2010-08-09 Meathead Goes Meatless. Call me Potatohead... For 30 Days.
Why on earth would a barbecue guy nicknamed Meathead decide to become Potatohead for a 30 days? Why would I violate my well publicized motto "No rules in the bedroom or dining room"?
In June, in order to better understand the issues surrounding our dietary choices, I wrote an article on Huffington Post called Meat or No Meat. It attempted to explain the pros and cons of eating meat and divided the arguments into six categories. I continue to edit it based on reader comments.
There have been more than 8,000 passionate comments from everyone from cattle ranchers to PETA members. People feel religiously about this subject. I invite you to go there, read it, and join the debate.
Most of the arguments against meat do not impress me. But two give me pause every time I reach for my tongs:
- The way most of our beef, pork, fowl, and fish are grown nowadays, in huge factory farms, can be inhumane.
- These methods can be harmful to humans.
I want to use my prominence in the food community and as a man whose reputation was built on cooking meat, to send a message to the factory farms that I think they can do better and I am willing to pay more for my meat if it is grown better.
Notice that I did not say all of our meat concerns me. A growing number of US farmers have proven that they can bring high quality meat to market at competitive prices, in a humane way, without use of hormones or preventive antibiotics, and that they can do so with far less an environmental impact than factory farms.
My readings tell me that:
- The overuse of preventive antibiotics is probably fostering antibiotic resistant bacteria that can infect humans. Antibiotics are needed to treat sick animals so they cannot be banned. But they should not be used on all animals as prevention because they are kept in too close quarters.
- There is a small but significant quantity of valid, scientific, peer-reviewed research that calls into question the meat industry's claim that growth hormones are harmless. Even if there was no contradictory research, the levels that the US Government sets for some meats as "GRAS" (generally regarded as safe) are not thoroughly tested and are unacceptably high to many other countries, including the European Union.
- The use of CAFOs (Confined Animal Feeding Operations) create major waste disposal problems for soil and water that are significantly lessened by distributed farming.
There are many good books on the subject, but here is a free document from the Union of Concerned Scientists "CAFOs Uncovered". If you are busy, at least read the executive summary at the beginning. Another excellent read is Michael Pollan's landmark book, The Omnivore's Dilemma.
I understand that we are addicted to cheap protein as much as we are addicted to cheap oil. I understand that cheap protein has helped the poor feed their families and kept school lunch prices down. I understand that improved animal husbandry will likely mean higher meat prices. If so, I think that we can absorb them. I think that we have alternatives. Those of us who can afford it will buy slightly more expensive meats. Or may be we will buy less. Maybe all of us will buy other forms of protein and more fruits, vegetables, and grains. And this might not be bad. I also understand that my position may anger some of my advertisers.
In addition to my desire to send a message, I have two other motives:
- I have read scores of testimonials from vegetarians about how going meatless made them feel great. I want to see how it makes me feel.
- I love veggies and carbs almost as much as meat. I want to challenge my outdoor cooking skills and see if I can discover and create new dishes that will satisfy my meat loving readers. I will also use this as an opportunity to overcome my fear of flour. I will try to learn to bake on the grill.
So beginning August 9, for 30 days I will become an ovo-lacto vegetarian. That means I will forswear all animal flesh, but I will allow myself eggs and dairy. Why not go all the way and leave out the dairy and eggs? Because I'm chicken. Ummm, I mean, I'm afraid. I'm afraid that my cooking skills will let me down, that the temptation to stray will be too great, and that nutritionally there are some pitfalls to the strict vegan diet and I am not knowledgeable enough to implement. I have learned that one must really understand nutrition to be a strict vegan.
How will this change me? Who knows? It is not likely that I will give up meat forever. I am already looking forward to my famous smoked turkey for Thanksgiving. But I may discover that I need much less meat than I thought. Meatless Mondays might become a habit (fact is there are usually two or three days a week that I don't eat meat already). Then again, after 30 days, I may need it more than ever. The scent of roasting ribs and sizzling steaks are as important to me as music or art.
Will I change the world? No chance. But this meatlover's voice is one more in a growing chorus and perhaps together we can change farming in the US. Perhaps you will join me this next 30 days and just say "no" as you walk past the meat case. After all, August is the easiest month to go vegetarian...
During the next month I plan to find sources for meat grown properly and hopefully locally for when I return to normal. I will share what I learn. I will blog about my experience here.
I have already encountered a problem. A friend emailed me that he had found the most amazing artisan bacon and he want to bring me some. I told him it would have to wait. And I am also trying to figure out how I'm going to do a chicken grilling demo in late August without tasting what I'm cooking.
I invite you to share your ideas for how I can get through the next 30 days in the comments below. I await your advice and brickbats.
Day 1: Monday 2010-08-09, Almost a disaster
I have decided I will not bore you with a blow by blow diary of everything I eat. I'll stick to the core concepts, events, and thoughts.
Actually I sorta started the vegetarian diet on Saturday, but, as I was writing the piece above, I munched the last piece of my killer homemade jerky yesterday (recipe coming soon), so those two days don't count. Still, we had a fabulous simple meatless dinner last night. Bowtie pasta topped with fresh warm juicy tomatoes from the garden topped with fresh basil from the garden topped with a mix of cottage cheese and milk topped with a sprinkle of chipotle powder and herbed sea salt and washed down with an Alsace Pinot Blanc.
This morning I opened a program I bought years ago with the best intentions, and promptly ignored: CalorieKing Nutrition and Exercise manager. It has a database of thousands of popular foods from apples to applesauce to Applebee's Riblets and shows calories, fats, protein, sodium, cholesterol, fiber, sugar, and calcium.
I plan to use it to document everything I have eaten, to keep me honest, and to keep an eye on calories and nutrition. I figure as long as I am going meatless, I might as well change a few other things in my life and maybe try to knock off a few pounds. I fear this will be hard because of my love of carbs, especially potatoes, breads, and pastas, and what little I know of nutrition makes me believe that carbs can put on the pounds as quickly as fat in meat.
Breakfast was a banana, and then a BIG bowl of high fiber cereal with a handful of blueberries from my back yard and 2% milk. I suspect I will be repeating this breakfast a lot this month. It is a pretty typical start for my day.
For lunch I sliced open a monster tomato from our garden, toasted some whole wheat bread, coated both sides with light mayo, sprinkled on some sea salt, then drizzled on some cheap balsamic that I reduced to a syrup and just keep in a bottle, and topped with on some little leaf leaf basil (what a great product, no need to chop, the leaves are about 3/4" long and the stems tender). I have a feeling this could be a regular lunch this month. I eat a lot of tomatoes in August. This is one of the benefits of working from home, especially when you have a big garden and plenty of fresh herbs. On the downside of working from home, leftovers for lunch are tempting, and I kinda suspect a lunch of ribs or steak or chicken from last night's dinner is not the best idea.
Great timing Allen Brothers!
A shipment of meat from Allen Brothers has arrived. I've been a fan of their aged prime beef for years, and I recently said some nice things about them in print. So today the doorbell rings and there are two big boxes with dry ice and samples for me to taste. This is a bit of an ethical challenge because there's a fine line between samples, and gifts. There were two long bone ribeyes, 34 ounces each including the bone, 1.5" thick, just like I like them, as well as some small Berkshire hog (a heritage breed) baby backs, some Wagyu burgers and a berry pie. I decide these are samples not gifts. I look forward to eating the pie soon. The rest will have to wait a month. Hope they don't get freezer burn.
Mid afternoon I snarfed a handful of cashews, and a fresh plum. Nuts and fruit for a snack. I think this will become a regular part of my diet.
Almost a disaster
Dinner was almost a disaster. We had a favorite meat, what Elaine on the Sienfeld show called "The Big Salad". We eat one or two of these every week. It starts with lettuce, usually Romaine, and then in goes whatever is on hand. I stepped out of the kitchen for a bit and when I returned I found my wife with a can of tuna in her hand. We like to split a can between us on our big salads. Sometimes it is chopped chicken or sliced steak. I yelled "Stop!" and she paused, gave me a cockeyed look, said "No fish?" I shook my head, and she dumped the whole can on her salad. Sigh.
The rest of the salad had some leftover boiled potatoes, grilled red peppers, Kalamata olives, cherry tomatoes from the garden, cukes, and a blue cheese dressing that I made for one of my failed experiments at grilling Buffalo chicken wings last week. The wings failed, but the sauce was a winner and it works fine on salad. I'll publish it after just a little tweaking. I had hoped to play with it tomorrow, but I dropped the plastic container it was in and it went all over the floor and the inside of the fridge. I ended up cleaning the fridge and my wife ended up mopping the floor. Not how we planned to spend our evening.
Our neighbors returned from vacation today. I stopped by to deliver their Sunday papers and he asks me if I'll be smoking a turkey for his annual Labor Day bash this year. "Absolutely" sez I, stifling tears because I won't be able to eat any. Or any of the other fabulous goodies he grills. As thanks for feeding the cats for two weeks, they brought me a beautiful burl bowl and a bag of my Cheetos to fill it. They know my weaknesses. I eat more than a handful. Not sayin how much. Love me some Cheetos.
Cereal for breakfast, cheese and tomato sandwich for lunch. Nuts for snacks. Resisted the Cheetoes. Wonder how long I can ignore them? Meatless daytime is a no-brainer.
Date nite disappointment
Dinner was my first dammit moment. Tuesday night is movie night. My wife, her brother, his wife, and I go to the movies almost every Tuesday. We saw The Kids are All Right (very good film, superbly acted, and one of the most realistic looks I've seen of family and married life on film). Afterwards we always go to a nearby Italian restaurant and I always always revel in their best I ever tasted grilled calamari with olive oil and balsamic sauce. Not the breaded stuff. They never turn the squid into rubber bands, and I sop up the sauce with their fresh-baked bread. The waitress knows what I order and when I asked for the Caesar salad, no chicken, her jaw dropped. Rather than get into a long explanation, I just nodded in the affirmative and that's what I got. A bit too much dressing, but it was tasty, especially the croutons.
Speaking of croutons, my wife made some this weekend. They're easy, and I plan to try it on the grill. She takes a nice crusty bread that is getting old, cuts it into chunks, puts it in a bowl. In a cup she mixes olive oil, and dried herbs and spices, drizzles them over the bread (not too much) and tosses until each chunk has some on it, but not necessarily coated. They go in the oven at about 225, enough to dry them out but not burn them. After about 30 minutes, they're better than storebought!
Pretty much the same daytime diet. But dinner was a treat. We had to go meet someone in a nearby village so on the way back we stopped at a relatively new restaurant in downtown LaGrange, IL. Prasino has raised the bar for dining in this upscale western bedroom commuter town. They have a strong organic theme and local theme, contemporary design, large windows, plenty of wood, and waitstaff in black. Steve, our most capable and knowledgeable waiter had his broken finger wrapped in a black splint.
Ordering vegetarian was easy and I ate very very well. Skipping our usual wine, we could not resist their bloody Marys made with a vodka from Wisconsin's 45th Parallel distillery that had been infused with horseradish. Loved it. Best of all, they rimmed the glass with a spice mix that sure tasted a lot like Meathead's Memphis Dust. I think I'm gonna work on a fire roasted tomato Bloody Mary with Memphis Dust recipe. This meal is deductible!
A delightful appetizer is the edamame, soy beans in shell, sprinkled with large grains of sea salt. You hold one tip of the pod, pop the rest in your mouth, and drag your teeth across the surface which pops out the two pea sized beans and the salt collects on your lip and tongue. Texturally, they are much like raw peas. Perfect with the Marys.
Lou had a beet salad with orange and nuts and a balsamic drizzle. Well executed, but nothing special, especially considering I hate beets. Tried them again. Still hate em.
I ordered risotto cakes with a truffled mustard sauce. The cheesy risotto had been cooked down, refrigerated, formed into 2" disks, coated with panko, and pan seared. The sauce was subtler than you might think. Amazing. I plan to try this technique on the grill.
My entree was a whole wheat flatbread with corn, tomato, caramelized onion, pesto, mozzarella, and balsamic glaze.
When we get home my wife goes to her office to catch up on homework. I sneak a handful of Cheetos. Gotta get rid of these things. Best way I know is to eat them.
I could eat like this all the time.
Dinner with my wife's brother and his wife. She cooks pasta with brie cheese and fresh tomatoes and basil. Heavenly.
PC. Carolina Caviar. Atlanta Paté. Menta. Pimento Cheese. In the South, particularly the Carolinas and Georgia, you cannot have a church social, family picnic, card game, wedding, or any social gathering without Pimento Cheese sandwiches. Kids ask for it with the same frequency as they ask for peanut butter up north. Traditionally it is spread on white bread and that's all. At fancier events the crusts removed, it is cut into four triangles, and served on silver platters. At the Masters Golf Tournament in Augusta, GA, they serve PC sandwiches wrapped in green wax paper (hold your pinkies out, please). Even in such classy settings, they spell it pimento, not pimiento, the technically correct spelling.
When I was at the University of Florida in the 1960s, our favorite late nite stoner munchie was Ritz Crackers with PC. On road trips to away games and New Orleans we'd pack a loaf of Wonder Bread and a tub of storebought PC. Any trip through Atlanta would take us to The Varsity where, when we approached the counter they'd shout "What'll ya have!" and we'd joyfully shout back "Pimento Cheeseburger!" Occasionally we'd go wild and order their chili cheesedog with pimento cheese, or their decadent grilled cheese sandwich with pimento cheese.
Today I worked on two versions. The traditional simple version, and an amped up Fancified Smoked Pimiento Cheese. Tasting my experiment filled me up pretty well.
It's niece Ava's 6th birthday and her parents throw her a party at the community pool. There's pizza. I have some of the cheese pizza. Gawd I hate the crap that comes in the cardboard boxes. If you love pizza, you have to make some yourself, and from the grill it is just as good as from a wood burning oven in Napoli.
My neighbor Sandy brought me a big bowl of her "paella" for lunch, which she makes in a pot indoors. It was loaded with rice and meats. I gave her a cup of my new Sexy Smoked Tomato Soup. She loved it. I gingerly tasted the rice, avoided the meat, and made mmmmm sounds. It went in the fridge for my wife. I didn't have the heart to tell her about my strike, and I certainly didn't want to risk insulting her and being cut off. She's a good cook!
My wife made Caprese salad with big juicy beefsteak tomatoes, fresh mozz, fresh basil, grill roasted red bell peppers from the freezer, and tabouli salad (a.k.a. tabbouleh). Tabouli is made from bulgar wheat, olive oil, garlic, lemon juice, and mint. She picked her first green beans so went on the plate too.
I can see that doing this daily is going to be tedious for both you and me. So from now on, just highlights.
I now need to spend more time on figuring out how and where I will buy my meat when September 9 passes.
On Day 12 I have felt no craving or strong desire for meat, even as I continue to edit articles, recipes, and photos about meat. None. Zero. Zip.
On Day 18 we had dinner at a friend's house. She put out an appetizer platter with cheese and sausage. I nibbled some cheese, but, while deep in conversation, I absentmindedly picked up a sliver of fabulous aged Italian sausage. As it entered my mouth, my wife caught me, but by then it was too late (heh heh heh). Accident. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.
On Day 20 a neighbor who loves to fish but doesn't eat fish showed up with some fresh line caught salmon. I smoked it and fed most of it to the carpenters working on my attic. I tasted some to make sure it wasn't too salty. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.
I'm working on a biiiig article about the new Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) laws for an article for Restaurant Hospitality magazine. It directly impacts restaurants and stores and what they can and cannot do when it comes to service animals. It's eating a lot of time so I don't have much time for cooking experiments.
I have said in this space that I am not much for talking about my daily life and not much of a diarist, so I have kept this page about my education campaign and 30 day meatless strike against factory farming and in favor of small family substainable farms simple. I have not bothered with a daily log of everything I have eaten this month. Forgive me if I get a bit windy now, but I have something to confess.
Months ago, before I planned this protest and education campaign, I committed to doing a grilling demo in the parking lot of my neighborhood grocery, Tischler's Finer Foods in Brookfield, IL. It is a small independent grocery competing with the big chains, and a vital part of our community with a strong charitable bent. The owner lives here and hires local help, including people with special needs. They make their own sausages and most of the tasty deli counter products from scratch. They do not carry meat from pastured animals and sustainable foods yet, and it is doubtful that the local demographic will support this movement yet.
The menu we agreed upon months ago and they promoted it in their ads was their homemade brats dipped in my Columbia Gold South Carolina Mustard Barbecue Sauce and Simon & Garfunkel Chicken. The deli people would whup up my sauce and spice mix, and I'd do the cooking and hand out samples in little cups.
From the day I announced that I was going on a meat strike for 30 days I knew this would be a problem for me. Not only would I be tempted to taste my cooking, but I would be grillin' and shillin' factory farmed meat. I actually lost sleep over the issue, but decided I could not back away from my commitment and that I would take only one small taste of each of the two dishes I was preparing. A good cook must always taste his food, especially when others are preparing the rub and sauce.
So that was my plan. I rationalized my serving factory farmed meat because that promise came first. And I rationalized small tastes because it was a matter of quality control and my name was on the sign.
It was a glorious sunny day at about 90°F and I was glad I brought my Easy-Up canopy. Many friends and neighbors stopped by. I was thrilled that about 30 folks from nearby towns who read that I would be there in my email newsletter Smoke Signals stopped by. One guy came in from Iowa to see me and family. A few hard core fans even had me sign the brims of some AmazingRibs.com baseball caps. Man, that was weird. I just don't see myself as a celebrity and signing autographs is something I've never been asked to do before.
I took my tastes from the first batch off the grill at 10 a.m. and that was that. About lunchtime I was getting hungry and the smell of my food was too tempting. Tischler's brats are very good and dressed in that bright orange coat of sauce they were irresistible. And the aroma of the roasting chicken coated in herbs was heavenly. There were plenty of salads on the deli counter and fresh Michigan peaches in produce (they are much better than Georgia or SC peaches). But I couldn't escape the tent. I snarfed two or three little sample cups of each. Maybe more. OK. Definitely more.
When I got home my Italian American wife was cooking tomato sauce with her harvest from our garden and the house smelled heavenly. For dinner she had a big green salad loaded with tomatoes, homemade croutons, slivers of cheese, and topped with homemade dressing. I confessed to her. She bent her head and peered over her glasses like Father Fitzgibbon, the old priest in the 1944 Bing Crosby movie "Going My Way", and said "Say three Our Fathers, three Hail Marys, and an Act of Contrition." So much for the last one.
Grilled Veggie Sammies
one of my favorite quickie dinners this month has been grilled veggie sammies. Last night's was especially good. I too a medium eggplant from the garden and sliced it lengthewise into planks. Ditto for a medium yellow squash. Peeled a big onion, cut off the poles and sliced it in half. Splashed some olive oil on everything, S&P, and on the grill. Then I took a loaf of Italian bread, sliced it in half lenthwise, and pulled out some of the flesh making two slightly concave boats. Slatehred mayo on them, sprinkled garlic powder and fresh herbs and grated Parmigiano-Regianno. Grilled them on medium, cut side down, until golden. When the veggies were done I chopped them into large cubes and filled the bread boats with them. Topped them with fresh tomato and fresh basil. Who needs meat?
Day 28: BORING
For the first time in 28 days, tonight I was totally bored with my meal. Saturday night we were both too hurried to cook so we ordered out for Chinese, and I ordered a vegetable medley and fried rice with no meat. It was OK. Tonight, Monday, we had leftovers, and as I stared at my plate, for the first time in a month, I WANTED MEAT. Actually, I realized I just wanted something else. But I am ready for this experiment to end. I keep thinking about those big Allen Brothers Ribeyes (see above) in the freezer. They are prime steaks, and probably not sustainably raised. But I am coming to the realization that I will not be able to eat sustainable, anti-biotic free, humanely raised and humanely slaughtered meat all the time, which for me is 5 to 6 dinners a month, and an occasional lunch.
I have had a lot of time to research the issues, I have remained open minded (for example I am not convinced that hormones are a health problem for animals or humans, but there is no doubt in my mind that antibiotics are a human and animal risk. I refuse to swallow anybody's propoganda.
9/8: The End of the Strike, The Beginning of a Movement
I ended my strike against factory farmed meat on 9/8. Over the past month I have read a great deal about the food we eat, more than usual, and that's a lot. I am gathering my thoughts, ideas, and footnotes, and I will have more to say in the near future. Meanwhile, I'll leave you with a hint: You've perhaps heard of Meatless Monday? I will be proposing a companion concept, the best idea I have ever had, Sustainable Sunday.
Thanks for your input and support. More to come.