Friday, October 22, 2010

A Closet Vegetarian

I love to cook, and in my kitchen (when I have one), I observe three rules:
1. Food should be cooked with butter and love (an old Dutch saying).
2. Fat equals flavour.
3. If it tastes good, it’s probably good for you.

Heresy, no doubt, yet here I am, at 53, never having suffered any major illnesses and weighing what I did when I was fourteen years of age. (In case you’re interested, a slender sixty-eight—kilograms, that is; in pounds, about one-fifty).

What’s my secret?

Well, the time has come to publicly announce it: I'm a closet vegetarian. Not vegan—that’s too pious for my tastes—just somebody who hankers after legumes, grains and vegetables. Rule #2 should clue you in I'm not averse to flesh. My recipe for tourtière (meat pies made at Christmas in Québec) clearly states: For maximum flavour, do not drain the browned veal, pork, and beef... And, truth is, when cooking for a carnivore, I like the meat. Of course I do. Who doesn’t?

But on my own, with no one else’s palate to consider, weeks and sometimes months go by without my purchasing so much as ground pork or a minute steak. It’s more than just my preference. Products from the meat aisle are a terrible economy.

Consider this. Yesterday, I made a batch of chili beans and rice, with cornbread on the side. It’s a little hard to judge, but I'd guess the meal’s total cost was somewhere in the neighbourhood of five to seven dollars. It wasn’t just for me; James, his girlfriend, John and I all ate. I had seconds, and there’s still some in the fridge. I'll be eating it tonight.

All that food for five to seven dollars—impossible with meat. But as I discovered long ago, living poor and eating well need not be incompatible. All you have to do is be a closet vegetarian.

* * *

The ongoing emphasis on supposed health concerns in the meat vs meatless debate seems, at times, designed to distract from a single, unassailable fact: planet Earth cannot sustain our present rate of meat consumption.

Frances Moore Lappé brought the problem to the world’s attention forty years ago in the now-classic Diet for a Small Planet. Her argument—more a statement of the obvious than thesis—was that raising meat’s an unsustainable misuse of global agricultural resources. If the total land required for a single steer is five to six acres, how many more people could be fed if real crops were grown on that same land? The answer is, a shitload (even if that’s not her word). As a protein factory, a cow’s about as fuel efficient as an SUV. More importantly, according to Lappé (and science backs her up), protein from a cow, or pig, or sheep, or chicken isn’t any “better”, isn’t more “required”, than protein from a lentil stew.

Thus Lappé proposed a simple, implementable solution to the problem of a growing population and shrinking agricultural resources: eat plants, not animals.

Unfortunately, Lappé was a sociologist, not a physiologist or doctor, and her book got bogged down in discussions of what she called complementary proteins. Basically, according to Lappé, the “complete” protein found in animal flesh isn’t present in any single plant-source food. However, combining certain plant-source foods (legumes, grains and nuts, primarily), creates a mix-’n-match of partial proteins that, together, are complete.

Lappé was wrong about the proteins—in a good way—and declared it publicly. In the 1981 edition of Diet, she states unequivocally:

“In 1971...I gave the impression that in order to get enough protein without meat, considerable care was needed in choosing foods. Actually, it is much easier than I thought.
With three important exceptions, there is little danger of protein deficiency in a plant food diet. The exceptions are diets very heavily dependent on [1] fruit or on [2] some tubers, such as sweet potatoes or cassava, or on [3] junk food (refined flours, sugars, and fat)...In all other diets, if people are getting enough calories, they are virtually certain of getting enough protein.”

In short, any reasonably balanced diet, including one consisting exclusively of plant foods, is perfectly capable of sustaining the human organism. Thus there is no need for meat. Desire, yes—a juicy steak’s a treat, no doubt about it. And we need our treats, our little luxuries: man does not live by bread alone. But to mistake a luxury for need is an addiction, and addictions have a habit of consuming the addicted.

In my case, breaking the addiction—which, admittedly, was never very strong—happened of necessity because I'm living poor. Increasingly, I understand why nowhere is it written: Blessed are the rich. The poor aren’t eating planet Earth to death.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The simple joys of Irish soda bread

My first lover, Andrew, liked to say that poverty’s a state of mind. We were young then, with a lot of growing up to do. His arrogance was unintentional. It should not detract from what he meant, that getting by with very little doesn’t have to mean you’re poor. Once the basics have been covered—food, shelter, clothing, company—failure of imagination is a poverty far worse than lack of funds.

Living poor imposes disciplines: budgeting your every penny, legwork in the search for bargains, making things the lazy buy, learning how to get the most from everything. (Just like hip-hop fashion, the eco-mantra of the monied urbanite, Reduce, Re-use, Recycle, was ransacked from the poor.) But the discipline that matters most is learning to extract the maximum of pleasure from the simplest of things.

Take bread. Not for nothing is it called the staff of life. It fills the belly amply and is packed with nutrients, assuming that we’re talking about real bread, not Wonderbread, of which a friend of mine is fond of saying that the wonder is they call it bread.

The problem is, with good bread, that it’s costly. If you have the money for it, sure, there’s bound to be a baker somewhere in your neighbourhood who’ll charge you seven dollars for a multi-grain delight. He might even have a sign outside his shop that says Artisanal, implying that his wares are lovingly handcrafted in the good old peasant manner. Funny how, as our society grows fat, the artefacts of peasantry cost more and more.

But if you haven’t got the money, what are you to do? Stealing’s out—not everyone is suited for the life of Jean Valjean—so the answer is: you make it.

Many people are intimidated by the thought of making bread. And, without a doubt, yeast breads are a challenge. But why think only yeast? The Irish in the 19th century came up with something simpler that’s a joy to bake and awesome in its humble purity: Irish soda bread.

There are recipes out there that call themselves authentic but require things like butter, sugar, currants, citrus peel and spices. Don’t be fooled. Irish soda bread has only four ingredients: flour, soda, salt and soured milk. Through some miracle or magic they produce a loaf that’s ready for the cover of Bon Appetit, smells wheat-y and delicious, has a moist and chewy crumb, and makes fantastic toast. Every time I bake it I'm astounded. The pleasure never dies. My taste buds don’t get jaded and my nose is always eager for communion with the smell of wheat, a hallmark of good soda bread.

The discipline of living poor. Learning how to take delight in what you have, in what you make, in what you can afford. Get that right, and every day, if only for a moment, you are richer than Bill Gates.

* * *

The canonical recipe for Irish soda bread is four cups of soft, white flour, one teaspoon of baking soda, one teaspoon of salt, and fourteen fluid ounces of soured milk (originally buttermilk, but like so many staples, buttermilk’s now priced as if it’s Devon Cream). I like whole wheat breads, so the recipe below has some adjustments.

Whole Wheat Soda Bread

2 cups all-purpose flour
1-1/2 cups whole wheat flour
1-3/4 cups milk, soured with 1-2 tbsp vinegar
1 tsp salt
1-1/2 tsp baking soda

Preheat oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit. Butter and flour the bottom of a round 8- or 9-inch cake pan. Sift the dry ingredients into a large bowl and make a well in the middle. Add the soured milk and mix.

Turn the sticky dough onto a floured surface and knead gently for a minute or so. Form into a ball, smooth, and cut a deep cross into the top.

Place the bread-to-be in the prepared cake pan, invert another pan of the same size overtop, and bake for forty minutes. Remove from pan and cover with a damp cloth while it cools.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Programming or crack cocaine?

I've been silent for a while, but not inactive. Programming—again. Several years ago, I wrote a macroset for groff, and periodically, I have the urge to make it better.

Groff (”gee-roff”) is a typesetting and document formatting system used primarily in Unix-type environments such as GNU/Linux. It’s wildly powerful in a primitive sort of way, and comes with its own programming language. The language allows you to create deceptively simple commands that perform extraordinarily complex and precise typesetting operations. The commands are called macros, and any reasonably complete set of them is like a programme unto itself.

Groff is also free, open-source software. That means you never have to pay for it, the source code is always available, and you’re free to copy, modify and re-distribute it to your heart’s content. Free, open-source software is written and maintained by volunteers, or, more commonly, communities of volunteers.

There aren’t a lot of groff experts out there, just a handful scattered round the globe. We use a mailing list to stay in touch. The members on the list are amongst the most intelligent, thoughtful, helpful, diplomatic and ego-free people I have ever had the pleasure of not meeting face-to-face.

(It’s really quite remarkable, our little list, a paradigm for everything that’s good about the Internet, or was, until the Web got bogged down with the drivel known as social networking.)

The thing about open-source programming is that it’s work—hard work—and carries with it a degree of responsibility far in excess of what a pay cheque can instill. You write a programme, put it out there, people start to use it, and suddenly, it’s no longer optional whether—or when—you work on it. People are relying on you. You can’t have somebody report a bug and leave them stranded. You you have deal with it right away.

The same holds true of features. If all that’s standing in the way of someone finishing their thesis and submitting it in timely fashion is a feature missing from your programme, as was recently the case with “mom”, my macroset, you can’t just say: “I'll implement it later.” Tough or not, you add it right away. That’s the contract that exists between developers of open-source and users, and why open-source beats closed-source (think Windows) hands down every time.

* * *

I cannot really call myself a programmer, even though I like to programme. I'm an amateur without the slightest bit of formal training. But the challenge of it calls to me. Programmes are like free-form model airplane kits. You’re handed all the pieces with a tube of if-else-then-and-while glue; from there, it’s up to you to figure out the plane you want and how to make it fly.

The process uses both sides of the brain, and, for that reason, is addictive. Days and sometimes weeks go by while everything recedes into the distance. Your world is circumscribed by clicking keys and pale glow from a monitor. You go to sleep distressed by some intractability, and wake up with Eurekas! You know only two emotions: satisfaction and despair. Even when you should get up and stretch your legs or spend some time with friends, you carry on, obsessed with nagging details, obsessed with getting done.

In the end, of course, you finish. Stamina has long ago replaced the high you started with, but still there’s strength to pump the air and utter a soft Ye-ess of quiet pride.

* * *

That’s where I have been the past few weeks. It’s over now. Slowly I'm returning to reality. Once again the blog-voice will be speaking.