Unlearning Vegetarianism: A Journey To Situational Omnivorousness

Eating is the catalyst and the conduit for so many cultural and social experiences that I hated missing out on as a vegetarian. I was born and raised that way- both of my parents became vegetarian years before I was born and my entire family remains committed vegetarians.  Over the past few years, I have departed from this value system, receiving responses from my sisters and parents ranging from bewilderment to concern.

When I was young, I would say, “When I grow up, I’m going to eat Big Macs and chicken wings!”  (I also, for the record, desperately craved squishy white bread and creamy peanut butter to replace the crumbly whole wheat home baked loaves and oily separated natural peanut butter I was served). Of course once I was autonomous, I was disgusted by the thought of any of it and could not imagine putting those processed dead substances in my body.

When I began actually trying real meat, at first I was frustrated with how little I could handle.  I could taste little bites but was still too weirded out by the texture of flesh in my mouth to eat much of it. Now I am grateful for this sensitivity. I am horrified by the thought of eating unclean, unhealthy animals who were brutalized. However, even ethically raised or harvested animals are still living beings whose lives are being taken and this always has been and will always be a heavy, complicated process – one that I will never engage in casually. So as I have been unlearning my vegetarianism, I have been learning as much as I can about the processes by which animals end up as food- different slaughtering and butchering techniques and traditions, the differences between grass fed and corn fed beef, the ways that unseasonably warm waters on the west coast affect the taste of the oysters, the impact of overfishing and the rising acidity of the ocean on sea species central to sushi production…if I was not eating from the ocean I guarantee I would not be as attuned to the crises playing out there. I feel more plugged into the planet now that I eat (some) meat and seafood.  I pay attention more. I feel the affects of what’s going on in our ecosystems and food production systems more than ever before. I also feel more connected to the people of the past in this place I live- Brooklyn, Long Island, the coast of the Atlantic- a place where the indigenous people, and then all of the colonizers and immigrants following them, ate from the ocean because it’s right here!  (If I were still living in Ohio, I would not be as passionate about learning how to eat from the sea responsibly because the responsible thing to do there would be to not eat from it). Feeling more plugged into the planet through consuming meat feels somewhat ironic for me because I know my mother, who is so disturbed by my digression, is vegetarian precisely because of how plugged into the planet she feels.

A proto-omnivorous moment I had years ago took place in the home of a Palestinian farmer family in a village near Jenin. I had been helping their cooperative sell their fair trade olive oil in the States and was being hosted by this family during my first visit since the collaboration began. It was Id and they had just slaughtered a lamb and grilled it, serving it in small dark juicy chunks accompanied by a mouth-watering array of sauces, dips, spice mixes, pickles, yogurt, bread, and veggies. I ate a small amount (I remember exactly 5 pieces but may have projected that number onto the memory in retrospect). It was a space within which my commitment to vegetarianism did not feel as important as gratefully participating in the intimate, generous experience of this family’s celebration. I had been concerned that my stomach would be upset given that it had never had such things in any substantial quantity. I was totally fine.

Years later, I had the privilege of visiting the tiny magical universe of Sutton Island in the Gulf of Maine. My friends kayaked out to the big rock near the dock in front of our house and harvested some mussels. After they cleaned them on the front porch, we made paella with them, throwing them into the large pot, covering it, and as they were coaxed open by the steam, we smelled their oceanic juices seep out and infuse the rice and vegetables.

I knew that if I were to ever try eating mussels that THIS was the moment- mussels harvested by my friends’ hands in a small and sustainable amount, in the cleanest water I had ever been in. And I asked myself if eating a plastic-wrapped processed soy product could in any way, spiritually or nutritionally, feel better than eating these sea creatures freshly plucked from a rock. The answer was no. Thus began my more deliberate mission to expand my food experience to include animals. These were both experiences in which the values and logic of what was right to eat came into focus as more layered and complex than any YES/NO position on meat could encompass.

I tease my mother by calling her a fundamentalist vegetarian because she believes that everyone should be vegetarian all the time. There are no other points to be considered other than avoiding taking unnecessary life as she sees it. And this is a serious question- is it necessary for us to kill and eat animals? (“Us” being urbanized people living in the year 2013). The answer might, on a certain level, be NO. Not technically. But it all comes down to the interconnectedness of all the systems involved in what we eat- it makes it so that it is very difficult, and possibly not ideal, to maintain a pure and singular set of dietary restrictions if one’s aim is to eat most ethically and healthily, for planet and self. One meal might offer the choice between processed soy product and sustainably farmed fish, in which case the fish might be the most ethical and clean way to eat in that situation. In another context, one might have to choose between factory farm chicken and a vegetable dish containing avocado flown half way around the world with fossil fuel guzzling engines. In that situation, the harm and health dichotomy get complicated.  This might be a pick your battles situation, and one in which there’s no guaranteed clear winning position because either way, you are implicated in a losing food production industry. With an industrialized food system relying on so much fossil fuel, plastic, chemicals, and so on, eating vegetarian is not automatically a less harmful choice. It can be- if whole, local, seasonal, sustainably grown and produced foods are the boundaries around one’s eating decisions. But just going for the non-animal option at a restaurant or the grocery store doesn’t guarantee righteousness unfortunately.

Adding a different dimension of decision-making factors, there are contexts in which one is being offered special dishes prepared lovingly by people who are sharing their knowledge, their heritage or their home.  For me, fully experiencing different cultures and communities requires responding to such welcomeness with openness, curiosity, and gratitude. It is the only way to learn. And show respect. There is no room for rigid restrictions that negate the wisdom of a cuisine being presented.  There are dishes that are so central to cultures, classics enjoyed on sometimes obsessive levels by entire countries and larger geographic areas, that I feel must at least be tried.  Otherwise a significant element of a place that I am in will be missed. And I HATE missing out. (This is admittedly the most questionable of my reasons for abandoning vegetarianism personally.)

So I have developed a situational omnivorousness that I do not claim to be righteous but is at least an attempt to live fully and cultivate a multifaceted relationship to food.  I am sure it will continue to evolve, especially as our planet keeps changing and I learn more.

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Maine Magic

Sutton Island is a small island just off the coast of Mount Desert Island in Maine. There are only 22 houses on the island and the only way to get there is by boat. Each time I’ve gone there, I feel as if I’ve slipped through a portal into another dimension.Walking in the forest on Sutton, we were bouncing, stepping on soft glowing green lichen and moss covered mounds, breathing in sweet air perfumed by the most delicate blend of sea salt and pine needles.

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 I spend my time there literally not believing my eyes, charmed and overwhelmed by the combination of elegant old money New England families’ summer mansions and the raw and rustic beauty of the rocks, woods, lobstermen’s boats, open skies, and sparkling ocean. To spend time in this watery world is a gift. Cranberry Isles

A gift that I came to share through the love and generosity of my Detroit family. There is a perhaps surprisingly deep historic connection between this awe-inspiring tranquil island off the coast of Maine and the awe-inspiring intense city in the middle of the country. The Cranberry Isles (of which Sutton Island is a part) were granted (in the grand European tradition of giving people land that didn’t belong to them) to the Sieur de Cadillac back in the mid-1600’s, before Cadillac made his way inland to develop Detroit as a trading post. ConversationsInMaine

Centuries later, Grace Lee Boggs and Jimmy Boggs, started a decades long tradition of spending August on Sutton Island with other visionaries and organizers working to transform society. They published a book sharing the questions and ideas that came out of these gatherings. Since then, our generation has been welcomed there by Shea Howell, the most wise, good-humored, open-hearted, warm, grounded mentor and friend. She shares with us the secrets of the forest, the history of the islands, the stories of the houses. She is our guide to the goodness of this place. Oh Captain, My Captain

After our return to the mainland a few weeks ago, Kymberlie, a dear friend and fierce mama from Maine originally, wrote to all of us who had ventured there together:

“I could not have even imagined what magic that tiny ocean paradise had in store, and I feel like it was such a gift to get to discover it with you.  I’m also really happy about Elliot getting to romp around with all of you awesome grownups.  It’s hard to believe that a week ago we were playing in sea spray at the edge of the continent, eating lobster daily and sunning ourselves with mid-day glasses of rosé in hand.  I’m thinking about how to incorporate a little Sutton Island into my daily life…suggestions?” LittleGilly

Given that we experienced such joy and sense of place through kayaking out to the rock right beyond our shore to gather mussels, boating to the next island over to get lobster directly from the fishermen’s cooperative on their collectively owned dock, walking through the forest foraging chanterelles and cranberries, and strolling through our neighbor’s garden picking herbs, sharing some of the menus and recipes for the meals we made together is one of the most concrete ways we could think of for incorporating the essence of Sutton Island into our daily lives! HarvestingMussels

The reason that we made it all the way out to this dream land on the edge of things, is one of my favorite people on the planet- Mike Medow. He is an infrastructure man, handling the business of pleasure and the work that makes the good work possible.  The entire time we were there, so aware of the precious nourishment we were getting, we were strategizing about how to sustain our connection to this place and widen the circle of people who could come revel in its magic. So we’re beginning by giving everyone a taste. Perhaps in the future, you’ll join us at the table!

The Crew

Here are three recipes for dishes we really enjoyed. I’ve also included the menus for each meal. It’s amazing how much just knowing what we ate and how we ate it can give you a sense of our time on the island! Kymberlie and her brother, Nick, shared some of these photos and Kymberlie helped remember and describe all of the sumptuous feasts.

Fig Manhattan

2 oz Bourbon

1 oz sweet Vermouth

1 teaspoon fig preserves

Shake vigorously with ice in a cocktail shaker (or mason jar if you’re in a rustic cabin like we were). Pour into a rocks glass over a few cubes of ice.

Romesco Sauce

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

2 roasted red peppers (see below for the process)

2 cloves of garlic

2 tomatoes

2 or 3 tablespoons sherry or white wine vinegar

1/2 cup slivered toasted almonds

a dash of cayenne

1/3 of a baguette or a couple of slices of another kind of bread

fine sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

I like mine nice and smooth and creamy so I throw all of the ingredients in a strong blender and womp it up. If you want more texture, use a food processor.

To roast the red peppers, place each on the open flame of a gas burner. Use tongs to rotate it until each side is charred and blistering. Then remove them from the heat and place in a tupperware and close the lid to “sweat” them. After about 15 minutes, once cool enough to touch, peel the skin off, slice them open, scrape out the seeds, and then add into the blender.

Wifey Salad

INGREDIENTS

1 bunch of lacinato kale de-stemmed and shredded

3 carrots grated

2 large beets roasted and cubed

2 cups of cooked farro

4 or 5 eggs hardboiled, peeled, and chopped

1/2 cup toasted sunflower seeds or pepitas

1 block of feta crumbled

DRESSING

1/4 cup of olive oil

1/2 cup sour cream or yogurt

juice of 2 lemons

2 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar

2 or 3 tablespoons of tamari sauce

a few dashes of hot sauce

2 cloves of garlic

a big handful of dill

a big handful of parsley

1 or 2 tablespoons of yellow mustard

1 or 2 tablespoons of honey

salt and pepper to taste

To make the dressing, just throw all of the ingredients in a blender! Adjust the flavor according to your taste- if you want more brightness/acidity, add more lemons. If you want it sharper, add another clove of garlic. You want the dill to be a prominent flavor because that’s what makes the salad so refreshing. So add more if it isn’t coming through enough. And of course salt and sweetness always add depth and bind flavors together more so if it needs that, adjust the salt and/or honey.

To make the salad, first cook about 1 cup of farro in about 1.5 cups of broth. I make my own vegetable stock but you can use whatever you have. Bring the farro and broth to a boil and then cover and simmer for a while. Check after 10 minutes. You should turn it off when the farro has a nice chewiness but isn’t hard at all. There might be some liquid left- that’s ok! Lightly and briefly massage the shredded kale with a drizzle of olive oil. Add the grated carrots, roasted and cubed beets, and the farro with whatever liquid is left in it (that will help soften the kale a bit and add flavor to the dressing). Add the dressing and toss thoroughly. Then add in the feta, eggs, and seeds and toss lightly- just enough to integrate them.

SuttonSunbeams

Curry Night

Coconut curry with ginger, basil, kale, zucchini, brown rice

Marinated and baked tofu

Stir-fried shiitake mushrooms with garlic scapes

After dinner: Fireplace roasted smores and fig Manhattans

Frittata Breakfast

Cherry tomatoes, cheddar, chard, leek

Lobsterpocalypse

Corn on the cob

Garlic roasted new potatoes with crème fraiche and chives

Green salad

Cozy Afternoon Delight

Orzo, chickpea, spinach soup

Dollop of sour cream

Taco Bonanza

Mussels in coconut basil curry broth

Roasted garlic, tomato, cilantro salsa

Romesco Sauce

Avocado Cream

Chickpeas sautéed in garlic, onion, cumin, lemon

Kale salad with carmelized shallots, feta

Spanish rice

Punch: Bourbon, Campari, Domaine de Canton, Lemon, Soda, Prosecco

Southern Comfort Brunch

Smoked Gouda Grits

Poached Egg

sautéed kale in special sauce

Salsa and romesco

Dockside Happy Hour

Cocktail: Cava, Campari, Gin, Lemon, Vermouth

Snack: Basil, balsamic, garlic marinated and roasted fairytale eggplant with sliced baguette and basil crème fraiche

Farewell Midnight Banquet

linguine with pan roasted chanterelles, parsley, shallots, and parmesan

Garlic roasted new potatoes with crème fraiche and chives

Salad: mixed greens, corn, tomatoes, cucumbers in an herb, yogurt dressing

Baked haddock with lemon, parsley, dill, garlic, and paprika

Blueberry Pie from Little Notch Bakery

Breakfast for the road

Frittatini with zucchini, cheddar, onions, roasted red peppers

A Taste of Paradise

On Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year, my mother, like many other Jews, bakes her challah into coiled circles representing the cycle of life, the new year beginning, our next rotation around the sun…

After blessing the sweet cylindrical bread, Ima tears the loaf into pieces (avoiding the touch of a knife to the sacred loaves because these instruments also have the potential to harm). We eagerly reach for the best pieces – shiny golden on the outside and soft, fluffy dough on the inside – and passionately smear butter on our torn pieces of yeasty treasure. The required next step in this process is dripping the honey from our apple and honey ritual (another symbol of fertility, the round planet, the “head of the year”).  The final stage of this collective culinary experience is my father inevitably saying, year after year, “mmmmm…this is a taste of the garden of Eden.” The unofficial yet religiously practiced ritual is not complete without this statement.

And it is indeed the most heavenly combination filling your mouth – the creaminess of the butter, warm yeastiness of the fresh baked golden challah, and tart sweetness of the honey. You feel like you are glowing from the inside. If paradise can be imagined as a place of total harmony, simple goodness, and comfort, this is how it would taste.

I thought of this famous family idiom miles away from home while having possibly the most magical meal of my life at Al Paradiso, an elegant trattoria tucked into a cluster of old, partially crumbling stone buildings surrounded by cornfields in the Friulian countryside.

Federica, our host, had become famous in my household as the talented creator of Basil Liver Soup (a delightful translation slip-up that took place during an email exchange with my father as she generously shared the recipe for the simple, bright, silky soup my parents have now recreated and shared many times). My parents had waited and planned for ten years to bring us here, to share with us the magical culinary experience that had so deeply impacted them on their first voyage here.

Ima & Abba happily returned to their beloved trattoria,  Al Paradiso

We were seated on the terazza at a round table with white tablecloth and green velvet runner (velvet on the table felt like a generous dedication to beauty over concern for the risk of spillage). The centerpiece was a large glass vessel filled with water, and floating orange roses matching the orange stones delicately strewn around the table. Our view through the white curtains was bright blue and white hydrangea bushes and bright red geranium growing on a stone building with wooden shutters that must have been the restaurant’s wine cellar and storage. We sipped sparkling water out of delicate blown glass cups (no effort was spared in the details of this paradise) and were welcomed by Federica in a traditional medieval Friulian country dress perfectly coordinated with the colors of our table setting.  Since my parents met Federica years ago, she’s had two children, both of whom hovered around her while her mama and papa served our meal alongside her.

The context inspired Abba to play around with redefining fusion cooking – understanding it as a dining experience carefully cultivated to integrate and satisfy multiple senses and forms of enjoyment – the aesthetics of the table, the lighting, the sounds and smells, the texture and temperature of the foods, the relationship and interactions between those making and serving the food and those enjoying it, the libations and their origins and pairings, the history and energy of a place.

The amuse bouche was ravioli fritti ripieni con melanzane (fried ravioli stuffed with eggplant) with a wonderful red pepper sauce (something like romesco?). We then moved on to fiori du zucchine ripieni di ricotta (zucchini flowers stuffed with ricotta) served in a beautiful zucchine cream and crispy puff pastry with capriolo cheese perfumed with aromatic herbs.

The soup was prepared specifically for us in honor of our parents’ deep appreciation and excitement. It was, of course, the revered crema di basilico con sfoglia di polenta (meaning cream of basil soup with amazingly thin and crsipy polenta on the side). My parents were thrilled by the surprise addition of a tiny patate e carrote timbalo in the middle (a small, round-shaped mold of baked potato and carrot). Then we devoured the pacchetti pasta filled with marjoram and fonduta di montasio cheese and tomatoes. Seeing as this was a vegetarian meal sweetly prepared specifically for my family, the secondi in this epic banquet was gnocchi with patate and wild herbs topped with crumbled fried parmigiano. (Our carb-loving family was up for the traditional flow of an Italian meal involving pasta as a warm up for what in this meat free situation was yet another even bigger pasta!). Then there was also a poached egg (yeah!) atop al dente veggies (celery, carrots, kale) covered with potato creme.

With each course Federica spent time with us, telling us everything we wanted to know about every dish and its ingredients. She also carefully selected and presented a different wine with each course, the most ephemeral whites, an orange wine, dessert wines, all from the region.  Dessert was creme mille feuille with “coffee caviar”!

By this point I was happily floating in a dream-like state, induced by the quaint, fantastical surroundings, the sensuality of the food, Federica’s grace and wisdom, and, of course, the many bottles of bright, crisp, complex, smooth, and then ultimately sweet wines. (In Italy, local is a designation very precisely and carefully applied. Often I would ask if I could try a local wine and I would be pointed towards a wine with the apologetic disclaimer that it wasn’t local but it was made in the next town over and would that be okay?)

The only thing that tainted the blissful gift of this meal was Federica’s sadness, subtle and balanced by her graciousness, but still present. She was clearly feeling discouraged. When asked about where she sourced her eggs from, she complained about regulations that actually prevent her from obtaining fresh eggs from nearby farmers, providing a small and concrete example of the ways in which Italy’s food system is being industrialized and privileges large producers and agribusiness, while undermining small, local producers.  She expressed how difficult it is for her to run a restaurant, making the kind of food she believes in and the kind of environment she wants to create.

So as many Americans are (re)discovering food (kind of like how Columbus “discovered” America), and tend to romanticize Italian cuisine and its local and slow food tradition, our systems and corporations are undermining and poisoning it.

Sitting at Federica’s table was a joyous privilege. To borrow Tamasin Day-Lewis‘ description of a restaurant in England that had the same effect on her: “Everything was done properly with the finest ingredients from start to finish, without ever being too rich, too much, too pretentious…” It was one of the most elevated, gourmet meals I’ve ever had. Not a single detail of the evening was anything but perfect, and the experience was served to us with genuine glowing humility and grace. This Rosh Hashana, I will dedicate my first bite of buttered challah dripping with honey to Al Paradiso, a magical haven gifted to the world by a small family who knows how to serve food that gives you a taste of the Garden of Eden.

**Thankfully, my sister Shalva, the Diva of Details, took the pictures for this post and Ima diligently recorded every menu item, even making sure to ask Federica about the types of cheese in each dish. Otherwise, my compromised memory would not have been able to do this experience justice.  And speaking of my community-supported writing process, Naomi, my partner in crime, is responsible for this and most of my posts being readable and well-constructed.

A Passion for Peppers

In an age of faddish interest in spicy foods and hot sauces, some people focus more on who can eat the hottest food (i.e. The Macho Syndrome) rather than how hot sauce can influence the culinary experience by enhancing flavors and nuances. Stores are filled with packaged spicy products with clever names and flashy labels, but this is a spicy side dish that you cannot buy in a bottle.

But first, let me give you the back story…

Growing up with my mother’s (a.k.a Bubbie Wise) excellent Ashkenazic-American cooking, I knew a lot from garlic and onion, but nothing about hot peppers and spices.

However, once the door was opened, I not only entered the room but made myself at home.

Based on the rabbinic principle of “b’shem omro” (literally “in the name of the one who said it” or giving credit where credit is due), my old college friend, Arnie Lewin, not only turned me on to cooking in my senior year at Indiana University, but turned me on to spicy food. The first two dishes that he shared with me were couscous with spicy vegetable sauce and Italian sausage and an Indian curry dish.

In 1971, the year after our graduation, we took our backpacks and hopped on an Icelandic Airlines flight to Luxemburg (that being the only cheap airline at the time).  We worked our way down from Europe to West Africa, via the Canary Islands. In Senegal, Gambia, and Ghana, the food we ate was very simple (roasted root vegetables, fish, and rice) but was always accompanied by some type of spicy hot sauce. The most memorable one being a hot peanut sauce that was served with fish and rice.

On the freighter from Barcelona to the Canary Islands, we met Ali, a Gambian who was returning to his home in Bathurst, and we ultimately ended up staying with his family for 3 weeks. During the first meal we ate together on the freighter, he took out a package of dried cayenne peppers and explained that he never went anywhere without them.

Today, when going to lunch meetings or dinner at friends’ houses, I often bring with me a bottle of hot sauce or fresh hot peppers to slice up. I keep a number of bottles of hot sauce by my desk and grab one if I feel confident I can successfully achieve the art of spicing up my meal while avoiding offense to my host. Some folks, knowing this about me now, even generously provide an assortment of spicy condiments.

My relationship with hot peppers was dramatically upgraded when I began gardening and growing my own back in the early 1970s.  I grow at least half a dozen or more varieties every summer. Some I dry, some I pickle, some I marinate, and some I use to cook with.

A couple of years ago, I had such an abundance of hot peppers, I was trying to figure out some new things to do with them and ended up creating this dish.  For this particular recipe, you can use a range of different peppers (jalapeños, serranos, chiles, cayenne, Thai, etc) but NO habañeros, their flavor doesn’t work in this dish.

So here I am gathered with our family in Los Gatos, California, for our annual Thanksgiving celebration. It is a collectively prepared feast, and my contribution this year is my sautéed hot pepper dish.

In a skillet, heat up a generous amount of olive oil (at least 4 tablespoons).

When it’s hot, put in one large onion, diced.

Then add at least 8 cloves of garlic, thinly sliced.

Cook on a medium flame for ten minutes.

Add whole hot peppers with the stems sliced off (about 18, depending on their size).

Stir thoroughly and cover.

Cook for another 10 minutes.

Add kosher salt (don’t be shy with it) and pepper to taste and about a teaspoon of white vinegar or lemon juice.

Then add a couple tablespoons of white wine and coarsely cut up fresh cilantro and parsley, about 1 cup each loosely packed.

Stir and cover.

Let it cook on a low flame until the peppers are soft (the peppers will continue to soften on their own after taken off the fire so take them off when they’re soft but not mushy).

**Note: you should probably stick to the measurements of the vinegar/lemon juice and the wine. However, all of the other ingredients can be increased according to your taste.

You can eat this dish warm but it’s best at room temperature.

Store it in the fridge and remove it before serving so it warms up to room temperature and the oil liquefies.

It goes well in soup, on pizza, as a side with rice dishes… basically just about everything other than cold cereal in the morning.

A special thanks to Uncle Tom for his delicious and flavorful photography.