Make Meat Old-Fashioned

I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that we humans aren’t changing our ways fast enough to keep the climate disaster we’ve created from killing us. And one of the most challenging components of that change is food.

delicious!

There are a thousand ways we can tweak what we eat, but the simplest and most effective one is to cut back on animal products. Yes, there exist a handful of cases where a meat-dish is actually eco-friendly, but, in general, meat-eating is so much less efficient than plant-based alternatives — and our level of meat-eating is so out-of-whack with what is sustainable — that any reduction in consumption of animal products is a step in the right direction.

In other words, I’m not impressed if you tell me that you’re eating venison from a herd of deer that needed to be culled. Somebody else who might otherwise have eaten your eco-friendly venison steak is now going to go get a hamburger instead.

I’m also not impressed by arguments along the lines of “If everyone were vegan, that would actually be less eco-friendly than some amount of animal product consumption.” That’s like arguing that we need to discriminate against homosexuals because if everyone were gay, we’d have a problem.

Message from reality universe: that’s never going to happen. Even though the vegan community is actively recruiting people to their alternative lifestyle, they’re simply not going to convert everyone. I’d love to be proven wrong on this, and if we ever get anywhere near it, then we can start worrying about making sure that some people are still using some animal products. Until that day, any attempt to make sure that we’re not wasting the tiny amount of eco-friendly meat is premature optimisation.

So, assuming you’re with me on the idea that we need to convince our fellow humans to cut back on animal products, the question is how?

The trouble is that food is one of the great pleasures of life. Even people who understand how critical our situation is have a hard time making changes in their eating habits — especially if those changes involve giving up favorite foods or choosing a meal that’s good from an ethical standpoint over a deliciously satisfying naughty meal.

That’s why promoting a plant-based diet can’t just be about virtuous austerity. We need a cultural shift in which the most tempting dishes on offer are plant-based — so that when you’re hungry and want to treat yourself to something delicious, your mind doesn’t immediately wander to meat.

I could really go for a juicy, ripe tomato and a crisp cucumber. How about a hearty stew or a toasted bulgur pilaf with almond slivers and just a hint of cinnamon? Or perhaps some scrumptious daal scooped up in a warm fold of naan…? Or maybe a big bowl of piping-hot spicy Thai noodles? Don’t those all sound more tempting than a greasy old hamburger or a hot dog — made out of god-only-knows what parts and gristle?

I think this kind of trend is not only possible — it’s happening. Dishes made from fresh, local, seasonal ingredients are increasingly viewed as — not just more virtuous, but really more delicious — than cheap fast-foods.

awesomely hip and inviting: vegan lunch!

Now, you might be tempted to tell me that I’m just talking to the “one-percent” here. Ordinary people can’t afford to go to the farmer’s market and buy the best ingredients and spend the afternoon turning them into a savory, Instagram-worthy masterpiece. Of course I’m primarily talking to the “one percent” — they’re the ones who most need to change their habits.

A huge amount of meat-eating is cultural and aspirational. As people get more money, they start to eat more meat, and that’s the link that we need to break. That’s why it’s important to persuade the wealthy trendsetters to set the right trends and fill the Internet with pictures of the most beautiful (plant-based) exotic specialties that make you wish you were eating that and not hamburger. Let’s change the aspiration from “When I get that raise, I’ll treat myself to that steak,” to “When I get that raise, I’ll treat myself to that hand-made wild-garlic ravioli with truffle oil.”

The case of meatloaf demonstrates that change is not only possible, but happening. The whole point of meatloaf is to take a bit of mediocre-quality meat and make it do its best impression of being a whole roast. It’s not terribly good compared to other dishes like stews or sauces that use a bit of meat for flavor — it only makes sense if your culture tells you that a slab of meat should be the star of the dinner. Consequently, meatloaf is one of those old-timey foods that’s going out-of-style. Spam has a similar story (though that one was practically a joke from the beginning).

Just check out all of the articles about food from the past that people back then apparently found appetizing. Our bemused reaction today matches the reaction of people forty years from now looking at meals centered around some boring hunk of meat. (That is, it will if we want “people forty years from now” to be a thing…)

I’m sure some readers are now protesting: “You will never convince me that some vegetarian thing is more delicious than my Angus filet mignon!”

If that’s you, that’s OK. I’m not trying to convince you. I’m trying to convince people younger than you to look at you and your slab of meat and shake their heads in disbelief at the ridiculous things people thought were good in the olden days.

The article is cross posted on the Eaternity blog: http://www.eaternity.org/blog/Make-Meat-Old-Fashioned