It’s a Sunday evening in early January, the month of resolutions, and I’m knocking back a slice of pepperoni pizza …
All through the fall, I had been having the “vegetarian talk” with my people.
My husband responded to these talks by announcing he wanted to buy another organic, pasture-raised cow. My son looked at me with the quizzical non-judgmental judgment of a smirking millennial and said: “You do you, mom.”
Clearly, I was going to be alone in my quest to save the animals, leave a better footprint, and maybe enjoy the fruits of an upgraded diet.
It is not the first time I’ve gone the way of avoiding meat.
My kids, who have no memory of me being a vegetarian because they were too young, were the reason I embraced it the first time.
Dr. Dean Ornish had just published his book “Eat More Weigh Less,” and I read it without realizing he was espousing vegetarianism. I just wanted to literally eat more and weigh less. I had 6 weeks to prove to the Army that by making two, over 9-pound babies only 16 months apart, and spending 127 days on bed rest, I had not become any less of a soldier than someone shall we say … less productive?
You know: a soldier incapable of growing, incubating and birthing not one but two whole new human beings.
Anyway, Ornish went on to become a leader and visionary in America’s emerging food-is-medicine movement. I lost the weight, passed the Army’s physical fitness test, and went on to become an ordinary woman who has maintained a constant fascination with all things food and health. But I also morphed into a lazy vegetarian who relied on pasta and Pringles over actual vegetables. And after about 2 years, I found myself hungry all the time and returned to a “normal” diet. I did not really own the concept that a vegetarian was not just a person who didn’t eat meat. It was a person who consumed actual vegetables. Broccoli, spinach, carrots (and not in a cake) …
Now I understand that being a vegetarian has many, many layers …
Anyway, we order pizza almost every Sunday, and on this first Sunday in January 2018, I was 6 days into the meatless thing.
Three slices of mushroom and onion had left me wanting, so I went back for a teeny tiny slice of pepperoni. My cow-buying-I’m-afraid-of-it-if-it’s-not-meatloaf-and-mashed-potatoes-husband looks at me, chowing down and chuckles/asks:
“How’s your vegetarian pizza?”
I married him for his sense of humor and the cute look he gets when he’s particularly proud of a witticism. This was one such moment.
The vein was popping out on his forehead; he was laughing so hard at his own joke.
Two points for the peacefully unaware, magical-thinking group who buy the stacked, tidy styrofoam packages of protein in America’s expansive meat counters (or procure 1/4th of a pasture-raised cow) without the burden of considering that those packages were once living, breathing, sentient beings who like to hang out with their friends. Or that we are wreaking havoc on both the planet and our health by mass-producing cows, pigs, and chickens.
The older I get and the more educated I become about what really happens to get food on Amercian’s table, the harder it is for me to ignore the backstory of my steak and the harder it becomes to eat it with the gusto I once did.
Sometimes I’m envious of Jim’s simplicity. He pretty much just wants his food to taste good and be comforting. If someone else cooks it for him, all the better.
Me? I look at food and wonder about the intricate weave of climate, geography, survival, human creativity, economics, war, occupation, conquest, infrastructure, marketing, water availability, electricity availability and farming, spicing, and cooking knowledge that are, in fact, just a few of the determinants of what and how something ends up on the table.
(You would have wanted me in your ancestral tribe: I would have tasted that poisonous shit and you and the rest of the tribe would have been saved …)
I realize that living in Midwest America gives me an understanding and access to food most of the world does not enjoy.
If I was living in the far reaches of Alaska, I’d certainly be a huge meat or whale eater. If I lived by equatorial water, seafood would be a regular. And if I was scratching a living out of an inhospitable mountainside I would certainly be eating whatever was available there. Yak butter tea comes to mind …
But I live where food is cheap and abundant, and we have a 66 billion dollar diet/ weight loss industry and where we spend trillions of dollars in health care on chronic diseases related to our food choices. I live where we are so backward about food that it’s the organic farmers who have to jump through hoops and pay to earn their organic label.
Shouldn’t it be the other way around?
Shouldn’t everybody else have to label their food “Grown with pesticides that are likely poisoning you and the earth” or raised with “antibiotics and hormones that might still be there after you cook it.” ??
One time (Circa 2014) the entire OR crew was laughing at me for making my own bone broth when I was recovering from an orthopedic injury. I was describing the process of making the broth and the purported health benefits. These educated people, my friends, my crew, turned on me en masse with righteous disbelief over the inane ridiculousness of my quest.
I should point out: all of us in the room that day had gathered there for the specific purpose of me rendering the patient insensate so the surgical team could cut off the ends of three bones and replace said ends with plastic and steel.
But consuming a broth that has likely sustained humankind for millennia is fringe.
America is detached from their food in a way most people of the world would never understand. But we, unaware of having abdicated our stakeholdership in our food are also unaware of the staggering, accumulative impact of our food choices.
After > 25 years in the operating room, I can tell you, it is usually not the vegetarians/mostly plant eaters that show up ready to be relieved of their gall bladders, original knees, hips, or needing a new left main.
And I’m not telling you becoming a vegetarian makes you a better person or will cure illness.
I’m telling you eating more plants is a good idea.
Even if it feels weird or hurts a few times. Change is good. It keeps you supple.
So it’s mid-February now and I admit to not being a strict vegetarian. If you must know, there are grass-fed beef steaks being thawed for dinner even as I type and I’ll eat some. But over the course of 2018, I will drastically decrease my dependence on animal protein and become what I’ve decided is a “plantatarian”.
Meaning someone who eats mostly plants and is reducing their participation in the standard American meat/chicken/pork industry. A Plantatarian is also a peaceful person uninterested in condemning people for their food choices but wildly committed to expanding the concept that what we eat matters and if you are lucky enough to live where food is abundant you have a responsibility to thoughtfully consider your choices.
Micheal Pollen has had the right idea for a long time. “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
The bottom line is, I think human beings can thrive on just about anything as long as it’s real, harvested from the earth, and largely left alone until you cook it.
So Pringles are not food but homemade potato chips are. And isolated whey protein powder is barely food but whole-fat organic milk might have a place. (As long as you think you need the milk designed for another species’ babies.) An affordable package of ordinary chicken breasts, while a mainstay of many people’s diet is, in my opinion, food-like but a ridiculously expensive whole, free-range bird is actual food. And processed things like “vegetarian chicken patties”? Might as well reach for the Pringles.
I’ll keep you updated as I slowly ease into a person who figures out how to feel full on vegetables and fruits vs pasta and bread.
But don’t worry: I live with committed meat eaters who like many Americans “need their protein” and I like experimenting with all sorts of food too much to limit the recipes to just veggies.
Here are some of the sources that have informed my food and nutritional philosophy through the years. (If you buy one on a clickthrough from BurntPorkChops, Amazon throws a couple cents my way. )
“Plants are good” documentaries include but are not limited to this list.