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.

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