Monday, September 22, 2014

How a steak & potatoes girl became a staunch supporter of Meat Free Monday

Yesterday was the UN Climate Summit in New York City, which basically discussed what the world can do to slow down climate change.  I've always been a green person that's taken interest in the environment, trying to conserve and not produce waste.  But I love steak and potatoes.  It's one of my favorite meals.  When I was in the U.S. this past August, this is what I ate and it was probably one of the best meals I've ever eaten:


I don't regret it one bit.  That was a really, really delicious steak.  I will admit it -- I like to eat meat.  Even so, one particular group that I've become a staunch supporter of is Meat Free Monday.  The idea behind the group is simple: the livestock sector (read: meat) is one of the biggest contributors to climate change, and by reducing the amount of meat we consume, we can make a difference.  By having one meat-free day per week, we can reduce greenhouse emissions significantly.  I've actually gotten so used to not including meat in what I cook that I actually do the reverse -- I eat meat maybe only once a week, if that.  So how did a steak & potatoes girl end up eating meat so rarely?

It was admittedly not easy.  Growing up, my parents would always cook something with meat in it: spaghetti bolognese, roast chicken, and steak.  In college, I was used to having meat at every meal in the dining hall.  Bacon for breakfast, philly cheesesteak for lunch, chicken parm for dinner.  (OK, no wonder I gained the freshman 15, but that's a different story.)  After graduating, I moved to Germany, where the culinary tradition is mostly connected to sausage, schnitzel, and Schweinshaxe (pork knuckle).  Essentially, a meat-heavy cuisine.  And it was actually in this environment that I became more aware of what I was eating, but it didn't happen overnight.

I'm the type of person who makes a list when I go to the supermarket and I stick to it.  To get my list together, I make a menu for the entire week and try to reuse ingredients in multiple dishes to minimize waste, both in terms of food and money.  This was a huge challenge, as the majority of dishes I liked to eat mostly had meat in them.  So I cut down my meat consumption by one day a week, as advocated by Meat Free Monday.  It was fairly easy because I only had to find one recipe per week that was vegetarian.  I learned how I could substitute meat with vegetables, beans, and lentils to make the dishes I wanted to cook just as satisfying as their counterparts for carnivores.  After awhile, I had a good arsenal of meat-free recipes that I would repeat fairly often and they became regular favorites that my husband and I looked forward to.  My red lentil bean chilli soon replaced regular chilli con carne, and a variety of cheeses were on the grill more regularly than cheap sausages.  I still ate meat fairly regularly, but I kept collecting more and more recipes.

I also read Jonathan Safran Foer's Eating Animals, and that put me off eating meat for awhile as well.  If you haven't read it, it's a well-researched, thoughtful book about the U.S. meat industry.  I won't say too much about it because it's actually self-explanatory.  I think the worst story dealt with some slaughterhouse workers who fell into a vat of animal waste because they were overpowered by the stench and drowned.  (Yes, there's that much animal waste coming from a slaughterhouse that fills a vat.)  But be warned: you'll probably not want to touch meat for awhile.  

Then at one point, my (now) husband and I made frikadelle (meatballs) to serve at his birthday gathering.  We bought some ground meat from the butcher since it was a special occasion, but then decided it wasn't enough for the number of guests we were having.  He ran out to Rewe, one of the supermarkets around the corner, and picked up 500 grams (about 1 pound) of pre-packaged ground meat.  The meat from the butcher was more expensive than the pre-packaged stuff, but we thought it wouldn't make a significant difference.  Besides which, the butcher had already closed after we changed our minds about the amount, so we didn't actually have a choice.  But man, we were wrong, and I kind of wish we had taken pictures of the differences.  The meat from the butcher made these dark brown, delicious-looking meatballs that weren't too greasy on the pan in the oven.  The meat from the supermarket, in contrast, was an unappetizing, unhealthy greyish-brown color and left a puddle of grease in the pan.  Taste-wise, the meat from the butcher was superior by far because it was less fatty, less watery, and more meaty.  We decided at that point to only buy meat from the butcher instead of the pre-packaged stuff from the supermarket's refrigerated aisle.

These three things started to add up.  I also noticed that buying meat from the butcher regularly could become a fairly expensive habit.  I had gone back to studying to get my master's and was freelancing teaching English.  Basically, I wasn't earning a lot of money, so I couldn't really buy meat four times per week from the butcher.  With the amount of vegetarian recipes I had collected, I started buying more lentils, beans, and vegetables and actively sought out even more meat-free recipes.  If I had a craving for shepherd's pie, I used a recipe with mushrooms and lentils instead.  

Soon, it became a habit of making my weekly menu with meat saved only for the weekend.  My menu for a week could look like this:
  • Monday - Ricotta & spinach-filled ravioli in a creamy tomato sauce
  • Tuesday - Hearty white bean & quinoa soup
  • Wednesday - Stuffed tomatoes & peppers with rice (see image below)
  • Thursday - Spicy zucchini & cheese
  • Friday - Couscous with veggies and a side salad
  • Saturday - Eggplant cheese bake
  • Sunday - Buffalo wings (because I love chicken wings and there is no vegetarian substitute)

By supporting Meat Free Monday, the most interesting thing that has happened to me aside from completely changing my eating habits is that I really relish good meat now.  It's a treat.  ("Meat's a treat" sounds like a gimmicky slogan from the 50s, but whatever, it's true.)  Whether it's an amazing medium-rare steak like the one above, or it's a juicy Kobe beef burger, it's even more special because I don't eat meat so often in general.  Sure, you could argue that I could buy meat from the butcher frequently and appreciate a good steak in a restaurant, but that's not what I choose to do because of the environmental and financial cost.  I could also get into the health benefits like lower cholesterol and all that, but for me, they play a smaller role.


On the other hand, I can imagine that vegetarians would ask me: "Why not go all the way and become a vegetarian?"  First, look at that steak above.  Delicious!  No, but in all seriousness, it's also out of convenience.  I like to travel, and limiting myself to being a vegetarian could make things difficult.  I like pointing at things and saying, "That looks tasty!" and just ordering it.  Admittedly, I think about meat a lot less when I travel but that's because I want to see what's available.  And that's exactly my point -- I don't have to think about what I can/cannot order, what's in the dish, and if I can eat at specific establishment if I'm not a vegetarian.  

It took a lot of work to change my eating habits, but I'm glad I did it.  Even if I could afford to eat more meat every week (which I can), I don't want to.  I like the vegetarian dishes I make and I like looking forward to the weekend when I can eat something else.  I also like trying to do as much as I can for the environment and for myself while still enjoying that medium rare steak when I get the chance.

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