Less Meat-i-tarian

 

My family enjoys the full range of God’s gifts of food. This means that we are an omnivore (omnivoric?) household, but try to be responsible about it (the title of this entry is how Mark Bittman describes his eating choices; we follow suit). We don’t eat a lot of meat. This is largely for financial reasons: we try not to purchase meat that isn’t organic, free-range, sustainably raised, and from humanely-treated animals.

This necessitates our eating meat much less often than the average American, who can pick up chicken thighs for 99 cents a pound (one of my favorite quotes is from Jamie Oliver: “A chicken, which was once a living being, shouldn’t cost less than a pint of beer”). Because we eat meat less often, and not from industrial production, we contribute to the reduction of all the nastiness that factory meat production brings to our world: environmental devastation (especially greenhouse gases), animal suffering/commodification, worker accidents/forced labor, and all the health problems that come from over-consumption of animal products.

Obviously one can contribute even more meaningfully to this reduction by becoming vegetarian. I salute my friends who have done so. I don’t for two reasons: one, I don’t believe it is wrong, in and of itself, to eat meat (see first sentence of this post); and two, I am voting with my dollars towards the changes I want to see. Boycotts don’t always work: the producers can just write off the people who don’t buy at all. But those of us still spending money on animal products have a real say – producers have a vested interest in pleasing us, as we are still customers.

It’s not easy, though, to find producers who treat their animals well, run a clean and open operation, don’t harm their workers, and work with nature, not against it. You can’t always trust a big corporation, even one like Whole Foods that seems to be really trying to change things. Just a quick overview of the “big organic” chapters in The Omnivore’s Dilemma will reveal just how confused and misleading the whole system has become.

For us, the solution was to join a ranch CSA. We eat meat usually twice a week, sometimes thrice. A box of their meat ($220 including a $20 drought supplement) lasts us at least 3 months, and includes premium items such as pork belly, whole brisket, incredible bacon, steaks, and the best hot dogs you will ever eat. Seriously. I actually started drooling thinking about them.

Talk to the farmers at your local market. If they don’t do a CSA you might be able to get one started; or if they do, joining it will be one of the best decisions you can make. To have almost all of your meat locally-sourced from a place where you personally know the farmers, who run an open operation and treat their animals well, is not only healthier and better for everyone involved, but it teaches your kids valuable lessons about honoring life and living in harmony with creation.

(I do still, btw, shop at Whole Foods for the 10% or so of meats I cannot get from the CSA, such as fish. It’s about taking steps, not being perfect.)

And if, by this teaching, one day my child announces that she cannot in good conscience eat meat any longer, I will honor her decision. Fortunately since I’ve tried (and failed) being both vegan and vegetarian, I have a great shelf of cookbooks to pass along.

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A Cruelty-Free Easter

I thought about titling this post “The Only Cruelty on Easter Should Be the Cross,” but that was a little long and not exactly liturgically accurate, seeing how Christ wasn’t crucified on Easter per se.

Pain to chocolate bunnies notwithstanding (but check out this cool slide show of fair trade, vegan, and organic candy options!), let’s consider a few ways to make this a more friendly holiday for all.

If you’ll be dyeing eggs this season, consider their source. This article lists some ways to find a humanely-produced egg.

Consider also the cruelty to your own body (or your kids’!) that comes of using artificial dyes that seep through the porous shell. Look here for a great tutorial on naturally coloring your eggs.

Finally, for Easter dinner, may I remind you of the succulent and healthful benefits of locally and sustainably raised meats from your friendly neighborhood rancher, or the abundance of delightful spring vegetables available at this time of year at your farmer’s market?

Easter celebrates new life. Let’s not taint it with cruelty and ugliness towards the earth, animals, or our fellow human beings.

My kitchen smells so goooooood….

Photo by Ree Drummond, The Pioneer Woman herself. I hope mine tastes as good as this looks.

…because I am cooking this:

The Pioneer Woman’s Spicy Dr. Pepper Shredded Pork

I’m making it for three reasons:

1) I live in Texas now, and I believe there is some kind of law here that you have to cook with Dr. Pepper on a regular basis. If there is not, there should be.

I know there’s a law that Dr. Pepper must be offered in every restaurant. I’m sure of it. Also there is an addendum that you should probably oughta offer Diet DP as well, to please the womenfolk, as they say.

This has been problematic for me, as Diet Dr Pepper is my achilles heel when it comes to what I affectionately term “cancer juice.” Yes, I am powerless before its strange chemical-laden flavor profile and tiny, tiny bubbles. To hold the Big C at bay, I have promised myself only to drink it when I can get it on tap, much as my husband has pledged to the Guinness Brewing Company.

Anyway, I’ve been hearing for some time about adding soda (usually Coke) to various braised meat recipes and thought hey, since I’m in Dr Pepper land, I’d better go that route instead.

PLUS, our local grocery chain, the fine H-E-B (which is growing on me greatly), offers a CANE SUGAR version of Dr Pepper that DH (who refuses the diet stuff) actually prefers to the HFCS-sporting original.

So we actually have “Dr B” in tonight’s pork (brief aside: Dr B is clever and all, but nothing will ever beat Dr Thunder for genius brand lifting), with sugar from our friends at Imperial Sugar formerly of Sugar Land, Texas, where I shop at the Farmer’s Market. What a fine Texas meal this is turning out to be.

2) Speaking of shopping locally and H-E-B, they have the freaking best tortillas ever. They even have a machine to make them (“El Machino” in Chevy’s parlance) that keeps the kiddos entertained whilst Momma visits the wine tasting station. Yes, I really am enjoying my local grocery store. And I get their tortillas almost every week, hot off the press, and it really is a challenge to keep the family from eating the whole bag before dinner is on the table.

So I intentionally look for dinner dishes that will give me an excuse to buy these flattened globs of white flour & fat. Yum O.

3) Most importantly, this all came about because I had a pork shoulder to use up from the wonderful Jolie Vue farms. Since moving to Houston not quite two years ago, I haven’t had much luck finding a CSA for veggies that I love. They’re all either too expensive (I was super spoiled in California by the cheap produce), don’t deliver close enough to me, don’t have enough variety (see: spoiled by California), or some even use pesticides, which is SO last century.

But, I had the fantastic fortune to meet Honi Boudreaux (gotta love those Bayou City names!), a genuine force of nature herself, at a talk I gave last summer at t’afia restaurant (where I also got to visit with the amazing Monica Pope, a true believer in the Slow Food cause). Later I asked the Boudreaux’s (Boudreauxes?) to come and talk at my church for my series on Slow Food: Slow Worship.

Our piggies rooting in their personal pecan forest

In the midst of all this, I got super excited about their farm and signed up for home meat delivery, which is an incredible bargain at $220 per delivery but unfortunately I can only afford to do it every second or third month (which is fine, because there’s enough meat in there – and we eat meat infrequently enough – that it lasts that long).

This is, by the way, exactly what I want to encourage all of you to do: eat locally-sourced meat from a rancher or farmer whom you know personally, who will let you visit the farm and meet the animals, who treats them with respect and honor as God’s creatures, and who uses a “glass house” butcher. No funny business in this meat. It’s so much more expensive, and it’s worth every penny. When I can’t afford to eat meat like this, I simply don’t eat meat.

OK this is getting long…my point is that like with a veggie CSA (“Iron Chef Veggie Box” we call it around here), a meat CSA loads you up with all these weird cuts you wouldn’t normally cook, or bother purchasing. At least we wouldn’t.

So in the last few weeks I’ve made a brisket (divine) and now this shoulder which will become carnitas (sort of…not fried). We had a pork belly the first month. Those things go for like 60 bucks a pound in NYC! It was out of this world braised in an agave glaze. AND we got to render the lard and wound up with cracklins (which I put in mac and cheese…OMG).

Anyway we have been really thrilled with getting local meat and I really can’t stress enough how much more delicious it is than the supermarket junk. It’s becoming impossible for me to eat white pork anymore (did you know pork isn’t actually “the other white meat”? That was made up by pork producers to convince consumers to believe the lie that pork isn’t red; a pig will only have white meat when it’s been kept out of the sun). Forested pigs like ours have a beautiful marbled ruby or garnet color to their meat, and the taste is truly beyond compare.

So now that I’m salivating (and I have like four more hours to wait, dang it!) I’d better stop writing about this shoulder. BUT I will ask a favor from any foodie readers out there: we have a NECK of all things (it’s either pork or beef, I honestly can’t tell and it’s not labeled) and also a huge blob of pork fat to use up. Any ideas???

Raising a Foodie, Part 2

Yesterday I blogged about how I’m trying to train my kids’ palates to enjoy real, good food. But I have to admit: I live in a place of tension about this. I simply can’t be perfect in what I feed them, and it is only going to get worse.

At first, we tried very hard to only feed the children exclusively organic food. Then that kept getting messed up – sometimes accidentally, sometimes because we couldn’t afford otherwise. Plus you go to grandma’s and all your good intentions go out the window; or you eat out, and God only knows what they’ve been doing to the food (the one thing you can count on, according to Anthony Bourdain, is that your food is swimming in butter).

So I do my best: they mostly get organic produce and meat, but I’ve had to compromise on most grains. I try to only buy conventional of the safer produce, and with dairy, if I can’t get organic I at least get it without rBST and other hormones. Of course, when we were on the government WIC program, we couldn’t get any organic dairy (though we could get organic produce, and even shop at the farmer’s market).

One thing I tell groups when I speak is that the most important change you can make in your family’s diet is to switch to organic dairy. This is the consensus based on the hormones and what-have-you added to cow’s diets, not to mention the treatment of the animals. And the fact that dairy makes up a huge portion of most kids’ diets. So if you only can do one thing, switch your milk, cheese, butter, and ice cream to organic.

It’s a constant struggle, a constant compromise. I did what I could when we were poor: I found a store that took WIC and only sells cage-free eggs: voila! I even used food stamps at Whole Foods…did you know you can do that?

I used to work at – and get food from – a pantry that had a lot of organic. I’ve researched the dairies providing our stuff and found the ones whose methods I can live with. And nowadays I try to get our meat only from either a local ranch or the farmer’s market, or occasionally Whole Foods (because at least they have some standards).

Yeah, it’s a hell of a lot of work, and I wish I didn’t have to do it, but I’m not going to trust the government – or the industrial food complex – to provide the highest level of nutrition as well as protection for animals, farmworkers, and the environment. That just ain’t gonna happen: it’s a business, first and foremost. A business, I might add, whose co-opting of the words “natural” and “organic” is driving me insane!

But anyway, back to feeding our kids.

Beyond the issues of organic vs. non and all that trendy green stuff, I live with tension about nutrition. Of course I would love for the kids to only have a taste for vegetables and whole wheat bread, and only want to drink water (and eventually, wine). I would be so relieved if they didn’t have to struggle with extra weight. I would be proud if they ate for maximum nutritional value.

But you know, there’s a lot to be said for taste as well. And I don’t care how you dress it up, tofu or seitan are never going to be remotely like a steak swimming in butter and blue cheese. Whole wheat pasta is hard and chewy. There are times in life that call for ice cream and cake. Would life be worth living without french fries and potato chips? (I don’t mean the fake kind, I mean fresh and homemade)

Plus, I’m a big old hypocrite if I don’t let them eat some treats now & then. Lord knows only my Haagen-Dazs has gotten me through several dark periods. I sometimes get a craving for fast food (that I can usually quell) or a snack cake (which I try to feed with real cake instead). But I have my major weaknesses, and there’s just no way I can explain away the fact that I love that horrible hydrogenated grocery store bakery white cake, with extra frosting. I have been known to eat it for breakfast on my birthday, and every day thereafter until it is gone.

I live in Texas, where Chick-Fil-A is ubiquitous, and my kids love their nuggets (at least I always get a fruit cup, and the nuggets are actual meat). I love salt and vinegar Kettle Chips. I love cheese fries (but not queso aka Velveeta!). I love things that taste good and aren’t good for you. Sure, lots of delicious things are good for you too…but that’s not all there is.

And really, how can I give my child fruit-sweetened cake with no topping? What about the time-honored tradition of the child smearing the frosting all over himself? How would we have the appropriate first birthday photos? This isn’t just fun in my family of origin: it’s a bona fide rite of passage. It’s tradition.

The fact is, Halloween candy is part of life nowadays; so, unfortunately, is Valentine’s and Easter candy. I’m surprised there’s no Fourth of July candy, although I suppose we’re all to busy stuffing our faces with hot dogs and potato salad that day.

Anyway, I’m just not going to be one of those parents who denies their kid sugar. They’re not getting it often or in large quantities, but I agree that there’s no better way to set up bingeing than to deny. I know this from personal experience.

So it’s a balance, and it’s moderation. That’s how I see it. And I also believe strongly that I simply can’t live my life one way and not allow my kids some measure of it. Not that they get to eat exactly as I do, since I hope for better for them.

But birthday cake in our house will always be real cake (they get homemade) with lots of frosting, you can bet on that!

The FoodiEvangelist

Time magazine’s “100 Most Influential People of 2010” included real-food advocate Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma, In Defense of Food, and Food Rules), urban farmer Will Allen, animal welfare championTemple Grandin, and deputy USDA secretary Kathleen Merrigan, who wrote the 1990 Organic Foods Production Act (the first federal legislation establishing standards for the “organic” title).

Over the summer ABC ran a second season of the series “Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution,” in which the British celebrity chef fights to replace the processed food in school cafeterias with fresh produce and whole foods, and teaches Americans how to cook simple meals instead of patronizing the drive-thru, all the while emphasizing that this is a “life and death” issue.

First Lady Michelle Obama has made diet-related disease her primary cause, planting a teaching garden at the White House and encouraging Americans to get to know their farmers.

There is no denying that a foodie frenzy has taken hold in this country. Suddenly it is not enough simply to eat organic – you must find the most local produce possible at the farmer’s market. The new “status lawn” is a backyard homestead, complete with Victory Garden, compost bin, and free-ranging chickens. The Food Network has spun off a second cooking channel and has already spurred many competitors (from TLC to The Travel Channel) to feature food-centric shows. And just recently I read on my Starbucks napkin that they no longer use artificial colors or flavors, hydrogenated oils, or the real boogie man, High Fructose Corn Syrup.

The backlash against the “industrial food complex” is strong and vocal, demanding an end to the prevalence of convenient but unhealthy food produced in non-sustainable ways. The major players also call for an end to the prevailing wisdom of “Nutritionism” (Michael Pollan’s term): the idea that food is merely biological fuel in the form of key nutrients, and no matter how they are consumed, it is the nutrients that matter the most. No longer is the nutrition info box on the side of the carton the only place one should look to know whether something is good to eat (good not only meaning healthy, but also tasty! Which actually matters to these people!).

I call this lifestyle choice the “religion” of the foodie – it calls for a change in one’s eating habits that makes them less convenient, more expensive, and ultimately more satisfying and nurturing. I call myself a “FoodiEvangelist” because I believe that this dogma can be instructive to persons of faith (particularly those of my own persuasion, which is Christian). Continue reading