishes and — very importantly — implicitly and explicitly encourages you to consider variety. It’s not a rule book to cooking things exactly right; instead it’s a protean text wherein you get those basics down precisely because you can then experiment. It’s comparable to Alton Brown‘s work — and both of course have their TV shows and general media profile — in that both are enthusiastic, encouraging and ultimately geared towards the at-home experimenter who wants to step up a bit, knowing that there’s a professional level that may never be properly achieved, but that one can still do a lot with what one has.
Bittman’s latest work is even more geared for myself and I’m strongly considering picking it up — How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, specifically designed for the cook and consumer, as Bittman describes himself, who is not vegetarian him- or herself, but wishes to cook vegetarian in general as a matter of course. It’s essentially what I’ve tried to do for the most part ever since switching over to the CSA program via South Coast Farms and the Avanti Cafe, because to my mind it’s the most logical thing to do. It’s good to know that I can prepare up any number of vegetarian or vegan meals as needed, and in terms of personal health as well as consideration for guests or friends at pot-luck parties or the like, it strikes me as the soundest way forward. I very rarely if ever cook meat at home, and I am more than content with that. (Also, it’s very handy to know that you only ever use your cooking implements for non-meat purposes — no need to maintain a separate set!)
Bittman’s written a regular column for the NY Times over the moons and yesterday published an absolutely crackerjack entry, “Rethinking the Meat-Guzzler,” which I highly recommend to anyone and everyone. It’s a summation of various concerns and conclusions rather than anything strikingly new, but he’s using the bully pulpit well to call attention to any number of issues on a very wide level, from international economics to animal rights, to drive home what I feel is an extremely important observation — namely, that meat consumption can and should be reduced in general.
It’s important to note that this is a measured approach rather than an absolute one — if you are a vegetarian or vegan and feel that any meat consumption is unjustifiable for moral or other reasons, you will find that this approach goes nowhere near far enough, so that should be kept in mind. On the flipside, though, if you’re thinking that Bittman’s is some sort of granola-hippie rant, it’s high time you left those sterotypes behind you — they are LONG past expired, believe me. I fully believe that Bittman is in the right place at the right time here, and it’s a pleasure to hear him speak so cogently on the point. To draw out a couple of key paragraphs:
Americans are downing close to 200 pounds of meat, poultry and fish per capita per year (dairy and eggs are separate, and hardly insignificant), an increase of 50 pounds per person from 50 years ago. We each consume something like 110 grams of protein a day, about twice the federal government’s recommended allowance; of that, about 75 grams come from animal protein. (The recommended level is itself considered by many dietary experts to be higher than it needs to be.) It’s likely that most of us would do just fine on around 30 grams of protein a day, virtually all of it from plant sources .
Perhaps the best hope for change lies in consumers’ becoming aware of the true costs of industrial meat production. “When you look at environmental problems in the U.S.,” says Professor Eshel, “nearly all of them have their source in food production and in particular meat production. And factory farming is ‘optimal’ only as long as degrading waterways is free. If dumping this stuff becomes costly — even if it simply carries a non-zero price tag — the entire structure of food production will change dramatically.”
Animal welfare may not yet be a major concern, but as the horrors of raising meat in confinement become known, more animal lovers may start to react. And would the world not be a better place were some of the grain we use to grow meat directed instead to feed our fellow human beings?
In fact, Americans are already buying more environmentally friendly products, choosing more sustainably produced meat, eggs and dairy. The number of farmers’ markets has more than doubled in the last 10 years or so, and it has escaped no one’s notice that the organic food market is growing fast. These all represent products that are more expensive but of higher quality.
If those trends continue, meat may become a treat rather than a routine. It won’t be uncommon, but just as surely as the S.U.V. will yield to the hybrid, the half-pound-a-day meat era will end.
Maybe that’s not such a big deal. “Who said people had to eat meat three times a day?” asked Mr. Pollan.
Really, all I have to add at this point is that I find that cooking at home and eating in a predominantly but not universally vegetarian way is something that I see as eminently logical. The confluence of opportunities and options that have recently resulted in the trends of past years — everything from appreciating local foods and growing patterns for what they are to understanding that the options for new combinations of flavors, tastes and foods are limited only by one’s imagination — is no less powerful than that which I’m also talking about this week in the realm of music in the digital world.
And I say this while also acknowledging that I do still eat meat, but not on a regular basis and certainly not three times a day. If anything I have it at lunch, when I am at work, but I do not do so every day by any stretch of the imagination, and if I do have a heavier meal for lunch, I look to having a much lighter one at dinner. This just makes a certain logical sense. Arguably, the fact that I am having meat when eating at outside sources rather than controlling my preparation of it myself is its own concern, so I try and balance that out when I can — but again, many times I do not have meat as part of the meal at all. Will I ever give up eating meat entirely? Quite honestly, I do not think so, but neither do I rule it out. Ultimately time will tell.
I do not say this is a requirement for all to pursue — to insist is not my way. But I can’t see any reason not to encourage this for those who wish to try it, to consider your options and take chances where affordable and possible. It seems to me that the only thing I have lost in going this route is, in fact, weight — 25 pounds less than where I was two years ago. You can darn well believe I feel better all around for that reason alone.