The Flexitarian’s Dilemma

Stuff_020

 

Have I moved
to Austin?
  No, Hank, but it’s a thought.

I
haven’t posted in a long, long while not because I’ve been tempted to move
geographically, but because I have been contemplating a more fundamental shift
– philosophical, ethical, spiritual, or perhaps merely culinary.

For
more than 25 years I have called myself a vegetarian – a vegetarian with a
profound passion for vegetables but one who also eats eggs, dairy products, and
fish, which I guess means I was never a true vegetarian to begin with.

Especially
because I also eat sauces that include various meat broths and beans that include
lard and the odd bite of Thanksgiving Day turkey or a forbidden and guilty bite
of foie gras and, for the first ten years or so, a very occasional filet
mignon.

And
did I mention that I consider bacon an honorary vegetable?

I
fear the sad truth is that I am just a picky eater. I always loved vegetables as a kid but was
squeamish about meat. Didn’t like dark
meat chicken or anything fatty or gristly. In the natural course of events I’d have probably grown out of this
without incident, but my father, in a streak of food sadism, made the price of
having more white meat chicken having some dark as well, and more French fries
meant more stringy steak. Maybe I had weak teeth or something, but my plate was
always littered with half-chewed bits of food that I couldn’t get down. If this grosses you out, well then you can
imagine how I felt too.

I
became a vegetarian in rebellion and self defense.

The
funny thing is that, though my sole motivation for giving up meat was to save
myself from tyranny in the home, the longer I didn’t eat meat, the easier it became
to look cows in the eye, and to enjoy the sight of foolish lambs in the spring,
and even to greet the various chickens who have occasionally crossed my path
with a clean conscience.

I
kind of backed into vegetarianism, but when I got there I liked it and I liked
who I was.

So
that was me for the last 25 years or so. Madly in love with cooking and eating and reading and teaching about
food and possessed of an extravagant obsession with vegetables. I am madly in
love with a carnivore as well, however, so occasionally and tentatively I have
ventured out to brine a turkey, or braise a leg of lamb or pork shoulder, or barbeque
some venison — always from a comfortable “cook but don’t taste” distance.

In
recent years I have made sure that the meat I did cook was local, if at all
possible, or at least raised organically, sustainably, and humanely. That kept me on good terms with cows and
pigs. Still, I was not tempted to eat them.

And
then two things happened. I got
seriously hooked on braising and I read The
Omnivore’s Dilemma
.

Braising
fascinates me – a slow cook that transforms tough fibrous meat into rich and
flavorful, falling-off-the bone succulence. My kind of meat, if there ever was one. I’ve been playing with it off and on lately: milk braised pork, lamb
braised with a ton of garlic, braised beef in red wine. The house has been infused with mysterious
and enticing smells as I have browned and sizzled and simmered the days away,
and the urge to eat it has grown strong.

And
then I read The Omnivore’s Dilemma. The book that had the effect of turning huge
parts of the population off meat seemed to have the opposite effect on me. I loved the book, but I was not surprised by much
that Pollan wrote. I already made the
food choices that he advocates – local first, organic and sustainable wherever
possible. I am an active Slow Food
member; I put my money where my mouth is.

Maybe
it was just the inescapable reminder that I am designed by nature to be an
omnivore; maybe the understanding that if we weren’t meat eaters, many
creatures would never be born in the first place; maybe the notion that if done
right, eating meat is part of a natural cycle of life and death that has
nothing to do with slabs of flesh in white Styrofoam containers and cellophane,
and everything to do with a farmer friend bringing me a chicken raised on feed
she prepares by hand, or a market farmer telling me “My animals live a
wonderful life. They just have one
really bad day.”

All
us creatures should be so lucky.

So
my relationship with meat eating has been up in the air of late. For a friend’s birthday dinner recently, I
ordered some huge steaks from Niman Ranch and as I counted up the five meat
eaters who would be there, I thought what the heck.

I’d
been on the edge for months and it just seemed like the right time to
jump. I ordered six.

I
guess I kind of thought something would happen when I ate that steak. That it
would be so delicious that I would be visited by a revelation, like those
I-could-of-had-a-V8 commercials; that I would joyfully rejoin the ranks of meat
eaters; that at the least my stomach might notice that I was feeding it
something new.

And
instead, nothing. An anticlimax if there
ever was one. The steak was good (though in retrospect my electric stove doesn’t get hot enough — we should have cooked them on the grill) but my
mind was really on the frites (I seriously love a good French fry, and these
were good.). And the braised endive. And
the roasted vegetables. The steak filled
me up and left me with less room for the stuff I really like.

Am
I a meat eater? I guess. A poultry eater, for sure. I ate farm chickens in France last month and I
had some really good fried chicken at Joe Huber’s Restaurant in Starlight, Indiana, last
Sunday and I still have that braising fixation – there’s my friend’s chicken in
my freezer that I have plans to turn into a rich and tasty coq au vin, and I’ve
been craving the smell, if not the taste, of simmering stracotto – an Italian
pot roast that I shred and serve with pasta.

Michael
Pollan used a word I hadn’t heard in a recent New York Times article –
flexitarian” – a vegetarian who occasionally eats meat. I guess that’s what I
am.

I’ve
kind of backed into flexitarianism, though. I don’t yet know the terrain, or
who I am here, and that has kind of rocked me. So, with all this percolating through my mind and my heart, I have been
tongue-tied lately, and silent on the blogging front. I’ll try to do better.

7 Comments Add yours

  1. Lydia says:

    Thanks for sharing some of your thoughts on this topic. While I have strong food preferences, I’ve always advocating a range of what is available to us, using the “local first, then sustainable/organic” principle. Some days it looks like vegetarianism, some days it looks like steak city, but it is all about finding the balance that’s right for you. It’s the labels we put on ourselves that are dangerous.

    Like

  2. kevin says:

    I too am glad that you didn’t move to Austin and/or toss your computer out the window.
    Lydia before me stole my words I had ready about labels. As living, vibrant creatures who are mostly water and possess a brain that we only use a small portion of, labels just don’t work. Who we feel we are in one moment may change the next. Humans are just way too complex for labels on any particular area. Just be open and ready for the experience. I really love reading your posts and how honestly you share yourself with your readers. That makes for a very interesting blog and I selfishly hope that you continue to narrate your culinary journey with us!

    Like

  3. Ha! Be a flexitarian or whatever… just keep tellin’ us about it darlin! You got me reading “food blogs” and then you shut me down! Personally, I could not imagine a life without meat but completely respect your natural right to eat whatever you want… or not. Of course, I’m probably terrifically unhealthy and will, no doubt, be dead soon. So… again… I don’t have this kind of time between posts! : )
    Welcome back.

    Like

  4. flexitarian, vegetarian, vegan, omnivore, carnivore, ovo-lacto-blah blah blah… as long as you’re eating what you like, the labels don’t really matter.
    for years, i struggled with vegetarianism and veganism for the love of animals and my rabid need to stand for *something*, and i would go through what i now call “vegetarian phases” – starting out as a vegetarian, then evolving into a vegan (misery for a true carnivore). this would last for 2-3 years until i would snap and in a moment of desperation, i would order the steak or buy the chicken at the grocery. i’ve done this about 4-5 times in my adult life, but have finally given up the notion that i might one day be a good little vegan. honestly, i don’t eat all that much meat – it’s hardly ever in my shopping cart at the grocery, but it sure is nice to allow myself that option should i see a lovey tenderloin or a juicy t-bone at the butcher. i just like meat too much to swear it off for good.
    do what your body wants and i think you can’t go wrong. but sister, i understand your dilemma!

    Like

  5. Who knew? You were so excited about milk-braised carnitas I would have never guessed you didn’t eat meat. But I agree with the others, labels are silly. Just do what makes you happy and do what makes you feel like you’re being responsible to both your body and your community. It’s funny, the one time I labeled myself a vegetarian, I balked at the choice, lamenting every bite. But once I removed that shackle, I realized that while I don’t often eat meat, it’s nice to have the choice without getting wrapped up in guilt. And yes, bacon is indeed an honorary vegetable!

    Like

  6. Hey folks, thanks for these comments. These are all more thought-provking for me than the usual recipe or travel post comments and you won’t have heard the last of me on it, I am sure.
    For now I’ll just say that it isn’t the labels I am getting hung up on so much as the identity implications. I do an exercise with the kids in my class called “If we are what we eat, who are you?” Guess I am just trying to figure out who I am in light of the fact that I ate nearly a pound of bacon on Sunday.
    I had a bacon hangover yesterday. Really. Who the hell is this woman?

    Like

  7. Randi says:

    I havent eaten red meat( but I eat chicken and pork) in over 15yrs. Since moving to the country, its now even hard for me to eat pork because I see pigs all the time. Cows too and I couldnt even imagine eating them. They are just too darn cute!! I’m curious, did you get sick at all after eating your first steak?

    Like

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