Tuesday, October 23, 2018

How to eat if animals matter

So after that rather mean post about vegans, I feel like I should say something a bit more positive.  I actually think considering animal welfare when you eat is an admirable thing to do.  I just think there are a lot of ways to do that besides cutting out all animal foods forever and shaming everyone who doesn't.

My personal view is to assign animals moral value, but less than people have.  So if I'm doing some kind of moral action, like donating to a charity, I pick human charities because there is so much need there.  Yet it's not really zero-sum; you can care about animals without taking away anything from humans.

Going vegan is one way to do that.  Now being vegan does not mean that your food choices harm no animals.  Animal habitats are destroyed to make farms.  Insects and other predators are poisoned to protect your food supply.  It's a fact of nature that everything is in competition with everything else; for humans to eat we have to take resources that animals want to use.  Perhaps at some future date we'll reach a situation where that isn't the case, but for now, perfect moral purity toward animals is not a reachable goal and I have lots of side-eye for people who think they've met it simply because they're vegan.

That said, a vegan diet causes a lot less animal death and suffering than an omnivorous diet, so that is a good choice if you think you can.

The trouble is, most people don't feel like they could be vegan.  There are an awful lot of delicious animal foods out there, and life is hard, and sometimes you just want a pint of ice cream or a Big Mac.  And I think rather than sit with the idea that we are less than perfect, we prefer to define perfection such that we're not violating it: "animals don't even matter."  Isn't it easier to eat that Big Mac if you assume they don't?

I prefer to carve a middle way where I accept that my moral actions aren't perfect, that there is always more I could be doing, but that I'm doing small things in what ways I can.  Some years ago, my big thing was to avoid cruelty to humans in what I buy, which meant no Hershey's or Nestle products and as few new clothes as I could buy.  The chocolate situation was easily solved when I discovered Aldi sources its chocolate ethically, but I'm less certain about clothes.  I am not sure which clothing companies are more ethical than others.  If I stick to used clothes as I usually do, am I sure I'm helping, or am I just preventing my few measley dollars from going to a third world country where they could do some tiny amount of good, if not as much good as if the workers were paid fairly?  I don't have the bandwidth to unpick this dilemma right now, so I'm putting it on the back burner for the moment, to pick back up later.

Where food is concerned, I've been wanting for a few years to cut back on animal products, but I've been stymied by my own exhaustion and my family's needs.  Marko badly needed to put on weight, so I was sneaking eggs and butter into everything I could.  (And then Marko wasn't eating it, so I was eating it, and that's why my gut looks like this.)  But things are getting a little easier: Marko has hit the ninth percentile in weight, which is considered healthy.  Marko and Michael have both been requesting meatless meals, because neither one likes meat, and the thought of making dinners they wouldn't whine about is a plus.  And John is in the process of converting to Orthodoxy, which means he isn't going to be eating animal products on Wednesdays and Fridays.  So it seems like a good time to try a little occasional veganism!

All right, so what sort of things might a person do, if you wanted to prevent some harm to animals but weren't interested in going completely vegan?  Here are a few ideas:
1.  Try to find cruelty-free animal products.  It can be hard to be sure of how animals are treated when you're buying something at the store (for instance, "cage free" doesn't mean the chickens are better treated at all) but often it's possible to buy things from local farms.  Eggs are the easiest thing to find this way; kids often sell them as a hobby.  The price will be higher, but you can combine this with eating less of them overall.
2.  Try one meatless or vegan meal a week.  Or make all your breakfasts vegan (avocado toast, anyone?) or all your lunches.
3.  Reduce the amount of meat on your plate at a meal--take more vegetables or serve a second vegetable dish.  Or make tacos with two cans of beans and only half a pound of beef.
4.  Give up one single animal product, like eggs or beef.  Apparently giving up beef alone would almost solve our climate problem, if everyone did it.  If animal misery is what you worry about most, I'd give up eggs.  Dairy cows are treated comparatively well, so if there's one thing you keep, I vote milk.
5.  Stop making whole meals out of animal products (e.g. a burger) but keep using eggs in recipes, chicken broth in soup, or cheese as a garnish.

For most of my life I've eaten vegetarian (not vegan) at breakfast and lunch because I don't like meat enough to go through the trouble of cooking it more than once a day.  And now that John is becoming Orthodox, I'm working in some vegan dinners to serve on Wednesdays and Fridays.

It happens that I love vegan dishes.  Only thing is, they're often not very satisfying.  I don't feel like I've eaten a meal.  However, I don't tend to have tofu or almonds or non-dairy milk around to replace animal products.  So I've been trying out different recipes looking for things that actually seem like a meal.

What I've found is that you need to replace meat with more than just protein.  Protein is only one of the things meat provides a meal.  Meat also provides
-umami flavor
-interesting textures

So when I'm looking to make a meal without meat, I can't just make my usual casserole and leave the meat out.  Instead, it's a more satisfying meal if I replace the meat with a number of different things, to make sure there is variety, umami, and fat in the finished meal.

For instance, I've started to make meatless chili, but just leaving the meat out makes it very dull.  So I make a more complicated chili with sweet potatoes, two kinds of beans, onions browned in oil, and bell peppers.  To ramp up the flavor, I make sure to put in plenty of cumin and a splash of lime juice.

Here are some things that I think are really good in vegan meals:
-soy sauce
-tomato paste
-fermented foods -- miso and marmite are two I'd like to try, but even sauerkraut is a nice addition
-squash of all kinds
-bread on the side -- I feel it helps round out a meal.  Foccaccia is a yummy vegan bread.
-seeds or nuts -- sunflower seeds are great on a salad, or sesame seeds on a stir-fry
-avocados.  Yum.  Like if butter were a fruit.
-anything browned, caramelized, or smoked -- that adds a lot of deliciously complex flavor
-vegetable stock.  I got some Better Than Bouillon vegetable stock the other day and it is very tasty.  Don't cook in water if you can cook in stock!

To reward you if you've come this far, a recipe!

Black Bean Soup

1/2 cup dry rice
1 can black beans
1 can diced tomatoes
1-2 bell peppers, any color
1 onion
1/2 cup frozen corn
1 quart water or stock
2-3 Tbs oil (olive is fine)
salt, garlic powder, cumin, chili powder, all to taste
splash lime juice

Cook up the onions in the oil till they're starting to brown.  Add all the other ingredients except the corn and seasonings and cook about 20 minutes, till the rice is done.  Add the corn and season to taste.  Serve with crackers or bread.

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