This past week we’ve been taking part in National Vegetarian Week, an annual event that raises awareness of vegetarianism and encourages people to try it. And it’s not difficult, from my own experience, but from the way people talk about it you’d think it was. We’ve become so used to cooking with meat that we find it somehow a great challenge not to. We feel like the heart of the meal is missing. There are a couple of easy solutions to getting by with no meat or less meat.
The first is to understand nutrition better. When I’ve talked to friends about this, one of the most common comments has been about protein – where do you get your protein from? We readily associate protein with meat, but it’s found in eggs, cheese, milk, legumes, beans, nuts, rice, bread, all sorts of things. In his book ‘Beyond Beef: the rise and fall of cattle culture’, Jeremy Rifkin points out that 40% of Americans’ protein used to come from grains. As meat has become cheaper through more industrial production, the amount of animal protein in our diets has gone up, and protein from grains is now somewhere around 17%. You can eat less meat without ever compromising nutrition, but you do need to think about what you eat a little more, and be more planned.
Secondly, we need to cook more creatively. A common perception of vegetarian food is that it is boring, plain, righteous food. There are several reasons for this, I reckon. One is that vegetarian options are often defined by what is missing from them, rather than what they are – ‘meat free’ dishes, and than can devalue them a little. Another reason is that our experiences of vegetarian cooking often confirm our suspicions. In my experience, common meat substitutes such as quorn or tofu are rather bland, and if you’re used to cooking with chicken for example, you can’t swap one for the other and expect it to taste the same.
Most importantly though, it’s about the way we cook. If you think about your favourite meals, it’s quite likely that the meat is the item we put the most effort into. Many recipes take the meat as the starting point, and the vegetables are a sort of supporting act. More imagination is required if we’re going to make less meat a lasting strategy, and we need to learn to showcase vegetables better. Vary the range that you buy and cook with, try some new things. Grow fresh herbs and cook with those, you’ll get much more flavour than dried herbs. Try seasonal vegetables. When you pick up something new, experiment with it, roasting, boiling, grilling, stir-frying, eating it raw. Ignore your mother, and play with your food.
Those are my reflections on vegetarian cooking. For myself, I remain a conscientious omnivore. Because I grew up in Africa where all meat is free range, I know what good meat tastes like, and I’m not interested in cheap, industrial grade beef and chicken. It’s such a pale imitation of what meat can be that I’d rather not bother. (I eschew mangoes and lychees for similar reasons) At the moment I eat meat about once a week or so, and that’s good enough for me. I leave you with some quotes from some more learned people:
“Cutting our meat consumption by half would help align our diet with a more sustainable food economy. It is not difficult to eat less meat. Perhaps if meat was once more seen for what it is, a luxury food, just like chicken used to be, we’d see a step change.” (Tony Juniper, ‘How many light bulbs does it take to change a planet?’)
“Vegans and vegetarians draw clear lines by refusing to eat all, or some, animal products. Whenever they dine with others, that line is evident, so people are likely to ask them why they are not eating meat. That often leads to conversations that influence others, and so that good that we can do by boycotting factory farms can be multiplied by the numbers of others that we influence to do the same. When conscientious omnivores eat meat, however, their dietary choices are less evident.” (Peter Singer and Jim Mason, ‘Eating’)
“The only reasonable answer to the question of how much meat we should eat is as little as possible. Let’s reserve it – as most societies have done until recently – for special occasions.” (George Monbiot, ‘Credit crunch? The real crisis is global hunger. And if you care, eat less meat‘)
” The answer surely is to start cutting down our meat consumption, and, if not choosing vegetarianism, to return to a pattern of food consumption that mirrors habits before industrial farming took hold when meat was reserved for sundays and special occasions, rather than eaten every day of the week.” (Leo Hickman, ‘The Good Life’)
- Update: ‘More wealth, more meat‘ article on meat eating in China.