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We love labels. March 10, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in recipes, wit and wisdom.
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We humans just love to label ourselves. And that’s never more true than in our dietary habits.

Silence Dogood here. Humans are all born omnivores—pretty much capable of eating anything they can get their hands on. We share this useful adaptive trait with apes and monkeys, dogs, bears, parrots, rats, and flies, among others. It helped our species spread and thrive wherever there was anything edible to be found.

Of course, some of us are more omnivorous than others. There are those with intolerances, such as to lactose or gluten, and those with allergies, as to peanuts or shellfish. These people have labels, but they’re not of their choosing. And there are people who won’t eat certain foods like pork and seafood for religious reasons. It’s the rest of us I’m writing about here.

Take me. I’m a vegetarian. This means that I choose to avoid all types of meat and foods containing meat products (such as lard and gelatin). But I’ll eat sterile eggs from free-range hens if they’re organic and the hens haven’t eaten feed enriched with fish offal to up the eggs’ omega-3 content. And I’ll eat organic dairy products from humanely raised cows. This is quite different from vegans, who are basically vegetarians who also won’t eat eggs, dairy, honey, or any other animal derivative. Vegans typically make their food choices for moral reasons, while vegetarians may make theirs for moral or health reasons.

Then there are piscatarians (from pisces, fish), who refrain from all meat but fish and seafood. Since killing and eating fish and seafood is the same as killing and eating other animals for meat, I presume that these folks follow this lifestyle for health rather than moral reasons.

Next come the flexitarians, who sometimes eat meat and sometimes don’t, as it suits them. Basically, they’re omnivores who wanted to call themselves by a fancier name.

Let’s not forget the locavores, omnivores who pride themselves on eating what’s in season in their immediate area. While I applaud everyone who supports local farms and wineries, who patronizes their local farmers’ markets, who joins a CSA (subscription produce farm, typically organic), and the like, unless you live in a warm climate or are really invested in canning and freezing in season, winter can be rather bleak for those of us trying to eat out of our gardens or local farmers’ gardens when we’re buried under two feet of ice and snow for three months.

Today, I discovered a new label for people who want to set themselves apart from the omnivorous herd. These people are omnivores, too, but they’ve chosen to call themselves “nutritarians,” to emphasize the wholesome nature of their diet, i.e., stripping all the life and flavor out of food in the name of nutritional guidelines. The sample recipe I saw was horrifying to behold. It was a dish containing kale, potatoes, carrots, two kinds of legumes (black beans and chickpeas), onion, and garlic.

I read on because I could see how to make it a good dish—saute the onion and garlic in olive oil, and when the onion had clarified, add the kale and seasonings (red pepper flakes, fresh-cracked black pepper, salt, oregano, thyme, basil, and rosemary), cooking just until the kale turned shiny bright green. Meanwhile, boil the potatoes and sliced carrots until soft but not mushy. Quarter the potatoes and stir them, the carrots, and the canned beans into the kale-onion-garlic mix, heat until the beans were heated through, then serve.

But no. The “nutritarian” had noted that she’d modified a friend’s recipe to fit nutritarian guidelines, which meant that all the ingredients (minus the oil and most of the seasonings) were boiled together at the same time, then served up as a kind of stewed slop. Eeeewww!!! Doesn’t this person realize that olive oil and seasonings are good for you, making food more digestible as well as more flavorful?! Guess not.

Whatever the case, maybe it’s time to stop labeling ourselves and just eat.

‘Til next time,

Silence

A vegan who eats meat. February 19, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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“I’m a vegan who eats meat.”

Silence Dogood here. Browsing some cookbook reviews on Amazon yesterday, I came on one that began with the sentence I quote above. What the bleep?! Was the person being sarcastic? Had they given up dairy and eggs, and thus considered themselves to be “vegan” while still chowing down on burgers and steak? Or were they just, like most of us, confused?

I decided to take a stab at clarifying the dietary definitions bombarding us these days, with new ones seemingly cropping up daily. Here’s my list:

Omnivores. Humanity’s natural state—a state we share with bears, dogs, monkeys and apes, pigs, chickens, rats, and many others—in which we’ll eat anything as long as we can get our hands on it and it’s edible. 

Locavores. Those who eat foods they can source locally or regionally. Locavores can be omnivores, vegetarians, vegans, or any of the other categories that follow. 

Flexitarians. People who are vegetarian, except when they want to eat meat. (“I’m a vegetarian who eats meat.”) In other words, omnivores who eat less meat than other omnivores.

Piscatarians. People who eat fish and seafood but not meat. From the Latin pisces, fish.

Vegetarians. People who don’t eat meat, fish, seafood, or derivatives that involve taking life, including meat stocks and broths, gelatin products, products made from animal rennet, fertile eggs, caviar, and etc. Vegetarians will eat dairy and/or infertile hens’ eggs.

Vegans. In addition to the prohibitions followed by vegetarians, vegans don’t eat dairy, eggs, honey, and anything made with yeast. They also won’t wear leather, fur, and, I assume, silk. Needless to say, there is no such thing as “a vegan who eats meat.” 

Raw foodists. As the name implies, these folks won’t eat anything that’s been cooked. I assume they’re vegans, but for all I know, they may be wolfing down sashimi, steak tartare and wichitti grubs with the best of them.

Fruitarians. These gentle, super-vegan souls refuse to eat anything that is still growing, including leaves, stems and roots. They’ll only eat seeds, nuts and fruits that would have dropped from the plant anyway. This means that tomatoes, corn, grapes, apples, peanuts and sunflower seeds are fair game, but carrots, onions, potatoes, spinach, asparagus, rhubarb, lettuce and the like are strictly verboten. 

Macrobiotics. I’ve saved this one for last because it’s so much more complicated than the others. In some ways, it’s closest to a healthy vegan diet, but it appears to be like that solely for health rather than moral reasons, since, though it bans meat and shellfish, white-fleshed fish is allowed.

A vegan, after all, could subsist on peanut butter and jelly, potato chips, and chocolate, and be perfectly entitled to call themselves vegan, as long as it wasn’t milk chocolate and the chips hadn’t been fried in lard. People who follow macrobiotics are on a different path, one based in pre-industrial Japanese eating habits.

To be macrobiotic, you must embrace a truly health-conscious diet, including whole grains, beans, green leafy vegetables, winter squash, sea vegetables, and traditionally made soy foods like miso and tofu. The emphasis is on eating seasonally and moderately, eating fresh, whole foods, and choosing organic, local food sources.

All this makes sense. Where macrobiotics differs from other diets is its focus on matching food to climate. It divides the world into temperate (four-season) and tropical (two-season) climates, and advises its adherents to eat the foods produced in the climate where they live. Here in our part of scenic PA, tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, sweet potatoes, okra, eggplant, bananas, cashews, coconut, pistachios, mangos, figs, citrus, pineapple, artichokes, zucchini, and asparagus, not to mention most herbs and spices, coffee, black and green tea, herb teas, chocolate, and frozen foods, among many others, are banned. Which means that even though your garden here in PA is bursting with asparagus, tomatoes, eggplant, and peppers, you’re not supposed to eat them. The reverse would be true if you lived in a tropical climate. What you should eat if you’re a native of India, Guatemala or Mississippi who moves to Vermont, I have no idea. 

Has this helped, or simply confused the issue even further? If I’m missing any categories, please fill me in!

                      ‘Til next time,

                                    Silence

A place for fast food. December 19, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in chickens, homesteading, Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. Last night, I rushed home after a busy day of visits and errands. My mission, should I choose to accept it: to make a hot, delicious supper for six people in less than an hour. To say that this was stressful is an understatement, but I was undaunted: I knew I could do it, thanks to modern technology.

Armed with cans of black beans and crushed tomatoes, and several bags of various salad combinations, supper was a snap: Saute several diced onions and green peppers in olive oil with black mustardseed, cumin, oregano, lemon pepper, and Trocomare; toss in a huge can or two of black beans and a big can of crushed tomatoes; add some veggie stock and hot fresh salsa (two of my other favorite grocery convenience foods) and a big splash of lemon juice (I like bottled Key lemon juice); stir, mash, stir, and allow to mellow on low heat. Meanwhile, mix bags of Romaine lettuce and baby greens, add a chopped orange bell pepper, crumbled feta cheese, pepitas, olives, hard-boiled eggs, and scallions. Our friend Carolyn provided salad dressings and hot cornbread, and her brother Rudy brought wine. We brought sour cream and shredded cheese (yet another convenience food) for the soup, and before we knew it, the six of us were sitting down to a delicious dinner.

There are many arguments against prepared foods, and one of them is price. If you’re on a budget like us, spending big bucks for convenience is usually just plain stupid. We have friends who wouldn’t dream of buying canned beans when they could soak a bag of dried beans overnight and cook them for pennies a serving. We have friends we’ve never seen open a bag of prepared salad mix.

I say, keep your eyes open. I patronize a local grocery that often puts greens on sale for 99 cents a package (down from $3.99, and still perfectly fresh). Often, I’ve bought organic baby arugula, baby spinach, and many a salad mix for 99 cents when a head of chemically-grown iceberg lettuce was going for over two dollars. The same store has a “three for $5.99″ section where I’ve bought packages of locally-grown apples, pears, tomatoes, green beans, sweet onions, mushrooms, garlic, new potatoes, sweet potatoes, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and many another yummy veggie or fruit for a fraction of the price in other stores. They often have big discounts on canned beans, tomato products, and dried pasta, as does another local grocery, so I compare and stock up.

I do consider myself a from-scratch cook. I use basic ingredients, not mixes. I don’t buy fast-food meals from drive-by stores like Mickey D’s or KFC. But I feel no shame about using canned, frozen, and dried whole foods when they’re reasonably priced and save me time.

All this came to mind when I received an e-mail with an attachment for an article called “In Praise of Fast Food” by Rachel Laudan in The Gastronomica Reader, excerpted by The Utne Reader (http://www.utne.com/). Ms. Laudan’s reasons for supporting fast food are different from mine—I suggest you read her article and draw your own conclusions—but the article strongly brought to light the dichotomy between today’s slow-food locavores and the rest of us.

I mention this simply because I often think of the past in terms of creating convenience without guilt. Which is to say, everyone viewed time-saving and shelf life as untarnished positive developments before modern storage, shipping, and globalization made fresh food universally available year-round.

Think back with me to this era of seasonal abundance and seasonal scarcity for a moment. Imagine the thrill of canning or freezing food so it would keep until you needed it! Imagine pickling or preserving food so you could eat it out of season! Imagine making luscious white bread and using white sugar without even a clue about calories or health issues! Imagine buying butter from the store instead of having to churn your own! Imagine  the joy of welcoming new developments without ever once thinking, “Is this bad for me?”

To me, this period—roughly from the mid-1800s through the mid-1900s—was The Age of Innocence. The age where we could enjoy food without worrying about its consequences on our health, simply because, with the sole exceptions of gout and obesity, no one had a clue that food was other than healthful. If it tasted good, it was good, end of story.

I can see housewives rejoicing over white flour that didn’t quickly go rancid like whole-grain flours (in the pre-refrigeration era), eggs and dairy products delivered fresh to your door or sitting chilled and conveniently packaged in the refrigerated section of the grocery, canned and frozen foods that stayed good practically forever so you could stock your pantry and freezer and just grab what you needed. I can see them celebrating cake mixes, tea bags, bagged bread, sugar and salt that stayed granular rather than clumping, dried herbs and spices. I can see it all.

Ms. Laudan points out in “In Praise of Fast Food” that the glory days of fresh, seasonal, from-scratch eating were only glorious for the wealthy, who could afford to buy all the food that the peasants produced, leaving them to try to get by on scraps and shavings. She didn’t add, but I will, that in bad years, even the wealthy went hungry as a result of crop failures, and everyone else pretty much starved.

And we’re not just talking about the Middle Ages here. Much as I loved Little Women as a girl—it was probably my favorite book—I was shocked and haunted by the March family’s obvious hunger and lack of even common necessities during the brutal winter that opens the book. Pre-convenience foods, the larder often was empty.

To me, eating locally produced produce and foods that support our neighbors and our local economy seems an appropriate and moral thing to do from every perspective. After all, if someone in my area wanted an expert editing job, I’d certainly appreciate it if they came to me rather than outsourcing their work to New York or L.A. In turn, I could put the money they paid me into other local enterprises, and with everyone’s cooperation, our little community might become more self-sustaining.

But I agree with Ms. Laudan that it’s a luxury, just as my being a vegetarian is a luxury, made possible by an abundance of delicious produce, dairy products, and grains provided daily to our grocery stores by modern technology. I can take the moral high road only because my choice is supported by an abundance of resources, from farmers’ markets and organic CSAs to health-food stores and groceries that stock local products.

Were it not for them, I would be forced to resort to the full range of my omnivore inheritance or starve: eating the squirrels in our trees as well as the nuts that fall from them, raising chickens to butcher instead of coddling them through their long lives and gratefully enjoying their eggs, roaming the countryside in search of edible roots, herbs, shoots, berries, mushrooms, and greens to supplement what I could raise at home. Trying to barter eggs, preserves, salsa, or spaghetti sauce for enough of local farmers’ wheat and corn to provide our friend Ben and me with bread and the chickens with feed. Praying that someone nearby would grow dried beans to take the rest of us through the year, and that the dairy farmers could give us milk, butter, and cheese in return for money or barter.

And what if you didn’t live in farm country like we do? What if you didn’t own a grain mill, yogurt-maker, butter churn, or canning equipment? What if you didn’t have the time to use them if you did own them, because you had a family and (at least one) full-time job? 

No, you’ll never see me in a Dunkin’ Donuts, Wendy’s, Chick-Fil-A, or Taco Bell, or spot our little red VW Golf in the drive-up line. But yes, I am grateful every day for the fresh, pre-bagged, canned, frozen, juiced, and ground products that make it possible to cook delicious, healthy meals every time without spending all day, every day, trying to make it happen.

          ‘Til next time,

                      Silence

To label is human, to shut up, divine. January 28, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. I just read a blog post about “vaguetarians,” and of course it set me off. Maybe it’s because I had to work so hard and give up so much to become a vegetarian. But maybe it’s because I just don’t see the point.

We already have vegetarians, folks who don’t eat meat, fish, fertile eggs, gelatin, lard, caviar, etc. Then we have vegans, folks who don’t eat any of the above or any type of dairy product, egg, yeast bread, or honey. At the farthest extreme, there are fruitarians, who only eat fruits, berries, grains, rose hips, and other produce that would naturally fall off the plant, as opposed to killing plants in order to harvest them. (A fruitarian would eat squash or rice, but not lettuce or onions.) There are also locavores, folks who make a great effort to eat food produced locally, usually on small family-owned organic farms. (You can cross over here and be a vegetarian, vegan, or fruitarian locavore, if you enjoy amassing as many labels as possible.)

Then there are the folks who call themselves vegetarians but eat fish. Last time I checked, fish were in fact animals. Why these people would call themselves vegetarians is beyond me. I myself refer to them as “piscatarians” (as in Pisces).

But beyond the piscatarians, there’s a wide world of people screaming to be labeled. “I’m a vegetarian because I eat mostly vegetables.” (This is an actual quote.) “I’m a vegetarian; I only eat chicken and fish, no red meat or pork.” “I’m a vegetarian except when I eat hot dogs and hamburgers.” I’ve heard all these, many times over. This strikes me as akin to saying “I’m a teetotaler, except I drink beer and the occasional Scotch.” And now we have flexitarians, who’re vegetarians except when they’re not, and vaguetarians, who would sorta kinda like to be vegetarian, or at least have other people think of them in those terms, no matter what they’re eating.

By the time we reach this point, I have to ask, why?!! Why seek out a label for yourself when you basically eat anything and/or everything, just at graduated intervals? Why not skip the label and just eat?

Simply have to have that label? Not a problem, we already have one for you. It’s the oldest and most inherent label around, the eating style that enabled us (and monkeys, parrots, pigs, chickens, dogs, bears, and many others) to survive and thrive, wherever we found ourselves. It’s been raised to an art form by celebrity chefs, and celebrated in local cuisines the world over. So if you must have a label, wear it with pride. When someone asks, “Are you a vegetarian/vegan/locavore/whatever?”, smile and say, “No, I’m an omnivore. I enjoy it all.”

                  ‘Til next time,

                              Silence

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