Monday, September 8, 2008

What I've Learned

While visiting Houston last month, I dropped by Brazos Bookstore and picked up a copy of Susan Bourette’s Meat:  A Love Storya book that truly made me appreciate my own lack of street cred.  Bourette, a Canadian journalist, spent four days undercover in a pork processing plant and, disgusted by punitive working conditions and the sheer gruesomeness of the job, vowed to swear off meat.  Her vegetarianism lasted a little over five weeks:  despite her commitment to a nutritionally balanced meatless diet, Bourette developed a protein deficiency and (if her personal anecdotes are to be believed) rushed to the nearest diner, shrieking "Give me meat!"  Bourette's full return to meat, though, which she chronicles in the book, involved rigorous research:  hacking veal at a tony butcher shop in Manhattan, hunting whales with native Inupiat Alaskans, roping cattle on a family Texan ranch, braving carpaccio with New Age raw meat fanatics.  Bourette examines the anthropology, economics, and sexual politics of meat.  This woman has street cred.

My journey as an omnivore, by comparison to Bourette’s, was breezy, boring and journalistically unsound.  Rather than pursuing the hidden truth about meat, I clung to a naïve belief that meat in France was inherently better than its American counterpart.  I didn’t visit any abattoirs, make trips to any farms, or kill any animals.  I didn’t even taste any offal.   I just traipsed from one Parisian restaurant to the next, happily swallowing the delicious meats I found on my plate, so long as their purchase didn’t unduly deplete my bank account.

Despite the fact that I spent my meat-eating phase in an ivory tower, despite the fact that my research was limited to what I put in my mouth and what I read online and in books, I still cannot say that this phase was a mistake or a waste.  If nothing else, I have been able to answer one of the questions I had in mind when I started my experiment:  Why do people eat meat at all?

I get it now.  Meat tastes good; some meat tastes great.  (Now that I’ve tried real bacon, soy-based Lightlife Smart Bacon resembles stiff, slightly overripe bologna.)  Meat is a central component of countless culinary traditions, one of the ties the binds us to the past.  I don’t take that lightly.

But, above all else, eating meat is easy.  If anything shocked me about the experience of eating meat after not having done so for more than a decade, it was the readiness with which I came to do it.  I started out scared to death, but within a few weeks of my first bite of meat, I was gobbling down any animal flesh I was offered.  This is not to say I didn’t still entertain qualms away from the dining room table—I did, and some may say that I went a bit overboard in my hand-wringing.  But if a hand-wringer can, after a little practice, down a burger with gusto, how can she judge anyone who’s never felt compelled to go vegetarian?

The epiphany that eating meat is easy may not sound like much of an epiphany at all.  And, compared to pros like Bourette, I may not be the best candidate to give advice.  But if you'll indulge me, if you'll forgive my callowness and penchant for stating the obvious, I would like to share the very small amount of wisdom I've gained as an omnivorous Tiresias of sorts:

Eating meat is so easy that I wouldn’t be surprised if people assume that it must be difficult not to eat meat.  But I've always found vegetarianism easy and enjoyable.   And if you've ever had the slightest curiosity about what it's like to go without meat, if you’ve ever felt the merest desire to go vegetarian, I urge you to give it a try.  

Maybe you're scared of taking a step out of your dietary comfort zone—I was.  Maybe you'll have to endure browbeating from people you once considered your peers—I did.  And maybe, like Bourette, you'll find that you just can't live without meat, and there’s no shame in that. 

But maybe, like me, you'll find that it's easy and rewarding and thought-provoking to eat differently from how you always have. 

Thursday, August 28, 2008

On Animal Liberation

If I have been quieter than usual over the past couple of weeks, I can blame it only partially on the fact that I’ve been traveling.  The other part is that now that I have returned to vegetarianism, the issues surrounding meat seem more complicated than ever.

In my search for clarity, I have finally gotten around to reading Animal Liberation, Peter Singer’s seminal philosophical treatise on the moral indefensibility of humans’ treatment of animals.

I am hardly the first reader to peruse Singer’s arguments—the book has been reissued twice since its original publication in 1975—and many authors and thinkers have responded to the claims in Animal Liberation with more skill and insight than I can hope to achieve. 

I can do little more than echo what many have surely thought after reading Animal Liberation:  this book is moving and troubling.  Its philosophical reasoning is airtight, and its descriptions of factory farms and scientific laboratories are horrifying.  I finished the book wanting everyone I know (and everyone I don’t know) to read it—not because I want to indoctrinate them to be “vegangelists” (as some have cleverly and accurately put it), but because the book raises issues that aren’t often talked about yet that every conscientious person ought to consider.

The trouble is that Animal Liberation is not high on most people’s literary to-do list, and that, taken out of context, Singer’s claims sound laughable or offensive. People do not like to be accused of “speciesism,” to use Singer’s neologism, just as they don’t like to be accused of racism or sexism. People do not like to think of themselves as tyrannical human overlords cruelly exploiting hens for their eggs.  People particularly do not like hearing comparisons between modern-day treatment of animals and Nazi treatment of Jews and minorities during the Holocaust.

When faced with these claims and accusations out of the context of a coolly logical argument, the average omnivore understandably feels estrangement from and anger towards his or her vegetarian accuser.  (I speak from personal experience.  It’s not fun to be harangued for one’s dietary choices.)

So what can be done to bridge the gap between those Singerite vegetarians who wholeheartedly wish to reduce animal suffering and those who choose to eat meat?

Obviously, there are many potential ways to answer this question, but one important move that shouldn’t be underestimated is for animal rights activists to lay off their moral absolutism, self-righteousness and judgment of meat-eaters.  Animal Liberation is far more levelheaded and unemotional than the average anti-meat propaganda, but even Singer is prone to asking readers to

recognize the moral necessity of refusing to buy or eat the flesh or other products of animals who have been reared in modern factory farm conditions.  This is the clearest case of all, the absolute minimum that anyone with the capacity to look beyond considerations of narrow self-interest should be able to accept.

I beg to differ.  Many thoughtful and compassionate people choose to eat meat for a variety of reasons, not all of which are trivial.  I think that anyone can make small dietary changes, short of forsaking all meat—and even short of forsaking all factory farm meat—to reduce animal suffering.  The simplistic view that anyone who eats meat is necessarily selfish accomplishes nothing but division and resentment.

Utilitarianism, the philosophical school to which Singer subscribes, holds that the consequences of an action determine its moral value.  The consequences of educating people about where their food comes from and in listening compassionately and respectfully to their reasons for eating meat cannot be anything but good.

Judging, lecturing and accusing meat-eaters of selfishness, on the other hand, will lead only to more alienation and reluctance to change.  What’s utilitarian about that?

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Other Omnivores' Recommendations

Alas, due to constraints of time, budget and metabolism, I was not able to try as many kinds of meat in Paris as I wanted to.  But for the sake of others looking to increase their intake of dietary cholesterol in the City of Lights, I’d like to share some of the restaurants and dishes that were recommended to me but that I wasn’t able to experience firsthand.

Dan, author of the charming and ebullient Kitchen Geeking, lived in Paris in the early ‘00s and recommends meat curries at “a fantastic Indian place just behind Metro Courcelles.”  If my Internet research isn’t faulty, this restaurant just might be Villa Punjab at 15, Rue Léon Jost.  (And while you’re up in the 17th arrondissement, why not take a stroll through the lovely, underrated Parc Monceau?)

Andrew, a friend whose knowledge of Paris’s restaurant scene outstrips that of everyone else I’ve met, recommends Chez l’Ami Jean, whose Basque-tinged cuisine is, he claims, “pretty meat/fish-centric, very rich, and very tasty.” 

My discriminating friend Katherine, who spent this past spring in Paris, recommends ordering risotto St. Jacques (champagne risotto with scallops) whenever the opportunity presents itself.  Never having tried scallops is the one meat-related regret that still gnaws at me, so I urge all Paris inhabitants and visitors to avoid my sorry fate and take Katherine’s advice.

Do you have any other suggestions for un repas carné in Paris that really shouldn’t be missed?  By all means, leave a comment.

Image © James Camp |

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

A Note to Readers

My days as a temporary omnivore in Paris are a thing of the past, but I’m not quite finished with this blog.  I'm eating vegetarian now but am planning to have one last meat-containing meal with Tristan when I get back to New York in September, and, until then, I’ll keep posting here (with a little less frequency than usual).  How does America’s food system look up close to someone who’s been eating in France for a year?  What are the symptoms of meat withdrawal?  How difficult will it be to say no to barbecue-proffering family members I haven’t seen in more than a year?  Stay tuned to find out.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Le Bistrologue Revisited

“If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”  –Ernest Hemingway

Something seemed right about going back to Le Bistrologue for lunch on my last day in Paris.  It was a sunny day; a cool breeze combed through the leaves of the tall trees that line Boulevard Diderot—a reminder that fall was coming, and that I would not be there to see it.  My cousin Nora and I took a table on the sidewalk, consulted the chalkboard menu, talked about our regrets about living in France.  I couldn’t come up with too many. 

I was in a fuck-all sort of a mood.  Leaving France will do that to you.

I ordered a glass of Sancerre.

I ordered foie gras, which came in three trapezoidal taupe tiles speckled disquietingly with yellows and purples that were undetectable on the tongue.  I spread it on toasted baguette, sometimes adding a little fig jam from the side of my plate; I cut off small squares of the pâté with my fork and put them in my mouth and felt them melt away.  “Rich” is a word I throw around a lot when describing food, but Le Bistrologue’s foie gras made me feel like the boy who cried wolf. 

I ordered confit de canard, which had been speared with a sprig of rosemary and a bay leaf that looked like flags claiming a virgin continent.  Fat had seeped into the duck leg, reducing its flesh to soft brown flinders that separated from the bone with the merest prodding of a fork.  The skin was crisp in places, soft and quivering in others; the dark meat evoked Thanksgiving turkey to my still unskilled palate.  The confit was served with a heap of caramel-colored fried potato cubes and a sorry-looking green salad.  I saw no need to touch the salad; I couldn’t get enough of the potatoes.

I ordered fondant au chocolat, two moussy slices in a pool of crème anglaise, then I swapped with Nora for her crème brulée:  shiny, deep yellow custard under a sheet of burnt sugar that stuck in my teeth.  

It was a fine French meal. 

I had spent much of my time in Paris complaining:  about the coldness of the locals, about the red tape around every corner, about the soullessness of a city whose heyday is long past.  But when I boarded my plane at Charles de Gaulle the day after my meal at Le Bistrologue, I could already feel the sepia tones trickling across my memories of Paris.  And at the top of the list of memories to be romanticized was this poultry-fat-laden, impeccably Gallic lunch at Le Bistrologue, this meal that I have no intention of trying to recreate but that I will likely take with me for the rest of my life.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Amsterdam: Pannenkoeken Madness

There are many reasons to visit Amsterdam: serene canal views and public parks, historical landmarks like the Anne Frank House, museums housing unrivaled collections of Van Goghs and Rembrandts, infinitely friendly locals.  

But there is a certain image of tourists who come to Amsterdam, and, as a recent weekend trip to the Dutch capital taught me, there is more than a grain of truth in the stereotype.  Many young American and Western European backpackers come to Amsterdam for only one thing:  the pancakes.

It’s not uncommon along certain stretches of the Singel, the city’s main thoroughfare, to  catch the scent of frying batter wafting up from one of many pancake houses.  Easily recognizable by the word “pannenkoeken” written on a window or awning, these restaurants lure visitors with the promise of cheap, unrestricted hotcakes.  Establishments like the famed and always crowded Pancake Bakery, which blares reggae music in a dark, underground main room decked with pancake paraphernalia, count on a steady clientele of pleasure-seeking tourists. 

Diners can choose between the traditional thin plate-sized flapjack and the silver-dollar fatties known as poffertjes.  Toppings range from pungent and savory (cheese, mushrooms or tuna) to aromatic and sweet (apples, raisins or stewed cherries).  Ice cream is almost always on hand for smoothness, and many restaurants also offer a choice between clean-tasting white flour and a headier whole-wheat blend.  Tables at  Amsterdam pancake houses are invariably stocked with a basket of syrup (stroop to locals), powdered sugar, and ready-rolled forks and knives—tools not unfamiliar to experienced pancake eaters.

While locals take a blasé attitude toward the ready availability of pancakes in Amsterdam, many Americans, who have never before indulged in pancakes outside the privacy of their homes, are unable to approach Amsterdam’s ubiquitous pancake scene with moderation.  Those who have only ever experienced the weak, inconsistent American blend known as Bisquick don’t know their own limits when it comes to inordinately sticky Dutch pannenkoeken.  Many pancake house patrons, giddy from the sheer volume of pancakes available to be consumed in the open, dissolve into giggles as easily as the powdered sugar dissolving into maple syrup on their plates. It is also not uncommon in Amsterdam to see Americans staggering around flower markets or stretched out on boats displaying all the obvious signs of a sugar coma: glassy eyes, a slack jaw, disorientation, sleepiness.

Of course, a wise tourist can safely indulge in pancakes without letting them take over a trip to Amsterdam.  The key is to keep in mind the wide variety of cultural experiences that the city has to offer.  And I hear the cannabis is quite good, too. 

Image © Eric Gevaert |

Monday, July 28, 2008

L'Ecailler du Bistrot

One of the few French pop songs I truly like is Vincent Delerm’s Tes parents.”  In it, the singer envisions how his girlfriend’s parents might be and describes a few different familial scenarios, each more horrifying than the last.  The happy ending is that Vincent is willing to put up with a lot—slideshows of vacation photos, slobbering dogs, opera music—to make things to work out with his lady.  Je suis prêt à faire des concessions...manger des huîtres au Reveillon,” he sings (“I’m ready to make some oysters on Christmas Eve”).

My first glance at the dozen raw Belon No. 5 oysters staring glossily up at me from a bed of root-like seaweed last Friday night made me understand why Delerm might think of eating oysters as making a concession.  I was eating one of my last meals in Paris (and, if all goes according to plan, one of my last meals as an omnivore) at L’Ecailler du Bistrot.  I had been tipped that this seafood restaurant on rue Paul Bert served oysters farmed in  Southern Brittany that were not to miss. 

I had never encountered an oyster up close, and the ones in front of me looked like slimy alien mushrooms.  Once I worked up the nerve to disengage one from the grip of its shell and put it into my mouth, its flavor was a shock of pure salinity—nothing I’ve ever eaten has tasted so much like the ocean.  I didn’t think that I really wanted to eat all twelve if each was going to feel like the equivalent of an unintentional swallow of seawater.

I went for a second, though, and a third, and these had a pleasantly sweet dimension that the first had lacked.  By the time I got to the sixth, I had hit my oyster stride and was letting them slide down with pleasure.  With a spritz of lemon, the flavor improved even more, and I began to enjoy the slick pop of unsuctioning each animal from its shell with my miniature fork.  By the time I swallowed the last I was feeling a nice clean buzz, as though I had downed a black espresso or other mild stimulant.

If my dozen Belons got me high, my main dish, homard frites, brought me back to earth.  No meat I’ve eaten has looked so much like the animal it once was as the half-lobster curled pathetically on my plate, its legs limp and easily snapped off, smothered in rich hollandaise sauce.  I thought of a short, charming essay Sam Sifton recently wrote for The New York Times Magazine about how to cook and eat lobster for “a weekend of simple excess.”  The author urges, “Don’t consider the lobster.”

So, as is par for the course for me these days, I stopped considering the lobster.  Unfortunately, actually consuming the lobster took a bit more effort.  The waiter had given me two shiny, cryptic tools—a cracker and a pick—in addition to my fork and knife, but I had no idea how to use them.  I ate the delicious, loosened bits of flesh that were easily extracted with my fork, then I turned my two mystery utensils about in my hands, occasionally grasping a section of the lobster’s red shell with the cracker and poking at the flesh with the pick.  The yellow hollandaise sauce was starting to  smear.

Eventually, the two men on a dinner date next to me could no longer pretend to ignore the increasing volume of the utensils clacking at their neighboring table.  With some kind instruction on their part, I managed to extract and devour all the butter-tasting lobster meat I could find.  Still, the claw remained intact.

I think that the middle-aged couples who made up the majority of L’Ecailler du Bistrot’s clientele were staring at me as the waiter (who maintained a stoic look on his face that made me think that this was not his first intervention between a lobster and a diner) finally cracked open the lobster’s claw for me and told me how to pull out the meat.  I can’t be sure, since I was keeping my eyes on my plate.   It was the most embarrassed I’ve been in a restaurant in recent memory. 

But my sheepishness was worth every bite of the lobster, which lived up to Sifton’s description:  “sweet and buttery, packed with protein, succulent, rich as bosses.”  (The evenly golden frites served in a trough-like plate as an accompaniment to the lobster weren’t bad either.)

While my companion went to the restroom in between the main course and dessert (a rich fondant au chocolat that was twice as good as it had any right to be in a seafood restaurant) an elderly man with a lumpy face at the table adjacent to ours asked me a question mostly in English:  “Was that your first homard?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Did you like it?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Then you’ll eat it again,” he declared.

“Maybe,” I said, laughing. He told me not to be afraid of dismembering it with my hands. 

I had a fleeting vision of what it might be like to eat lobster without embarrassment in an idyllic American setting, perhaps during a weekend of simple excess at the beach with friends.  Then I had a thought of what it might be like to eat oysters on Christmas Eve, when they’re plump and really in season.  And I wondered what kind of concessions I was willing to make.

Image © E-person |