Meatless Mondays...or any other day

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Some years ago, in what certainly seems like another lifetime (I think they call it “youth”), I lived on an old farm in very rural West Virginia. My friends and I, mostly well-educated, middle class kids, were trying to find a life that we thought would be more substantial and meaningful than the suburban homogeneity in which we’d been (partly) raised. One of the things we cared very loudly, if sometimes not very deeply, about was food. We wanted to eat food we grew ourselves and processed ourselves. We were mostly vegetarian.

Looking back, I think one of the reasons we didn’t eat meat was that we weren’t willing to raise it. My brief stint caring for my neighbor’s chickens while he has away convinced me I was no animal husbandman. Another reason was that we had some vague Native American spiritual idea of our oneness with all creatures. We thought it wasn’t a good idea to eat things that had feelings like ours. Finally, we were part of a growing awareness of “agribusiness” and “the factory farm.” We thought of these as a juggernaut that was wiping out family farms and replacing clean farm-raised food with manufactured animal protein. We weren’t buying it. We ground our own wheat berries for the flour for our home-baked bread. We ground and boiled soybeans (organic, of course) to make our own tofu. We canned and dried our garden produce. It was a lot of work.

I stopped being a religious vegetarian half a dozen years later when I was making home visits with families preliminary to licensing them as specialized foster care providers. I remember the evening I was invited to dinner in a well-kept mobile home, on a night when the long-distance trucker father would be home. The mother prepared what looked like a Thanksgiving feast, which included fried chicken and a large pot roast of beef. I politely declined the meat and loaded my plate with several kinds of vegetables, as well as mashed potatoes with butter (not the meat gravy that was presented in the best serving boat). The family was deeply upset and embarrassed.  And I thought, "Who am I to hurt their feelings with my 'beliefs'?” I took a vow then to subsequently eat whatever I was served.

That was 30-some years ago. I’m older and, I think, wiser. But I still care about food. And here I the food business. It seems a similar thing must have happened to Mark Bittman, who recently retired from writing The Minimalist, a column about food in The New York Times . He says on his website that he is not a professional chef and never worked in a restaurant. He’s just “an avid home cook” whose mission is “to get people cooking simply, comfortably, and well.” His published works include  How to Cook Everything, How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, and, his most recent, Food Matters. It was through one of Mark’s final columns in The NY Times that I caught on to something called the “Meatless Monday” campaign.

I went to their website and found that this is an initiative done in association with the Johns Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health. Their mission is to “provide the information and recipes you need to start each week with healthy, environmentally friendly meat-free alternatives. Our goal is to help you reduce your meat consumption by 15% in order to improve your personal health and the health of the planet.” Interesting. They go on to give a list of reasons we should go meatless - limit cancer risk, reduce heart disease, fight diabetes, curb obesity and live longer (on the health benefits side); and reduce your carbon footprint, minimize water usage, and decrease dependence on fossil fuel (on the planetary benefits side). They’ve enlisted celebrities (like Mario Batali, Oprah Winfrey and Michael Pollan), school lunch programs, hospitality organizations (Sodexo), and public educational organizations (AARP, Zagat, The Food Network, Carnegie Mellon University) to take the pledge to “go meatless” one day a week. They’ve chosen Monday, because it’s the day most of us start our work week with (supposedly) a new sense of resolve after a slack and self-indulgent weekend.

Hey, wait a minute. You’re goring my ox (or hog or chicken) here. Chef Yvonne and I run a business, The Back Bay Cafe, where we encourage people to come out on the weekends and eat locally-sourced, well-prepared food in a relaxing, hospitable environment. We’re proud of our meats from the local Acre Station Meat Farm. And an all-vegetarian restaurant in Belhaven wouldn’t stand a soy bean’s chance in Hades of surviving. And we’re closed on Mondays. What should we do?

First of all, we’re telling you about this very reasonable campaign...a plan to reduce the amount of meat we eat. We’re not attacking agribusiness or fast food or meat-eaters. We’re not attacking anyone. We’re just trying to be more part of the solution than part of the problem. We hope you’ll be able to use this information to make some healthy changes in your own eating, whether you want to take the Mondays pledge or not. We’re going to make some changes in our own home choices.

Which leads to the second action and the reason for this lengthy diatribe in the first place. Chef Yvonne and I have decided that one way we can help with this “better eating” process at Back Bay Cafe (in addition to our commitment to knowing where the food we serve comes from and how it’s processed, and choosing local sources where possible) is to offer “Meatless Mains” as an option on our weekend dinner menus. We’ll do the research (and the prep work) to bring you scrumptious, healthy alternatives to our seasonal meat main dishes. We want you to see that eating less meat doesn’t mean committing yourself to a dreary diet of beans and rice. In fact, it doesn’t mean “giving up” anything. Rather, thinking about meatless alternatives can expand your eating horizons to include many of the vegetarian food traditions from around the world. We’re starting with two great pasta dishes, but we’ll be bringing delicious feasts that spotlight rice, grains, vegetables, our fine cheeses and olive oils, exotic spices and fresh-grown herbs. We’re excited about the possibilities.
If this sounds like a good idea to you. Show us your support by coming out and eating with us - dinner, lunch or brunch - and trying one of the dishes marked with our little “Vegetarian”  symbol