Have I moved to Austin? No, Hank, but it’s a thought.
I haven’t posted in a long, long while not because I’ve been tempted to move geographically, but because I have been contemplating a more fundamental shift – philosophical, ethical, spiritual, or perhaps merely culinary.
For more than 25 years I have called myself a vegetarian – a vegetarian with a profound passion for vegetables but one who also eats eggs, dairy products, and fish, which I guess means I was never a true vegetarian to begin with.
Especially because I also eat sauces that include various meat broths and beans that include lard and the odd bite of Thanksgiving Day turkey or a forbidden and guilty bite of foie gras and, for the first ten years or so, a very occasional filet mignon.
And did I mention that I consider bacon an honorary vegetable?
I fear the sad truth is that I am just a picky eater. I always loved vegetables as a kid but was squeamish about meat. Didn’t like dark meat chicken or anything fatty or gristly. In the natural course of events I’d have probably grown out of this without incident, but my father, in a streak of food sadism, made the price of having more white meat chicken having some dark as well, and more French fries meant more stringy steak. Maybe I had weak teeth or something, but my plate was always littered with half-chewed bits of food that I couldn’t get down. If this grosses you out, well then you can imagine how I felt too.
I became a vegetarian in rebellion and self defense.
The funny thing is that, though my sole motivation for giving up meat was to save myself from tyranny in the home, the longer I didn’t eat meat, the easier it became to look cows in the eye, and to enjoy the sight of foolish lambs in the spring, and even to greet the various chickens who have occasionally crossed my path with a clean conscience.
I kind of backed into vegetarianism, but when I got there I liked it and I liked who I was.
So that was me for the last 25 years or so. Madly in love with cooking and eating and reading and teaching about food and possessed of an extravagant obsession with vegetables. I am madly in love with a carnivore as well, however, so occasionally and tentatively I have ventured out to brine a turkey, or braise a leg of lamb or pork shoulder, or barbeque some venison -- always from a comfortable “cook but don’t taste” distance.
In recent years I have made sure that the meat I did cook was local, if at all possible, or at least raised organically, sustainably, and humanely. That kept me on good terms with cows and pigs. Still, I was not tempted to eat them.
And then two things happened. I got seriously hooked on braising and I read The Omnivore’s Dilemma.
Braising fascinates me – a slow cook that transforms tough fibrous meat into rich and flavorful, falling-off-the bone succulence. My kind of meat, if there ever was one. I’ve been playing with it off and on lately: milk braised pork, lamb braised with a ton of garlic, braised beef in red wine. The house has been infused with mysterious and enticing smells as I have browned and sizzled and simmered the days away, and the urge to eat it has grown strong.
And then I read The Omnivore’s Dilemma. The book that had the effect of turning huge parts of the population off meat seemed to have the opposite effect on me. I loved the book, but I was not surprised by much that Pollan wrote. I already made the food choices that he advocates – local first, organic and sustainable wherever possible. I am an active Slow Food member; I put my money where my mouth is.
Maybe it was just the inescapable reminder that I am designed by nature to be an omnivore; maybe the understanding that if we weren’t meat eaters, many creatures would never be born in the first place; maybe the notion that if done right, eating meat is part of a natural cycle of life and death that has nothing to do with slabs of flesh in white Styrofoam containers and cellophane, and everything to do with a farmer friend bringing me a chicken raised on feed she prepares by hand, or a market farmer telling me “My animals live a wonderful life. They just have one really bad day.”
All us creatures should be so lucky.
So my relationship with meat eating has been up in the air of late. For a friend’s birthday dinner recently, I ordered some huge steaks from Niman Ranch and as I counted up the five meat eaters who would be there, I thought what the heck.
I’d been on the edge for months and it just seemed like the right time to jump. I ordered six.
I guess I kind of thought something would happen when I ate that steak. That it would be so delicious that I would be visited by a revelation, like those I-could-of-had-a-V8 commercials; that I would joyfully rejoin the ranks of meat eaters; that at the least my stomach might notice that I was feeding it something new.
And instead, nothing. An anticlimax if there ever was one. The steak was good (though in retrospect my electric stove doesn't get hot enough -- we should have cooked them on the grill) but my mind was really on the frites (I seriously love a good French fry, and these were good.). And the braised endive. And the roasted vegetables. The steak filled me up and left me with less room for the stuff I really like.
Am I a meat eater? I guess. A poultry eater, for sure. I ate farm chickens in France last month and I had some really good fried chicken at Joe Huber’s Restaurant in Starlight, Indiana, last Sunday and I still have that braising fixation – there’s my friend’s chicken in my freezer that I have plans to turn into a rich and tasty coq au vin, and I’ve been craving the smell, if not the taste, of simmering stracotto – an Italian pot roast that I shred and serve with pasta.
Michael Pollan used a word I hadn’t heard in a recent New York Times article – “flexitarian” – a vegetarian who occasionally eats meat. I guess that’s what I am.
I’ve kind of backed into flexitarianism, though. I don’t yet know the terrain, or who I am here, and that has kind of rocked me. So, with all this percolating through my mind and my heart, I have been tongue-tied lately, and silent on the blogging front. I’ll try to do better.