My housemate is considering becoming a vegetarian. I think it’s a great idea. But not because she won’t be eating meat.
I’m as quick as the next high-minded sustainable food advocate to condemn modern meat habits. Caging steers in Confined Animal Feeding Operations and stuffing them full of corn and antibiotics is not a very defensible practice. Nor is having their meat trucked in from thousands of miles away and eating it with every meal. But that doesn’t mean I don’t eat meat. It means I don’t eat that meat. I’m still convinced that human beings are supposed to be omnivores.
What I like about my housemate deciding not to satisfy her body’s common cravings — and yes, I realize that with time and deprivation those cravings will go away — is that she’s making a choice about what kind of food gives her pleasure. Vegetarianism is inherently an aesthetic decision. It denies what is natural for the sake of something more desirable: in this case, the pleasure derived from not supporting a destructive food system, from not condoning inhumane practices, from being able to call oneself a vegetarian or from not having to feel sluggish after a meat-heavy meal. The immaterial pleasures seem to outweigh the material ones. I like that she’s making an aesthetic decision about her food because immaterial pleasures are often what make food so rich. I may like to eat lasagna because it’s what my grandmother used to serve me, or I may like to drink wine because it helps along the conversation. In both cases, I’m doing more than satisfying a physical appetite. I’m deciding what to eat, and I’m using my brain to make that decision. It’s how any omnivore — which is to say, any human — learns to eat.
So I’ve decided to support my housemate on her way to vegetarianism. That’s why I’m making lentils. As far as I know, vegetarians eat plenty of lentils. The problem with lentils, though, is they’re brown. Sometimes they’re mushy. Really, they’re pretty boring, though they do happen to be delicious (and even better with a little bacon, or one measly, unassuming sausage). Sauteing lentils with this recipe will at least make them rich and meaty-tasting, so you can imagine you’re eating something that isn’t just lentils.
Then again, imagination (or self-denial) is part of why humans like to eat.
Recipe: Lentil Saute
Adapted from Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse Vegetables
Active time: 20 minutes. Actual time: 1 hour. Serves 4 as a main course.
2 cups French green lentils
2 small onions
2 small carrots
1 celery rib
4 garlic cloves
2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 tbsp red-wine vinegar, or _ cup red wine
Optional: bouquet garni of thyme, parsley, bay leaf
Optional: 4 slices bacon (but it won’t be vegetarian)
Salt and freshly-ground pepper to taste
(1) Rinse the lentils in a bowl with cold water, and then drain off the water. Peel one of the onions, one of the carrots, and two cloves of garlic and place them in a saucepan along with the rinsed lentils. If you’re using the bouquet garni or the bacon, add that too. Pour enough cold water over the lentils to cover them by about 1/2 inch, and put the pan on the stovetop over medium heat. Bring the water to a boil, and then let it simmer 15 minutes, uncovered, until the lentils have absorbed almost all of the water. Remove and discard the onion, carrot and garlic cloves. If you’re using the bouquet garni, remove and discard it, and if you’re using the bacon, remove it and finely chop it. Salt the lentils.
(2) Finely chop the other onion, the other carrot, the celery rib and the other 2 cloves of garlic. In a sauté pan, heat the olive oil over medium heat and add the onion, carrot and celery rib. Cook for about five minutes, or until soft. Add the lentils, the garlic and the bacon (if you’re using it) and cook, stirring, for about 2 minutes. Remove from heat, and salt and pepper to taste. Just before serving, mix in the vinegar or red wine. Serve, and enjoy.