I became a vegetarian when I was 15, back when kids — at least kids from the type of conservative-leaning suburbs where I grew up — didn’t do that too often. I was teased relentlessly (good naturedly, but teased nonetheless) by kids at school. My mother’s friends bought me cookbooks because they were so worried I’d be malnourished. Much of how I learned how to cook came from those books. My father used to stop at the one health food store in Center City Philadelphia and buy me things like carob chips – remember carob? – and sesame sticks.
Oh how things have changed over the years. Lots of kids, and families, as well as growing numbers of adults are vegetarian. For ethical reasons (which were mine as a teen), for health concerns, to save money, or some combination. Over those years I’ve strayed from my vegetarian path, first adding in fish and then eventually chicken. I still haven’t eaten red meat in 45 years so it’s had some lasting impact, but I do have fish or fowl a few times a week.
I recently started moving back in the direction of being a vegetarian after reading one too many exposes about how animals are treated, as laid out in nauseating detail in a recent editorial about the succulent rotisserie chicken that flies off the shelves at Costco. [Don’t read if you’re squeamish: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/06/opinion/sunday/costco-chicken-animal-welfare.html]
The fact is, as Kristoff notes, chicken is cheap these days, And easy to make. It’s relatively healthy and like a lot of people I’m tired by the end of the day. Why not make some chicken when nothing else inspires? And there is something to chicken soup’s medicinal purposes, and I can make it so quickly in the instant pot, with Costco whole chickens sold alongside the rotisserie ones.
Of course it’s possible to only have chickens that are treated better, and I’m all for only having free-range, organic birds if you can afford it [and hopefully don’t get too self-righteous along the way https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G__PVLB8Nm4]
Seriously, there is a lot of suffering that can be avoided by treating animals and people who care for them humanely. But there are also so many other options for protein, from nuts to beans and seeds to all sorts of strange but tasty new inventions like Impossible burgers (Yes, I have indulged in Impossible Whoppers, even though they are made on the same surface as the regular burgers, and they are delicious.) and still have the occasional piece of fish, although I imagine eventually I’ll be wondering about how happy Sam the salmon was before he was caught…
For now, I’m just starting with chicken, and in the past few weeks I’ve eliminated it from my diet. I still live in a house full of carnivores, and have no problem cooking meat for them. In fact, I just made them corned beef for St. Patrick’s Day. I like the smell of bacon and I’m glad that cheesesteaks still exist for those who choose to eat them. To each his or her own.
Yet even carnivores can minimize the amount of meat they eat, and be more aware of how we treat livestock and the people who handle them. The news has brought attention to the alarming number of workers in meat and poultry processing facilities getting Covid, and the awful conditions in which they work. “You can’t talk about animal welfare without talking about the welfare of food workers, and you can’t talk about food workers without talking about income inequality, racism and immigration.” as Mark Bittman, the cookbook author/food writer says in his new book Animal, Vegetable, Junk, a History of Food from Sustainable to Suicidal.
I listen to journalist Ezra Klein’s podcast interview with Bittman, an interesting way to fill the time it takes to clean the kitchen after an afternoon cooking spree. Bittman doesn’t posit any particular diet (although one of his many books, which Klein raves about, is How to Cook Anything Vegetarian). Like Michael Pollan and other authors on related topics, he advises a common sense approach, to cut back on junk and eat more plants. Eat less meat. Don’t necessarily follow a specific “diet” but work towards a saner diet. Consider doing what has been done in some other European countries, where marketing junk food – as we do here for tobacco – is limited or banned altogether.
We learn our preferences early in life. We’re not born craving candy or chips.As he explains, many of us gained weight during lockdown because we needed comfort and we still continue to allow marketers to define what comfort is. Think of the best Super Bowl ads, were they for apples or brown rice? No, they were for Doritos and m & m’s and Pepsi. Our ideas of comfort food are rich and buttery or fried and salty but generally fattening and not so good for us. I admit that my favorite comfort food is probably bread, and that I even made a gluten free Irish soda bread to go with the corned beef I didn’t eat. Slathered with butter it was delicious.
But so was the big stir fry with tofu and greens and mushrooms. Our relationship with food is complicated. There’s no one answer. Still, I’m feeling some solace in not having chicken guilt. It does put me back in touch with why I originally became a vegetarian, with the concern I had with the suffering of others, even if those others had fur or feathers. For now I’m trying to be mindful while still enjoying my indulgences. To watch what I eat yet still say Bon Appetit!