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Sectarian Eating


This past Thanksgiving I got two calls about vegetarian dishes. One was from a woman whose vegan nephew was coming to dinner and she wanted to know how to make a green bean casserole (the equivalent of that mushroom soup thing) without any animal products in it. The other was from a woman wanting to serve Tofurkey with all the trimmings.

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If you’re not clear on all the shades of vegetarianism (and it’s almost as confusing as the shades of Christianity). Vegans are the fundamentalists, they eschew all animal products — no butter, no cheese, no eggs, no milk, nothing that comes from an animal.PETA seems to be largely made up of these fundamentalists and, frankly, they’re a PITA (Pain In The Ass).

Less irritating are those who eat dairy products but not meat (lacto-vegetarians), those who eat eggs (ovo-vegetarians), those who eat fish (piscean-vegetarians or ‘fisheterians’), and those who simply avoid red meat (masochists). I’m not unsympathetic to the ethical quandaries that eating meat raises and in fact I have some admiration for the ethical purity (if not the philosophical underpinnings) of the PITA – sorry, PETA - folks. Like many people I went through a vegetarian period — very brief — as I worked through the issues.

So I was prepared to answer the woman with the bean question. I didn’t attempt to replicate the original recipe but instead came up with a brand new recipe that incorporated some of those flavors. The result was an honest dish that also happened to be free of animal products. Her comment at the time was, “That sounds like something you’d make for everyone.” I heard back from her a few days later and she reported that everyone loved the beans. Success!

The Tofurkey call was more problematic and, in the end, annoyed me. In essence, this cook wanted to serve a vegetarian meal and pretend it wasn’t. I was polite and, I hope, at least somewhat helpful, but she clearly didn’t accept my assertion that the meal would be far better if she didn’t try to fool her guests into thinking they were eating meat and meat products. Instead, I suggested she turn to some of the existing vegetarian cuisines (Indian in particular) and create her own genuine, deeply flavored, and unapologetic tradition.

What really bothered me about this woman was I don’t think she actually put faith – perhaps sincerity is a better word – behind her purported beliefs. Like Stephen Colbert, she was relying on her “gut” (pun intended) to make decisions about eating animals without the benefit of her intellect. She’s not alone. I have a vegetarian (of the ovo-lacto sect) acquaintance who won’t eat meat – she doesn’t think it’s “right” – but prepares it for her husband.

This flabbergasts me. What phenomenal hypocrisy!

Likes and dislikes are one thing. I don’t care for most internal organs, lima beans, and I’ve only enjoyed eggplant once in my life. I adore Brussels sprouts, turnip greens, pork cracklins’, and I’m learning to create dried bean dishes (something I once disliked) that are so wonderfully delicious they’ll have you going back again and again for “just one last bite” as the dish goes cold on the counter.

I don’t insist that everyone eat meat and have read a few writers who make a good case against the practice. As far as I’m concerned evolution has precedence, we evolved to eat meat and we’re also animals – no better or worse than a bear or wild boar. But we’ve also evolved to think and reason and have managed to invent philosophy, ethics, and morals along the way and if you choose to distinguish between human behavior and bear behavior that’s fine. But how does anyone decide it’s ok to eat fish but not chickens — or pigs? I’m still not clear why killing plants to eat them is alright. Isn’t killing killing? And if the issue is pain then animals also can be killed painlessly.

It’s the process of acquiring meat that seems to offend or disturb folks like the Tofurkey cook. Which raises a question: if you think eating a turkey is wrong, isn’t pretending to eat a turkey just as wrong? I see the difference in degree and result, but can’t detect a difference in kind. After all stealing a loaf of bread because you’re hungry isn’t fundamentally different from robbing a bank because you’re broke. Although the former may be more forgivable, it is still a theft.

So if you want to avoid meat and only eat vegetables – more power to you. There are thousands upon thousands of delicious ways of preparing vegetables that take advantage their special flavors. But don’t fall guilty to the hypocrisy of pretending vegetables are something they’re not. Enjoy beans as beans, not a plant protein substitute for meat proteins. Dress your pasta with a great olive oil, not a vegetable-oil-based butter substitute. Celebrate and pay tribute to the vegetableness of vegetables, this is honest eating, sincere eating. And if you want meat, eat meat.

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 5:00 AM | Permalink

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