30 November 2019

The High Stakes Dinner Dare

A few weeks ago, my roommate decided to try a vegan diet for health reasons. I went along with the idea for moral support. The results of this diet were very, very mixed. In fact, more often than not, they were total busts. Let the record show I gave it a fair shake, and at least one of the dishes was rather pleasurable. As for the rest, I simply don't feel it's going to work out for me. The persistent problem with the majority of recipes we came across was one of blandness. To overcome this, the recipes insisted on a hefty spice regimen that did little more than give an all-heat-no-flavor aftertaste that often accompanies many sophomoric attempts at Mexican or Indian dishes. The other problem was these recipes' insistence on substitution. That is, instead of a fully vegan dish, we got "veganized" versions of otherwise omnivore-friendly offerings. The most egregious example of this was the mac & cheese. It called for a type of yeast that's meant to imitate cheese. 

It was bad. 

There's no kind way of putting it. It was awful. To be completely fair to it, I suppose I was a bit biased in favor of something that would fool me into thinking I was eating true and proper cheese. This set my bar likely higher than it should have been and netted the kind of result that Wolfgang Pauli would describe as "not even wrong." I'd rather go without cheese than settle for a pale imitation. That said, some imitations work better than others. 

I've already talked at length about the Impossible Whopper and touched on my newfound quest to try every "veggie" burger on offer by major restaurants and fast food chains (Red Robin is next on the agenda). In addition, we've been subscribing to HelloFresh for several weeks and have selected their vegetarian options almost exclusively. The sole exception was when we decided to go with a meat dish that would arrive in time for Thanksgiving

It was a sirloin steak dish with a heaping helping of roasted carrots and potatoes. My plan was simple. It had been well over a month since I last had any kind of meat dish. In fact, I think it was a pretzel burger that Burger King was offering at the time. I got one when my roommate's first ordered the Impossible Whopper so if it went bust I had a backup. The whole vegetarian thing was working out way better than I thought, and ordering sirloin steak was kind of a final test of sorts. My thinking was that once I got things going, once I ripped into the package, rubbed in the spices, laid the steaks on the skillet, cut into them, and got a few good whiffs in, I'd be wolfing down the whole thing with gusto and vigor. Ever have one of those cravings for something you haven't had in a very long time coming to you completely out of the blue and occupying your thoughts until you basically have no choice to go out and grab it? That's what I was expecting to preempt. 

No such thing happened. 

The more I cooked it, basted it, cut into it, and nibbled on it, the more unpleasant the whole experience was. I didn't feel ill or anything like I've heard some vegetarians get when they even think of eating meat. It was something more abstract. It was almost like I felt disappointed, as if the whole process from preparation to palate wasn't just anticlimactic, but detrimental and wasteful. It was all a great big "So what?" moment. I was unimpressed and unmoved, and the fact I could have been making something else I'd have enjoyed far more got me a little down to boot. 

So there you have it. Barring any spontaneous lusts for McNuggets at 1 in the morning, I'm  fully vegetarian now, though not especially strict. Dairy is still part of the equation, as are eggs (though I typically only use those when baking cookies or beer bread), and I'm sure there are certain dishes that employ broths or other similar byproducts that will catch me unawares. Plus, there's the whole "made in the vicinity of X" paradigm (i.e. the Impossible Whopper being made on the same grill as the "possible" patties), but these are generally unavoidable, and hardly objectionable. Should we move away from animal products? Maybe, but we're talking about literal centuries of undoing. Domestication of animals is as old as human civilization itself, if not a little older considering hunting dogs back when we sat huddled in caves wondering where the sun went at night. Speaking of animals and fear... 

My stance on not eating meat has nothing to do with ethics, much as I respect those who cite the treatment of farm animals as an impetus for their conviction. I can even say I had my own "meet the meat" situation. My roommate's brother had a pig on his farm he intended to slaughter. While visiting, I was asked to go and feed the pig. I had been hoping this wouldn't be asked of me, but I didn't refuse out of respect. With slop bucket in hand, I made my way to the pen, filled the trough, and promptly decided I lacked the resolve to eat anything that may possibly be made by the butchering of this beast. It wasn't even cute, like a lamb or a cow, or even little suckling pigs. It was a big, gross slab of bacon-to-be that could barely move. There was no lack of sympathy, mind. I'm not going to dismiss eating an animal I've literally met in person because I don't like its face. It was more of a big picture situation. Here was this animal, one specifically raised not only from its own birth to be slaughtered for its meat, but engineered through generations of selective breeding to be as good at possibly being a meal as it could be. We can talk about the role eating meat played in our evolution, making our brains bigger and allowing us to survive various environmental conditions because we didn't have to rely solely on the plant life for sustenance. This isn't saying it was all a mistake, only it makes the decision of abstaining from its consumption feel like moving on rather than taking a step back. 

It rather puts that scene from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy in perspective (specifically, the second book, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe), wherein a large, pig-like creature is fully aware of its role in the food chain, and can not only vocalize its opinion about it, but is utterly welcoming of the prospect of becoming some diner's dish du jour. The punchline of the joke is that this degree of genetic engineering was necessitated by objections from plant-based creatures openly and vehemently vocalizing their disdain for being the stuff of salads and shakes. 

I don't begrudge anyone who still has both feet planted firmly in camp omnivore. You've got canines for a reason besides stubborn packaging when scissors aren't around. I do wish we'd all take a step back and look at how meat intensive our diets are, how much farmland we're devoting to cattle, pigs, and poultry when it could well be used for fruits and vegetables, grains and nuts, and how this wouldn't affect the farms' bottom lines one bit. Again, this isn't me preaching or shaming anyone. I'm a devout hedonist. I get it. If you've got it, flaunt it. You see food, you eat it. Obviously, going vegetarian isn't as easy for some people as others depending on where you live and what kind of lifestyle you've made for yourself. This is simply another perspective to consider. You never know what you may discover.

For instance, one of my favorite discoveries is truffle zest. Mix a dash of it with sour cream and either olive oil or water to get the right drizzling consistency, and it's a dandy dipping sauce. Best way to find truffles? Rent a hog.

No one eats the pig. We get truffles. Everybody wins.