Vegetarianing, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Cut Out Meat* Entirely

Despite my well-earned reputation as an omnivore, I’d been very picky with my meat choices (especially for things to cook at home) for several years, leaning on pasture-raised or otherwise ethical meat and animal products.

Then Dime (RIP) sent me to a boucherie, a Cajun cultural artifact where they slaughter a hog and then cook the entire beast, nose-to-tail, that same day. It was a really powerful experience, and for the first time I had a firm grasp on how serious a thing meat-eating is. I realized I wasn’t being very consistent with my choices, trusting the restaurants I patronized to put the same care into their sourcing as they do into their cooking. This is hardly ever the case.
So for the sake of simplicity and a clear conscience, I got off meat altogether. I still eat a fair number of eggs from free-range, pastured chickens. On very rare occasions I’ll eat wild-caught seafood*, especially smaller critters like oysters and shrimp. I’m not as strict with dairy as I should be; hoop cheese makes an occasional appearance, but it’s 80% organic and/or locally-sourced stuff. I don’t see this becoming a slippery slope back to full carnivore.
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roasted carrots with walnuts and salsa verde. being a vegetarian is sometimes very easy

I don’t think there’s anything immoral about eating meat, in itself. Responsible hunting and fishing is cool with me. Death is part of life, and a cow might be happiest living in a fenced pasture, fat and safe from predators, until it’s humanely slaughtered. BUT:
1. That’s totally not how we do it. Food animals live horrendously miserable lives, and their suffering is real and significant and unacceptable.
2. Environmentally, we can ill-afford foodways that are up to nine times more resource-intensive than simply eating vegetables. The petroleum and water inputs it takes to grow chickens, pigs, and (especially) cows are far too costly. If energy were cheaper, from a sustainable standpoint, we could re-evaluate, but for today eating meat is a luxury that’s putting humanity in jeopardy.
3. Restricting your diet to “ethically” raised meats is specious. First of all, their provenance is often murky. If you haven’t visited the farm AND the slaughterhouse, you don’t know for sure what you’re getting. And that does little to address #2, the environmental impact.
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bread contains no animal products, thank god

This hasn’t been about personal health or wellness. Excluding any quantity of an entire category of foods from one’s diet makes it harder to be healthy, not easier! Depending on your dietary and lifestyle goals, vegetarianism can result in some pretty weird culinary contortions. In order to get sufficient protein (1+g/lb of body weight/day), I’m drinking multiple protein shakes daily and eating some combo of  legumes, dairy, and eggs at every meal. But if there are vegans out there squatting 750lbs, fitness goals are a poor excuse for eating meat.
It feels kinda weird to go from reading books on whole-animal butchery to disavowing bologna. But it’s my responsibility to behave in a way that lines up with my opinions. If I think Wal-Mart is a destructive monopoly, I shouldn’t shop at their stores. My past meat-eating made me complicit in the suffering of the animals I claimed to care about, which is hypocritical and self-defeating. Not eating meat isn’t about being morally spotless — it’s about making my actions match my words.
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Egg Yolk Pasta Dough

I spent several years of my early adulthood completely avoiding the middle section of the grocery store. If it wasn’t a fresh vegetable, meat, cheese, dairy, or eggs, it wasn’t coming home with me. Don’t get me wrong, I was still a total trashmouth at restaurants, but home cooking was for fuel. There wasn’t a speck of flour to be found in my pantry.

The two things that flipped that philosophy on its head were giving up meat and learning to make pasta dough.

Pasta is spiritually important to me. When I was eleven, I settled on fettucine Alfredo as my favorite food, and I haven’t looked back. The recipe below yields a dough that’s great for pappardelle, tortellini, lasagna sheets — basically any pasta you’d care to roll out and cut by hand. The number of servings will vary depending on how you roll it out, but for straight-up noodles, you’ll get about three healthy portions.

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use the prettiest eggs you can find

Ingredients

9 egg yolks

3tbsp water

1tbsp olive oil

200g all purpose flour

50g no. 1 durum wheat semolina flour. If you don’t have this, can’t find it, or don’t want to buy it, your pasta will still be very good. Just replace with an extra 50g AP flour. But it does improve the pasta’s texture and even my crummy grocery store carries it, so it’s worth keeping around.

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proper pasta geometry and theology

Process

Mix the first three ingredients in a large bowl until combined. Add the dry ingredients and mix with a fork until they begin to come together. Then, get handsy — knead the dough in the bowl first, until most of the flour is worked into the dough. Turn the dough out onto a lightly-floured work surface and continue to knead until you’ve got a cohesive, Play-Doh-esque lump of beautiful future noodles. The kneading is done when you can stretch the dough without it tearing too much, and it springs back slowly.

Wrap tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least thirty minutes before rolling and cutting into whatever shape you desire. I usually double this recipe and freeze half of it, giving me a stash of ready-to-go dough for up to three months.

The Funeral and the Festival

originally published in Dime Entertainment Magazine

The point at which a hog goes from a dead animal to meat is when the butcher splits its breast bone with a mallet and a hatchet. He or she hops onto the table where the hog rests, straddling the carcass. A series metallic thunks, a tug on the legs on either side, and the creature splits open to resemble the vertically-oriented sides of pork (or beef, or lamb) that hang in meat lockers.

The head has yet to be removed. The intestinal tract that had been happily digesting minutes before remains in place. We’re still hours from barbecued ribs, but the crucial transubstantiation is complete.

These are the lessons one learns from attending a boucherie. A boucherie is a Cajun cultural artifact, a celebration of abundance in a place where scarcity is the norm. The community comes together to share in the sacrifice of a hog, with each family receiving and preparing a portion of meat. Acadian specialties like boudin and head cheese arose from the need to use every part of the animal, both for economic reasons and to honor the loss of life.

 

I attended my first boucherie as a guest of the Meraux Foundation, a charitable organization promoting and preserving the culture of St. Bernard Parish. As the finale of Slow Food USA‘s Slow Fish conference, the boucherie was intended to serve as a sideshow to some fascinating and delicious seafood cookery. The slaughter, breakdown and preparation of a whole hog, however, has a magnetism that’s hard to compete with.

The Foundation opened up Docville Farm, a 130-acre historic farm between the Mississippi River and Lake Borgne, to the Slow Food attendees and Lache Pas Boucherie. Lache Pas (Cajun for “don’t let go”) is a collective of Cajuns and Creoles led by Toby Rodriguez. Lache Pas has been almost singularly responsible for the revival and preservation of the boucherie, appearing on Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations in 2011 and orchestrating numerous boucheries across the Gulf South.

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daybreak through the sugarcane near Docville Farm’s entrance

Soon after sunrise, the crowd gathered around the trailer which had transported the hog to Docville Farm. Rodriguez had just spent a few minutes alone with the hog, offering him a last meal of fresh grains. The boucherie crew arranged themselves at the trailer’s entrance as Rodriguez drew his pistol. Paul Deville, a friend of Lache Pas, said the Lord’s Prayer, and a gunshot ended the hog’s life.

 

The crew sprung into action in the hushed silence, holding the hog’s flopping body as Rodriguez slit its throat. The hot blood flowed into a mixing bowl and was whisked with salt to prevent coagulation; the blood is a feature ingredient in boudin noir. Once the hog had been bled, Rodriguez called for “about six or eight” strong hands to load the carcass onto a board and move it to the staging area.

 

A boucherie is necessarily collaborative and offers plenty of opportunity for amateurs to get their hands dirty. Shaving the bristles alone involved a rotating crew of dozens of chefs, cooks and volunteers. Over the following hour, the crowd began to disperse as cuts came off the hog: liver, heart and kidneys for stew; loins for grilling; hams for a six-hour smoke session.
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Toby Rodriguez and co deftly remove the snout from our recently deceased benefactor.

Cooking up this bountiful mess of meat were a hodgepodge posse of Cajuns and some of New Orleans’ most celebrated chefs. Top Chef finalist Isaac Toups collaborated with Bacchanal‘s Joaquin Rodas on an organ meat stew laced with black-eyed peas. This dank concoction was ladled over a thin, raw slice of tenderloin in the style of Vietnamese pho. Mopho‘s Michael Gulotta diced and rendered pork belly for gratons, the Cajun take on cracklin’s. Whole-hog royalty/NASA rocket scientist Howard Conyers teamed up with Shaya‘s Zach Engle to handle the ribs and loins.

Paul Deville cooked the ponce: the hog’s stomach, stuffed with sausage, sewn shut, seared and braised until cooked through. Apparently this particular hog’s stomach was exceptionally large, and thus challenging to cook without it bursting. “If I’d have known he was gonna put me through this, I wouldn’t have said such a nice prayer,” Deville said.

 

Rodriguez and the rest of the Lache Pas crew are now in the midst of a nationwide tour, with stops in Houston, Birmingham and Denver. The Slow Food boucherie was the pilot event — a collaboration with community chefs that fuses Cajun ritual with local cuisine. “No matter where we go, we meet the same folks,” Rodriguez said. Farmers, fishers, chefs and eaters, all individuals who are emotionally invested in the provenance and treatment of the foods they consume.
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The husbandry of animals is a crucial aspect of conventional agriculture. The crops that best nourish humans deplete the soil; animals, fed on the plants or parts of plants that humans can’t eat, return those nutrients to the ground. Animals provided a supplement (milk, eggs) and storehouse (meat) of calories, surety against a ruined crop or the barren cold of winter.

Modern industrial food production’s segregation of animals from the land is a violence against humans, livestock and our planet. Replacing the valued work of animals with petroleum-based fertilizers and gas-powered tillers, modern agriculture treats cows, pigs and chickens as units of meat production rather than sentient, sensitive beings. The process results in vast sewage lagoons, suffering animals and fat, sick humans.

 

“Taking the life of an animal is a huge responsibility,” Rodriguez said. Our daily behavior does not reflect this fact. Ethically-farmed meat and vegetables are premium products, unattainable for most on a daily basis. We no longer move within a system of traditional, sustainable agriculture. Events like a boucherie are a sad reminder of what we’ve lost, a statement on where we stand, and a prompt to change.

Cacio e Pepe

If you asked me to teach you cook, cacio e pepe would be the first thing we’d do together. It might be the only thing I’d teach you, because once you see how transcendentally delicious four ingredients can be, you may understand that cooking isn’t hard at all.

Cacio e pepe will teach you how to boil pasta.  Fill a big-ass pot 2/3rds full of water, salt the hell out of it, and bring it to a boil (heating with the lid on speeds things up). Not a bubble, a BOIL, like you’re gonna sterilize surgical instruments in it. Dump your pasta in, give it a stir to make sure none of it sticks to the bottom of the pot. Keep an eye on it: fresh pasta cooks in about 90 seconds, and dried stuff takes maybe 6-8 minutes. When it’s still got some bite to it, but doesn’t stick in your molars, it’s done. HEY WAIT. Before you drain it, pull a few ladles of that lovely starchy saltwater into a bowl. We’re gonna use that.

(Also, don’t run cold water over your pasta after you drain it. Maybe my parents are the only people that do this, but it rinses the starch layer off the surface, which prevents the sauce from sticking).

This dish will teach you the difference that quality ingredients make. There are only four ingredients: if one of them is crap, it’s 25% crap. If you use green-canister “parm,” pre-ground pepper (basically floor sweepings), and olive oil that’s 49% canola, your cacio pepe is going to taste like those things.

You’ll also learn the most important lesson of all: don’t put the cheese grater up until the meal is over, because you will definitely, always, without exception need more cheese.

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Ingredients

As much pasta as you want to eat, now and/or later

Good olive oil

Parmesan cheese

Freshly-ground black pepper

Process

Boil water, add pasta.

Grate cheese (at least two big handfuls) and crack pepper (more than you think you should) into a bowl big enough to hold the cooked pasta + room for stirring.

Pour enough olive oil into the mixing bowl to turn your cheese + pepper into a tight paste.

Scoop a few ladles of pasta water, either into a separate bowl or the big mixing bowl, depending on your confidence level. Drain the pasta, stir up the cheese/pep/oil and pasta water, then add the pasta to the party.

As you stir, the sauce will coat the pasta. The contents of the bowl will progress from a wet salad of separate things into a cohesive unit of tangled pasta shellacked with a Sauce. If it’s oily or dry, add another splash of pasta water. If it’s watery, add more cheese or oil. Experience and observation are the only reliable guides here.

Use tongs or a spider strainer to move the pasta to a plate. If the plate’s been warmed by resting it on the stovetop, all the better. Try to plate the pasta gently, so there’s air underneath it. Grate some more cheese and crack some more pepper on top.

Pour or make yourself a drink. A negroni is a fine complement. Congratulate yourself: the essential human skill of cooking a simple, satisfying meal is now yours.

Why Cook Anything?

“You know you can buy marshmallows at the store, right?”

I am lucky that the above is one of the saltiest comments I’ve ever received on an Instagram post. I was making marshmallows, for no other reason than I’d never done it before. The comment’s implication, that the availability of ready-made marshmallows makes preparing them at home an absurd (or at least redundant and unnecessary) activity, is worth considering.

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homemade ramen. there’s noodles under all that, I promise.

Why do we bother to cook for ourselves? It’s frequently cheaper and more efficient to buy prepared foods, even if you’re trying to “eat healthy,” whatever that means. For the same reasons, most of us no longer make our own clothes or build our own homes. We outsource these jobs to specialists, hoping the efficiency of the market will bring us higher quality, greater access, or both.

Sometimes it works. I don’t own a sewing machine, and while I wish the folks who make my clothes earned a living wage, I have no intention of pounding the rivets into my next pair of jeans.

One difference between jeans and grilled cheese is that my jeans will never be a part of my physical body.  The food we eat becomes our skin, our bones, our brains and our blood. The effects of reducing food to a simple act of consumption are deep, far-reaching, and immensely painful.

Disconnecting from our foodshed impacts our individual health: when we don’t know or care what’s in our food, we’re led by our noses, which can be tricked into approving some pretty nasty stuff.  We’re sold calorically-dense, nutritionally-void food simulacra engineered to appeal to the reptilian pleasure centers of our brains. The result is metabolic syndrome, depression, shortened lifespans and reduced ability to enjoy the lives we do have.

A lack of basic knowledge about what our foods are and where they come from means they could be anything or come from anywhere. Their manufacture could trample the environment, evince epidemiological catastrophes, doom species to extinction, or exploit the folks who farm, transport, and cook.

When you cook from scratch, especially when you tackle something as involved as lasagna or chocolate chip cookies, your interest in ingredients and processes becomes granular. Food connects our history, our agriculture, our politics and religion. It is a universal portal to exploring our world.

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this pie? totally a portal

I am not a chef. I’ve never worked in a commercial kitchen, and while my parents are competent cooks, neither one is Julia Child. What my parents and grandparents did give me was the knowledge that cooking is something anyone can learn to do. As Bob Ross said, “Talent is a pursued interest. Anything you’re willing to practice, you can do.”

Some of the foods I’m going to talk about on this blog aren’t thirty-minute meals (although some of the most satisfying can be prepared very quickly). They’re projects, in the sense that they take a significant investment of time. I’d urge you to measure the benefits not just in the deliciousness of biscuits and brownies, but in the knowledge and skills you gain. If nothing else, you’re guaranteed to deepen your understanding of what it takes to be well-fed.