March 10, 2010

Food just gets better and better when meat is taken off the menu

— PORTLAND — Times change. One hundred fifty years ago, slavery was the law of the land. One hundred years ago, the notion that women should vote was widely ridiculed. Fifty years ago, gay people were reviled, and their abusers saw themselves as righteous defenders of society.

Despite horrible setbacks, we are slowly growing up. The feelings and worth of those who are different from us are more real to us, as are their claims on our humanity.

Years ago, mentioning that I was a vegetarian provoked incredulity or argument, even among my hippy and progressive friends. Now, however, I hear things like ''I was a vegetarian for a while myself,'' or ''I never eat red meat myself -- or hardly ever.''

A gradual shift is taking place as more and more of us recognize that our dread of death, our capacity for suffering, and our love of freedom are things we share with our fellow animals -- that we share them, in fact, because we are animals ourselves.

I feel that most of us want to do the right thing. We think of ourselves as basically good people, maybe not as good as we should be, but certainly much better than we would be if we didn't try pretty darn hard. I think that is why so many of us want to present ourselves as vegetarians in spirit if not in deed.

And I think that is why many of us turn away from the dismal facts of animal food production: The reality is just too painful for most of us to confront. But from my own experience, I know that there is a psychological price for this repression and evasion.

I became a vegetarian essentially because I love to eat: It had become more and more difficult for me to enjoy even the most delicious meat dishes because of the lurking images of suffering and death that accompanied them. After giving up meat, that discomfort disappeared, and eating became a pleasure I could enjoy with all my body and soul.

More slowly than I'd like to admit, I realized that my consumption of any animal products, not just flesh, involved me in what I felt were cruel and barbaric practices.

The abuses in the egg industry, and the horrible lives of even regulated brood hens are well-known. Dairy cows do not retire in comfort when their production falls off.

(Even as a vegan I realize, of course, that every day creatures are dying so that I can live. Cultivation of fields alone takes a terrible toll on wild animals and birds. But cultivation of fields to feed stock to feed us takes a far greater one. Our choice is not to live perfectly, but to live as well as we can.)

As I restricted my diet more and more, a funny thing happened: The food I ate got better and better. Raised on chicken and hamburger, then fumbling with brown rice in cheese sauce, I found out more about the other choices available.

The best vegan food was created over centuries by people who didn't think of themselves as vegans at all, who perhaps ate meat whenever they could get it, but often could not. Most of the dishes of two of the world's great cuisines, Indian and Chinese, are made without animal products.

Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, and East Asian food as well have an inexhaustible supply of delicious vegan dishes. I am learning more about the glorious cuisines of Africa. For anyone ready to embark on the vegan adventure, the world's plenty awaits in all its splendor.

I won't lie to you: An oil-based pie crust will never be as good as one made with lard. There's no substitute for butter, so it's silly to look for one.

But there are other choices that are just as good in their own way. Try broccoli with a sauce of tahini, shoyu, water and a little lemon juice, and you'll forget all about Hollandaise.

To my friends who say, ''I hardly ever eat red meat,'' I say, ''Great! Good for you! Every little bit helps.''

To my health-oriented, semi-vegetarian friends, the same. Every vegetarian meal you eat reduces the amount of needless suffering in the world.

We're all on the right road, headed the right way. None of us is there yet. Let's take a few more steps together.

— Special to the Press HeraldI became a vegetarian essentially because I love to eat: It had become more and more difficult for me to enjoy even the most delicious meat dishes because of the lurking images of suffering and death that accompanied them. After giving up meat, that discomfort disappeared, and eating became a pleasure I could enjoy with all my body and soul.

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