Tiburón -Shark- Žralok

Tiburón -Shark- Žralok: Writing Cooking Traveling

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Home's Cooking

I'm getting the impression that the only culture that truly accepts vegetables as food and not seasoning for meat is the Indian culture and the liberal urban well-to-do hippie culture. And my cat, Tito. Or maybe I've decided to make a sweeping generalization because I've been living in a bubble of Hispanic and Middle-American culture for the past week. Or because I've frequently been attacked by some of my close friends (Mexican, Guyanese, Libyan, respectively) for proposing that meat, like cookies, is a "sometimes food." Or maybe its just them and my family who regard me as the vegetable-eating black sheep. Like my cat, Tito.

Circumstances have conspired against me, and high cholesterol or not, I've been in a meat-induced high for days. Texas was only different because my sister-in-law humored me and let me add some braised cabbage and a salad to the Thanksgiving menu.

Vegetables just aren't part of my family's gastronomic repertoire and they aren't really part of Puerto Rican culture's repertoire either. The Puerto Rican diet consists of fast food, plastic wrapped cookies from boxes, chips, meat, rice and beans, root vegetables like potato, yuca, calabasa, either fried or boiled, meat, bread, cold cuts, meat, some heavy pastas like lasagna or spaghetti bolognes, pasteles (which are like tamales made with plantains and meat), and did I mention meat? Now, don't get me wrong, Puerto Rican food is delicious, so delicious in fact that vegetables actually taste boring, even nasty, in comparison to its meaty, fatty goodness. Take my brother.

My younger brother, whose body is composed primarily of burgers, decided to try salad for the first time during Thanksgiving because he found a dressing that reminded him of the Sweet Onion sauce from Subway. He took one bite of spinach and tomato and spit it out immediately, swearing to never to eat salad again.   

Going back to my sweeping generalization, there is a cultural defensiveness that comes over people when you threaten their meat consumption. I'm obviously discarding from this equation vegetarians, Indian people, French people (the bastards), and anyone who has ever lived in New York or California. But most typical, traditional, family meals have some sort of meat at their center. I understand that urge to anchor down a plate with a protein.

Since I started eating meat again I've realized how nice, how complete a dinner feels when you can include some sort of well-seasoned, tender animal flesh along with your vegetables. I usually try to make due with just with cheese or eggs but nothing really beats the saltiness, the firm texture, and the fullness that comes with eating meat, be it chicken, red meat, pork, or fish. I mean, what plant could ever replace the sweet-salty-perfect flavor of bacon?

But above and beyond the physical addiction that the utter and thorough deliciousness of well-prepared meat created in the human brain and body, there is also an entitlement that comes down from as far back as the cave paintings where picture-stories about packs of men hunting of bison, mammoths, and tigers decorated stone walls. Consider the Greek and Roman orgies where the blood of cattle flowed or the simple peasant's sacrificial lamb offered up the gods then greedily consumed by the worshipper. Hindu and Christian fasting usually consists of abstinence from meat and alcohol, Muslim fasting culminates in massive, meaty feasts, and all holidays have an animal assigned to them.

Unfortunately, unlike the warring Greeks, the nomadic tribes of cavemen, or the peasants, physical labor has all but disappeared from daily life as medical science has ballooned over the decisions people make about what to eat. And medical science is under the constant assault of the industrialized meat industry and the stubbornness of traditions. Trandition and money met and as they say in Spanish, el amor y el interés fueron al campo un día... (love and private interests went to the country one day...)

As I learned from Michael Pollan, the meat industry lobbied long and hard against the discovery that doctors made several decades ago that over-consumption of meat was responsible for the number one cause of preventable death: heart disease. The meat lobbyist weren't buying it so they demanded the scientists boil it down to something they could work with. So the white coats determined that it was the fat in the meat that caused high cholesterol, high blood pressure, high rates of preventable death. The meat lobbyists thought it over, nodded, and went to press with the story: Fat is Evil! And so was born the fat-free industry. Everybody wins.

Well, guess what's fat free. That's right. Because of the lack of government subsidizing which make them expensive and their more complex flavors which make them challenging, vegetables need to step up their game in order to beat this iron-clad money-tradition meat combo. I propose a few ways to counter the meat monopoly over the gastronomic preferences of the world:

1) Visit New York with someone who has lived there. California works too.
2) Eat Indian food.
3) Pick one day a week to not eat meat.

This last one I'm stealing from a litany of food writers who are better versed than me on this subject. But the brilliance of this suggestions, beyond its obvious health and environmental benefits, it also creates the ideal scenario of invention by necessity. You can do as much and often more with vegetables than you can with meat. If you're looking for a starting point, create traditional meals with meat but add vegetables you've never tried or prepare vegetables you know in a way you're not used to. If you want to go a step further eliminate the meat from the center and make up for it with new dishes of vegetables (use cheese and eggs if you're scared). For the more adventurous I recommend experimentation with curry, cumin, cayenne, and tumeric. Once you go down this road, you'll never go back. The point? Just try new things.

Be like Tito.

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