The Butcher and the Vegetarian by Tara Austen Weaver was the June selection for the Foodie Book Club (Yes, June. Excuse the lateness.)
I absolutely loved this book. Weaver, a vegetarian, explores the world of meat after struggling with health problems and a few doctors suggesting she tries to eat more meat. She details her journey exploring questions like should we eat meat and if so, from where? Commercial feedlots? Sustainable, local, organic farms? How can you tell if your meat is produced 'right'? Will meat really make her feel better?
I have personally thought about these questions over and over again. I've read several books on the subject, but coming up with an answer is difficult. I am not and have never been a vegetarian, but when I was a kid, I'd almost always pass on meat, unless it was chicken fingers, bacon, or a cheeseburger. Meat on the bone? Roasted pork loin? Turkey on Thanksgiving? No, thank you. It grossed me out. I never even ate steak until I was eighteen.
Do I think it is wrong to eat meat? The answer is not as simple as yes or no. I do believe we are omnivores, with bodies meant to eat both meat and plants. However, I think eating the majority of meat that is produced in this country is wrong and the amounts in which we eat it are even worse. I have a huge problem with CAFOs and the pollution they produce, causing both the animals and humans around them to get sick. I think its wrong to keep tens of thousands of chickens crammed in hen house where each animal can barely move around. I think its wrong that we have bred animals that are so large they cannot walk more than a few steps or even reproduce naturally. But pastured cows and chickens raised on local farms? That is something I can support (as with George the chicken from my last post).
Critics say that there is no way to produce enough meat to feed the country, let alone the world, on a pastured based system. And they are probably right. But guess what? People do not need to eat meat at every meal, let alone every day. For both environmental and health reasons, this country would do a lot better for itself if it incorporated more plants into its diet. You may notice from the recipes I post here are almost all vegetarian and that is how I usually eat. I'm not perfect, but I try not eat meat at restaurants unless they are restaurants I trust. Luckily Minneapolis has plenty of restaurants with local, organic, and sustainable values (my favorites include Restaurant Alma, Common Roots Cafe, Lucia's, Brasa, and the Birchwood Cafe). If I want to prepare meat at home, I buy it from the Farmers Market or a natural foods co-op. Yes, it is more expensive to buy meat that way, but I buy it so rarely I am willing to pay the extra price. The meat that comes from a commercial feedlot is not as cheap as the price tag might indicate, its costs are externalized to subsidies, health bills, etc. There is really no such thing as cheap meat.
But anyway, I'll stop with my food beliefs and go back to the book. It was a great read, I finished it over the course of two days. It was great to read along as Weaver researched and discussed all the issues surrounding meat that I have thought of myself. There were times I cringed (like the story of the cow from a commercial feedlot that wouldn't compost...gross!) . I also related to her discussion of how to deal with eating at other people's houses. This is something I've struggled with as well. I can't really say that I'm a vegetarian, but how to explain to someone that "Yes, I eat meat, but only some meat and that meat you are serving just isn't good enough for me" and not sound like a uppity bitch? You just can't.
At the end of the book, Weaver commits herself to two-week long experiments: one week of eating meat 3 times a day and one week going totally raw. The meat week leaves her feeling gross and dreading meals. She decided to go raw for a week as a sort of detox and the first few days she says she was always hungry, but the food wasn't bad at all...and then a few days later? She starts to feel better. Energized. She realizes that for the first time in years, she isn't exhausted all the time. It's the raw diet that ends up working for her. I found myself almost laughing at the end, reading the whole book about meat to leave with her becoming a semi-raw foodist. She says it probably isn't for everybody, but that is what works for her and she finally figured it out.
The one thing I didn't really like is the fact that the title and the cover illustration led me to believe there was a love story involved, that she would eventually marry a butcher or something like that. Every time she talked about some meat loving man (like Biggles who writes a meat blog), I kept waiting for the romance, but it never came. I'm not saying there needed to be a romance, but I found that to be a little misleading and distracting. Also, the book jacket mentions a butcher daring her to eat her way through the meat counter, so I also was expecting her to try everything at the butcher and go through it piece by piece. I did enjoy the book, but these bits were a little misleading and not everyone who takes a quick glance at it might end up satisfied.
Titles and false expectations aside, the book inspired me to get in the kitchen twice. The first time I made flank steak with the chimichurri sauce she mentions so often. I would have posted that recipe here, but I almost burned the house down when I made it, not realizing there were some plastic pieces on my new roasting pan (why? I have no idea, but I didn't see them and remove them before broiling the steak the house filled with smoke). But it was delicious. After finishing the book, I was intrigued by the raw kale salad she mentions at the end. I have heard that kale can be eaten raw and is quite good if you massage it with salt until it wilts, but I never mustered up the courage to do so (as Weaver says, it sounds too "aggressively healthy" to be good). I was surprised how good it ended up being. I know it sounds scary, but try it! It's actually quite delicious.
Raw Kale Salad
From Tara Austen Weaver's site
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp flax oil (I don't have any so I used walnut. I'm sure you could also double the olive oil instead.)
1 tbsp light miso
1 tsp onion powder
1 tsp mustard powder
1 clove garlic, crushed or chopped
cayenne pepper to taste
Whisk all the ingredients together until combined.
About 3 leaves kale, with stems removed and cut into ribbons
1 cup cabbage, shredded
1 tbsp red onion, chopped
1 tbsp jalopeno, chopped (optional)
Sprinkle the sea salt onto the kale and massage in until slightly wilted.
Toss with the other ingredients, add dressing, and eat!