I've recently been wondering: Did I ever really like eating meat? Or was I just attracted to the flavour that came along with the it? Could be, because when I think about the meat days, it reliably came drenched in - or infused with - salt, sugar and fat. And those ingredients can make a good day a great one.
Reformatting how I felt about eating meat has been a process spanning a few years. I started making changes in small ways and went back and forth on the issue many times. It's a complex thing to understand, and because it deals with food, it's also a highly personal matter. So I'm not out to crucify the idea of eating meat, but these days I do believe it can be removed from it's golden pedestal on our cultural mountaintop.
The last two years of my life, I have been making and experimenting with vegetarian dishes in my diet. For the last 6 months, I've been eating a diet that's strictly plant-based. It has been a process of personal change, and the fundamental experience is just as familiar as any other learning experience. It was challenging at first, but easier and more automatic with consistent practice and time. The result is that giving up meat (and eggs and dairy) has changed my life for the better. I'm on a new plateau, higher than anywhere I've ever been before as far as health and wellness are concerned. My energy level are up, I feel better, I'm happier, calmer, and I'm in good shape again.
I'm still very much a beginner in terms of running a plant-based diet, but I've been able to recognize that it's not the kind of personal punishment it's made out to be. It's a much more enjoyable and rewarding experience than I expected.
Having basic kitchen skills helped ease the friction of this change, but here's what I think is the real key to normalizing a plant-based diet: the most satisfying and rewarding dishes I have made (and remake often) all have a healthy inclusion of salt, sugar, or fat. Sometimes all three.
Salt, sugar and fat are three powerful, flavourful - and potentially addictive - ingredients that are a standard part meals at restaurants and especially of processed food. They are included in the name of remarkable, mind-blowing flavour and they work to create a good texture or mouthfeel. This helps you feel satisfied as you nibble on every last morsel on your plate. That's fair - as a vendor you want people to enjoy their meals, because among other reasons, it's helpful if they come back later when they are hungry again. In this way, everybody wins.
When we are cooking in our own kitchens we often do the same thing, but maybe with less precision or knowing why. We add salt, sugar, or fat to our food, because we - at least intuitively - know it will make the meal "better". You never hear anybody voluntary say "Yeah, can you make me something that's bland? Not too much flavour. I'd like to have that. Yeah K thanks.".
And on the footpath of going plant-based, blandness was the first road block I had to smash through when I was learning to include more veggies into my diet. Veggies, and plants in general, don't really have any salt, sugar, or fat in their raw, unprocessed state. Compound that fact with my existing palette, one that's been conditioned to receive high-flavour, calorically explosive, insulin-spiking foods, and it gets easier to see that convincing all of us to "eat our vegetables" is a tough sell, at least for westerners. The initial flavour contrast is generally too harsh to be bearable.
Of course, occasionally when I smell bacon, I feel like I really miss it. But when I look at it a little closer, I can see I'm not focusing on the complete picture. It's not really the bacon I want, it's all that salt, maple syrup (sugar) and fat I'm craving the moment I catch that aroma...and I can recreate that experience with sautéed mushrooms any day.
I think anyone who's eaten basic or poorly prepared vegetables can testify that veggies often taste boring, unappealing, and are sometimes downright repulsive.
I felt skeptical about the merits of vegetables for a long time. For nearly all of my life, meat was king. Veggies and salad were a joke in comparison. I did grow up eating and appreciating a good bowl of greens, but overall my side salads, and the broader category of vegetables, were second-class citizens, in my mind. They simply didn't measure up to the flavour of a good steak, deep fried chicken, slow-roasted turkey, a mouth-watering deli sandwich...a microwave pizza pop...you name it, I ate it, loved it, and believed I was making good dietary decisions.
It turns out, however, that evidence continues to mount that this meat I loved and craved was part of a western diet that was setting me up for sickness, cancer, and other forms of sadness in my body and mind like heart disease and metabolic syndrome; the kind of diseases that both of my parents experienced and suffered from.
I knew for years that too much red meat was not good for me but carried on as usual. So why would I eat meat even when I had knowledge it could harm me?
Because it tasted awesome, old habits die hard, and my identity was enmeshed with consuming it. Also, eating meat felt like a power move. Ordering meat is set up to be considered the premium choice of winners everywhere. Ordering steak, I felt like was in control of my life, at least for a moment.
The closer I look at my real motivations of eating meat, though, the more it seems clear that what really attracted me about those meat dishes wasn't the meat itself, nor the psychological high. It was the salt, sugar, and fat hitching a ride on that pepperoni pizza that created a craving I just couldn't say no to. The combination of ingredients were so delicious it would easily override my willpower.
In other words, at the ground level, meat was the delivery vehicle of salt, sugar and fat to my mouth. Precious cargo. Upon arrival it would release a flood of feel-good chemicals in my brain, signalling to me that I made the right choice. After we repeat a process with hormonal rewards like that a few times, a nice automatic and self-reinforcing habit is cultivated. Order pizza. Get a dopamine hit. Repeat.
This isn't a hopeless situation, though. The saving grace is that salt, sugar, and fat are not the exclusive bedfellows of meat and dairy. I can fold this stuff into any plant-based dish I make, and presto! Plants end up tasting delicious. It kind of makes the need for meat fairly moot.
If you're about raise your hand and protest "but what about meat as an essential source of protein?", I want to counter by mentioning that that question has been addressed. I won't claim its in the realm of 100% definitive, but there are plenty of walking talking examples of plant-based people on this earth who, with years of experience with the diet have yet to drop dead by any reasons related to a protein deficiency. Furthermore, a plant-based diet is the only diet clinically proven to halt and even reverse heart disease, North America's number one killer.
So I believe you can make friends with salad (or any plant-based dish). Just get your salt-sugar-fat basics down-pat when you're in your kitchen. Dial in their amounts per dish, and you can make a lot of kick-ass meals that will also leave you feeling full and topped up with clean-burning energy.
Kitchen time is magic time, and if you don't have any well-honed tricks, you shouldn't be surprised if your magic show sucks. I used to think plant-based food was not worth the effort, that it was boring, and that it was nothing but sacrifice after sacrifice after sacrifice. But that was only because I had no idea what I was doing in the kitchen when it came to plants. My skills and attitude were geared for cooking meat, not for cooking meals.
If our best culinary skills are boiling water for macaroni, squeezing the ketchup tube, or punching numbers into the microwave, upgrading these skills in the kitchen can be a game-changer for what can be created for yourself, even if you still keep meat in your diet. But you don't have to put meat into everything. Just sayin'.
If you're curious about this plant-based thing, but are using a limp-leafed steakhouse side-salad as your reference point for what you get to eat for the rest of your life, I encourage you to drop all preconceived notions and check out the plant-based cookbooks I have listed below. You'll learn how to make a real salad. And tasty burritos. And cheese-free nachos that keep people clamouring for more..
All of the flavour you want in every meal can be built right in to plant-based meals. The only things not included are meat, dairy or eggs. And that won't kill you. In fact it will do exactly the opposite. It will protect you from unnecessary sickness and premature aging. As I like to say, "plants for life".
Here are three books that upped my plant-based game in the kitchen.
They are full of recipes, they offer lists of recommended & essential kitchen gear, and even serve up a little humour and philosophy as a side dish. A lot of the good recipes in them are also simple and use commonly available ingredients (and I live in Saskatchewan, not California). What's more, these meals tend to cost less per dish then their meat and dairy laden peers.
1. Thug Kitchen: The Official Cookbook: Eat like you give a f*ck.
Thug Kitchen comes at you with aggressive orders and sassy pep talk, but it's not all flash and front - the book comes loaded with substance and meals fortified with nutrition. Thug Kitchen started as an online blog, attracted a following of hardcore fans and then produced a hefty brick of a cookbook to the delight of everyone waiting for it. This is their original book (there are now three) About a year after I bought it I finally clued in that it was completely plant-based, not just a vegetarian cookbook. It was fun to read and the recipes were so good I didn't even notice it was completely vegan. True story.
2. The Plantpower Way
Rich Roll & Julie Piatt
I can sum this book up as: a heartfelt gift to the world from two leaders in the health, wellness, and vegan communities. Crafted by Rich Roll and Julie Piatt, The Plantpower way is a window into the lives of a plant-based family in California. Inside are their time-tested recipes, and there is something in here for everyone. Whether you're a mom trying to feed you kids healthy food, an athlete looking to prime your body with energy and vitality, or a person looking to detox while making some rad plant-based meals in the process, it can all be found here. This book doubles as an accessible primer on some nutrition basics, superfood fundamentals, and carefully encourages you to get thinking about the environmental impact of your food choices, your lifestyle, and what you choose to buy and consume in general.
I really dig this book. It was an essential resource for me when I committed to a plant-based diet, and it's always within arm's reach in my kitchen.
3. Oh She Glows
Based out of Ontario, fellow Canadian Angela Liddon has become quite a global household name in the vegetarian and vegan communities. This book (her first) is a New York Times bestseller, and after you run these recipes through your kitchen, exactly why it is so popular becomes self-evident. I enjoy many of her dishes, but I feel like her baking and desert skills are of particular note. Those who know me well know that I don't really care about desert, and I'll pass on it nearly every time. Normally I'd rather just have a plate of seconds. Well my friends, there is a pumpkin pie recipe in here that has prompted me to reconsider how I truly feel about desert. Angela's Raw Pumpkin-Maple Pie with Baked Oat Crust could convert anyone to the idea that you can go plant-based and not have to miss out on luxury, decadence, and indulgence in your food.
Disclaimer: This is not a paid advertisement of these books. I am not an affiliate of any of these websites or companies. I simply dig what they are and have found them instrumental in learning how to cook and get healthier in the process.