I had challenged myself to pare the contents of our pantry down to 35 items including herbs, spices and beverages. It still seemed extravagant in the face of this family’s meagre week’s worth of groceries. Having switched to a vegan diet for ethical reasons with comparative ease and a minimum of fuss 20 months earlier, I was keen to see what other possibilities opened up:
To eat a nutritionally sufficient, wholesome diet at a much lower cost
To eat a delicious diet without recourse to rare and exotic ingredients
To align our diet to global norms rather than those determined by our gluttonous society
To prove it possible to eat well on £15 per head per week
To save money by buying ingredients in bulk that would definitely be used
To cultivate an enjoyment of a simpler palette of tastes
To remove fatty and processed foods from the menu altogether
I have to admit a number of additional ingredients and indulgences have crept back onto the shopping list in the intervening months due to bad habits and convenience, but not due to necessity. I also discovered a couple of new delicious dishes that didn’t fit the restricted pantry. Nevertheless, there seemed to be something attainable here that just slipped away.
Three particular areas were especially challenging:
Bread – I wanted to commit to only consuming bread that I had baked myself. The plan was to get a sourdough going that would not require yeast to be replenished as one of the 35 items. In reality, sadly my life is too hectic for sourdough and bread products on supermarket shelves proved irresistible.
Spices – These are relatively cheap and add instant variety, and 25g of most things lasts a good while, so the spice rack was never really reduced.
Staples – Under the heading of “rice”, I managed to sneak in four different varieties (that’s cheating), and I started exploring quinoa. I have since decided that quinoa is a “no-no” because it has become stupidly expensive and the poor Bolivians who grow it can’t even afford it.
I was recently summoned to view the multicoloured spreadsheet of household finances that my wife painstakingly keeps in order. It was there in black and white (or rather pink, green and blue) that I have failed on numerous promises to bring the wayward grocery bill under control. A few hours later, my reflection in a shop window provided an unwelcome reminder that the mirror on our landing is unreliable and distorts my wayward girth in a flattering way, too.
It is time to recommit to “The Austerity Pantry”.
This time, I am anchoring it to a rolling menu of eight or nine basic evening meals with porridge for breakfast and soup or jacket potatoes for lunch. For the curious, this is how it looks at the moment:
Pasta and sauce (generally prepared with leftovers)
Chilli beans with rice
Savoury rice (pilau)
Chick pea curry (type and strength varies)
Roast vegetables with polenta or couscous
Bean slop (this is somewhere between a soup and a casserole and goes well with leftover polenta)
Risotto (with mushrooms or whatever vegetables are to hand)
In theory, this regime can be sustained on a monthly bulk-buy of pulses, staples and spices, supplemented with a weekly selection of local organic veg … and a fridge is not really needed …
Before we got rid of our TV, I was becoming weary of the amount of hours dedicated to cookery programs which encourage people to “fetishize” food and slaver over exotic culinary preparations. Historically, an unhealthy fascination with gourmandise seems to have proliferated in civilisations on the cusp of decline and I think we are no exception.
Not only do I feel convicted about the excesses of our western diet but it has become a matter of financial importance to rationalise our grocery bill. I have also noticed that the only times I have been successful in losing weight and enjoying the benefits of a healthier diet where when I pursued a simple and fairly repetitive “ethnic” diet in the past.
Previously this consisted of a “raw” porridge of soaked oats for breakfast (with salt or honey), miso soup for lunch and simply prepared vegetables for tea (usually stir fried with rice or noodles). Knowing that the majority of people in the world do a full day’s work on a bowl of rice or some other staple, with some sort of garnish, convinces me that it must be possible to flourish on a much simpler diet.
I think it was Mahatma Gandhi who said the table fork is the most destructive weapon wielded by humans. For ethical reasons, meat and dairy no longer make an appearance on our plates but I have noticed how I have still clung to the pursuit of a rich and exotic palate. After paying our mortgage, it is our grocery bill that consumes the next greatest segment of our household income. No small contributor to this is the tendency to need a specific, exotic ingredient for a particular dish, that usually prompts a trip to the supermarket where a number of luxury “treats” also tend to be put in the basket before the checkout is reached.
For the sake of austerity and health and in order to bring our pantry more into line with the simple food of our fellow humans in poorer parts of the world, the next step was to cut the number of ingredients available.
Initially I have opted to limit the entire grocery stock to 35 items. This is still incredibly generous in world terms and I think we will still be enjoying a richer and more varied diet than most global citizens. However, it is just an experimental step in the general direction of a simpler existence. At the same time I hope to cut the weekly grocery bill to £30 a week for the two of us. I think that is realistic.
So, for the curious, here is the new stock list:
1. Rice (at the moment this is white basmati rice)
2. Pasta (dry fusilli)
3. Rolled Oats (jumbo organic – for raw porridge and the occasional flapjack)
4. Wholemeal Flour (for bread making and other baking)
5. Maize or Plantain Meal (African staples that are filling and nutritious and hopefully making more frequent appearances as I learn how to prepare them)
Pulses (Our core source of protein – I adore all beans but had to pick my favourites)
6. Lentils (for bulking up soups and preparing dhals)
7. Butter Beans (I usually use in stews or mash)
8. Mung Beans (for sprouting and other uses)
9. Chick Peas (one of the most important items in our diet of curry, hummus and falafel; also delicious roasted as a snack)
10. Red Kidney Beans (mainly end up prepared with chilli or refried, Mexican style)
11. Olive Oil (only used sparingly for dipping and dressing)
12. Rapeseed Oil (absolutely my oil of choice, a great “butter” substitute in most recipes and doesn’t burn easily)
13. Salt (of course)
14. Agave Nectar (trying to switch refined sugar out for this)
15. Vinegar (prefer cider vinegar for most purposes but it will be a case of what is available)
16. Cocoa Powder (Probably one of my most useful ingredients, not just for hot chocolate and baking projects but I have it on my oats and am currently exploring other uses)
Seasoning (these tend to be ones that are easily and cheaply bought in bulk)
17. Chilli Powder
21. Black Pepper
22. Mixed Herbs
23. Dessicated Coconut (for baking and dhals and other curries, can be soaked and blended for use as “creamed coconut”)
24. Almonds (appearing a lot these days, I’m learning to prepare my own almond milk)
25. Dried Dates (use as a sweetener and a snack)
26. Tinned Tomatoes
27. Tea (for drinking but also makes rice more interesting, just as toasted rice makes a cup of tea more interesting …)
28. Ground Coffee
29. Rooibos (also known as Red Bush Tea, can be used as a herb in cooking)
30. Peppermint Tea
31. Garlic (I’m not ashamed to say we eat a lot of it and I believe in its medicinal properties)
32. Onions (everything starts with onions)
33. 3 Other Seasonal Vegetables
I don’t expect to be either bored or malnourished … but I’ll let you know how we get on.
One of the most exciting things to find and eat at this time of year is Laetiporus sulphureus, commonly and aptly named “Chicken of the Woods”. Appearing from April and sticking around into November, this bracket fungus grows mainly on dead and dying Oaks in the UK. It is nice and easy to recognise but may be inaccessibly high for foragers without crampons. Look for the distinctive clusters of overlapping fans that are bright yellow, turning more orangey as the specimen matures. It takes a good while to establish itself before the fruit actually appears, but once you have located one of these, you will generally be able to revisit it for several years.
This is a great eater and it really does behave and taste a little like chicken when you cook it. It is important, though, if it is your first time, to try a small quantity as it has been known to cause stomach upsets in some people – and it must ALWAYS be cooked. When gathering it, make sure you pick the younger yellow fans as older parts of the fruit are more bitter and tough.
When you get them home, clean them up and chop into slices. The mushroom will keep well in the freezer for later use. I generally blanch them before cooking them, to be sure that they are well cooked and to take any bitterness off. My favourite way to eat these is to make up a fairly heavy batter to dip them in and then fry up some “chicken nuggets” using oil that has been sitting for a week or so with some lemon rind in it to give it a citrussy edge. You can use it as you would use chicken in any recipe but make sure that it is always well cooked.
Please don’t use my Foraging Friday posts for identification purposes, get a couple of decent books to double check your identification. You are responsible for what you eat. Follow the guidance in my article on “Picking and Identifying Edible Mushrooms“. I won’t be held responsible for people falling out of trees, either (ahem).
This is a long “thinking out loud” post and so I apologise but also want to say at the outset that I am a work in progress and just finding my way along; so I’m happy to engage in constructive discussion.
Sometimes I am embarassed to admit that it was “Skinny Bastard” (The male version of “Skinny Bitch“) that tipped the balance for me. It is rampant vegan propaganda, it is emotive, it repeatedly uses a mere handful of original scientific sources, it relies on shock tactics but … it was enough to provoke me to respond to some nagging thoughts in the back of my mind.
I think the most significant change came when I was empowered to challenge the myth that humans NEED animal products in order to thrive. I had enough good ammunition for this from three years at university, studying anthropology and particularly specialising in behavioural ecology – but I had never really worked it through. If I didn’t need meat then the only arguments in favour of it were that it tasted nice and (as I’ll discuss shortly) what we think of as “delicious” is culturally constructed.
The first and easy step was to stop eating meat. For this I was convinced initially by the environmental arguments and secondly by the animal welfare perspective and the health implications. I had already reduced meat consumption deliberately in light of the recognition that our western habits of meat eating once or twice a day are simply unsustainable in global terms. Giving up meat is a “no-brainer”.
It is easy to give up meat and it is enormously enjoyable to rediscover the joy of vegetables in their own right. The only awkwardness was dealing with the social fallout of changing from someone who would eat anything to being the fussy one when giving and receiving hospitality or eating out.
Initially, I determined to be vegetarian at home but when receiving hospitality, to allow gratitude to triumph and to eat whatever people were kind enough to prepare for me. However, a vegetarian friend gently suggested that this was ethically inconsistent and that abstaining from meat at all times was an opportunity to “witness” to my moral principles. Fair point. So now I was the fussy one and proud of it.
I quicky surmised that all the arguments in favour of abstaining for meat held for dairy as well. I have had quite a bee in my bonnet about it ever since as my “Milk Monday” posts will make clear. At the end of the day, dairy products are not kind to animals, the environment or our bodies. It is clear to me that the only morally consistent way someone can be vegetarian but continue to consume dairy is (once again) because of taste. I know a few vegetarians who simply do not eat meat because they don’t like the taste of it. That’s fine, but if there is an ethical dimension to the choice then I don’t see how it is consistent to eat dairy which is just as dependent on slaughter and exploitation and just as damaging to the environment as meat. In fact, as Gary L. Francione points out (rightly I reckon) that there is more animal suffering in a glass of milk than in a pound of steak.
So dairy was off the menu, too. At this stage I had not given much thought to eggs and didn’t want to go there just yet, relying on them for nutritional reasons and not yet having got used to cooking differently.
At this stage it was interesting to note some of the responses:
What do you do for protien?
Well, we don’t need as much protien as we think we do. 50-60 grams a day is enough and we can get that from a variety of nuts pulses, grains, vegetables and fungi.
What about Calcium?
Firstly it is not a matter of forcing as much calcium down our throats as possible, there are other factors that affect the absorbtion of calcium and particularly the need for vitamin D and magnesium. Secondly, there are plentiful non-dairy sources of calcium, like brown bread and green vegetables.
What about B vitamins?
Again these can be sourced from judicious use of green vegetables, fruit, yeast extracts and so on in the diet but I do take a supplement and some of the soya products I use are fortified.
What about humanely reared and slaughtered animals and “happy” milk?
These responses are getting into more interesting territory. Is there such a thing as “humane slaughter”. I think there might be. Roadkill might be a good example of this. The animal doesn’t see it coming and death is hopefully instantaneous. It is possible to sneak up on a hog and stun it before bleeding it, sure, but unless I saw the animal die I can’t be sure; and all the meat available to me comes from a process that happens behind closed doors. I cannot garuntee that just because the packet says it had a nice life and died happy that this is true.
There are different sorts of Happy Milk, too. The bottom line is that in order to consume milk we have to take from a cow what was intended for it’s calf and we at least need to rely on it to produce enough for us as well as the calf. From where I am standing, all this seems to be quite bizzarre considering that milk is a luxury and not a necessity. Nobody would suckle from a cow, but this is what we do, albeit in a clinically removed way. I suggested that it would make more sense if supermarkets sold human milk but who is going to agree that that is a good idea?
Why don’t you eat, say, wild caught fish?
Good question. The person who asks this has seen that there are environmental implications for farmed or trawled fish; but surely a salmon that has been hunted with a fair chance of escaping the hook is okay. Now the question comes down to an animal’s capacity to suffer and a humans moral right to inflict that suffering. It was pondering this question that lead me to make another step towards veganism.
I concluded that there is enough scientific evidence to suggest that birds, mammals and fish are sentient beings with a capacity to suffer. I have also thought long and hard about my right to be complicit in the infliction of pain and distress in any form. I have concluded that it is not acceptable, and it could in fact be dangerous to our collective conscience as a race.
In conversation I keep coming back to the fact that consuming animal products is a choice based on taste rather than necessity. To abstain from them is not to make a great sacrifice at all but to embrace an integrated and wholistic way of life that is non-violent and ethically consistent. We are addicted to animal products and that can change. Honestly, food actually “tastes” better this way – in the broadest sense of the word. Show me an aubergine or a pile of lentils and a steak and ask me which one “tastes” better and there is no competition. For some, purely on the level of chemical pleasure, the steak might taste better, but surely there is more to the flavour of something than that? When we elevate stimulation of the senses above morality we are on shaky ground.
This is what is at the front of my mind when people in conversation try to ascertain under what circumstances I might be prepared to consume animal products. There is a sense that they are trying to find a way for me or them to escape from the ethical ban and find an acceptable way to maintain the addiction. That is honestly what it feels like to me. Whichever way I look at it I can’t escape the conviction that the aubergine is a wholesome, joyful and virtuous thing and the steak and cheese has nothing to commend it. I don’t need rescuing from an austere self-imposed diet I just want other people to be set free.
More recently I have stumbled accross a new sort of human, a growing global movement with a compelling vision of a vegan world in the future.
Abolitionists are part of a movement that draws inspiration from those who campaigned to end slavery in bygone times. They emphasise the personhood of animals and challenge our “speciesist” ideals. At the same time their critique goes deeper, challenging any form of oppression from a non-violent platform. In years to come, they believe we will look back on our exploitation of animals in the same way that we now regard slavery. Abolitionists are highly critical of “welfareists” who they regard as enemies of the true and fundamental ethical shift that needs to take place. The welfareists are just soothing our consciences without tackling the moral problem. I can’t do all the arguments justice here but encourage the curious to explore.
I am really grateful to the abolitionists for the debate they are opening up and the ways they have helped me to think through my own ethical choices. However I am not quite ready to sign up wholeheartedly.
From a pragmatic point of view I would like to know what the plan is for humanity to transition away from dependence (psychological and otherwise) on animal products. Here I think some kind of “step-down” process would be necessary. We have created this monster and it needs to be dismantled carefully otherwise we have herds of dairy cows turned out to die. Transitioning to small-scale localised agriculture practicing as humanely as possible in respect of animals may be a way to go? From an educational point of view, too, welfarist organisations such as Peta and Animal Aid have helped me to progress in my thinking and have awakened my conscience rather than merely soothing it.
I guess that is why I want to keep exploring dairy issues on Milk Mondays by keeping the debate open and exploratory, rather than coming down hard on one side.
Gary L. Francione who is a primary architect of the abolitionist approach seems like quite a reasonable guy who wants to really have conversations with people and help them think. But some of his disciples come accross as a bit shrill in their attacks. I can understand, because sometimes I want to shout at people to think about their choices and want to aggressively dismantle their thinking. I have not made any progress by being attacked but through having the opportunity for dialogue without feeling judged.
What about the Inuit?
Is there an abolitionst answer for ethnic groups who have good reason to depend on animals for survival because of where they live? It is difficult to see how their way of life could be suddenly altered without causing more suffering.
Ultimately, I think I am on a subtly different track to the abolitionists while very much appreciating their contribution. At the end of the day, it is us, not the animals, who are thinking about these issues and have the power to do something about it. That is a reflection of the fact that humans are uniquely placed in a position of responsibility and stewardship in relation to the rest of creation. I think this is not coincident but divine design. It is out of that sense of responsibility that I am making my choices. That makes me speciesist because I think humans are special – it’s what we do with that specialness that matters.
Scripture, which abolitionists may see as a homophobic, speciesist, racist, and sexist collection of documents, nevertheless begins and ends with a vision of a vegan world. Originally, humankind lives harmoniously in a garden, eating fruit and lording it over creation without a hint of exploitation. Ultimately, even the lion eats grass in a new creation and nothing hurts or harms on God’s holy mountain. I think that is the creator’s ultimate intention. That’s my dream, too. Being vegan gives me a taste of a time yet to come and is part of making it a reality now.
The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, and the lion shall eat straw like the ox; and dust shall be the serpent’s food. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain,” says Yahweh. (Isaiah 65:25 – WEB)
“You have just dined, and however scrupulously the slaughterhouse is concealed in the graceful distance of miles, there is complicity.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson)
Warning: this video contains graphic footage that viewers may find upsetting.
This is a compilation of footage secretly filmed at seven randomly chosen red-meat slaughterhouses in the UK and it’s release coincides with the publication of a report by Animal Aid detailing the results of an 18 month long investigation that has resulted in several prosecutions and widespread public revulsion.
During the investigation, Animal Aid documented frequent episodes of a highly distressing nature that included animals being improperly stunned before going to the knife, deliberately being given electric shocks to ears and mouth, being kicked or thrown by their ears into stunning pens, being cut or decapitated while still conscious, trodden on, beaten with shackles or electric tongs. Some of the recorded incidents were examples of bad practice and others were outright and malicious cruelty to animals in their last moments.
Disturbingly, these practices are clearly widespread and happen behind closed doors and a long way from the smiling pig logo on the pork pies on our supermarket shelves. As a result of the investigation, Sainsbury’s has suspended it’s contract with one of the slaughterers concerned and there have been several further outcomes including renewed support for CCTV in UK slaughterhouses. The complete report can be downloaded from Animal Aid, 19 pages recording the abuses and the implications for the meat trade in the future.
The reason I am putting this horrible footage on my blog is to encourage people to ask where their meat comes from and question whether they wish to be complicit as consumers. It appears that genuine “Humane Slaughter” is the exception rather than the rule.
This is not vegetarian propaganda so much as an attempt to call the industry to account and to enforce the law of the land. However, for my part, if there is a 1% chance of the food on my plate coming from a place like this, then I’d rather go hungry. I do believe this underlying violence in our food chain is a sign that we are becoming dangerously, inhumanly irresponsible and wilfully ignorant as a society.
I spent a lovely couple of hours picking wayside raspberries last evening with a few good folk from The Durham Fruit Group. This group is a growing network of people in the Durham environs who are connecting over local fruit, wild and cultivated. Among other things, we are currently mapping fruit trees and soft fruit bushes growing around the city and sharing knowledge about just about anything to do with local fruit.
The Durham Fruit Group is an offshoot from a loose network of good folks in Durham who are creating, sharing, growing and learning together about how to work towards a sustainable future for the city.
Foraging in a group is a profoundly therapeutic activity and this is no surprise as it is probably one of the most primitively wired activities a human being can do.
In late 1998 I spent five weeks studying a troop of Cercopithecus aethiops (that’s Vervet Monkeys) in the wild. My original plan was to look for links between the diet and fertility of the females, I ended up studying the formation of the group and their social habits around their foraging patterns. The point of this was ultimately to be able to say something about the kind of socio-ecological conditions under which the very earliest human groups might have formed. Obtaining food by wild foraging is possibly the matrix of human communities.
The stereotypical perception of “Man the Hunter” is worth questioning. If I recall correctly from my undergraduate Anthropology lectures, among the scattered remnants of hunter-gatherers on this planet, more than 80% of nutritional needs are met through foraging /gathering and “hunting” has a more supplementary and religious role to play. It’s also worth noting that the gathering is generally practiced by women on behalf of the group – yes 50% of the group do 80% of the providing! I must say, as I sat for many days, with my notebook, watching my little troop of Vervets idly picking fruit and socialising, I prefered this peacable vision of our earliest ancestors to Robert Ardrey’s “Killer Ape” theory.
Where am I going with this? Well:
Going to the supermarket for raspberries will not feed the psyche of your inner gatherer and you are also in danger of forgetting what a real raspberry tastes like because shop bought fruit may be twice the size but has half the flavour of wild-picked.
As long as we perpetuate the myth of our “savage” hunting origins we will continue to justify an unsustainable meat-eating addiction and make excuses for our cruel and violent streak towards animals and each other.
On his 1987 album “The Art of Tea”, Michael Franks – the singer who single-handley provided the floating soundtrack to my late teens – confessed to his fascination for a woman who could cook an eggplant about 19 different ways:
Maybe its the way she grates her cheese,
Or just the freckles on her knees.
Maybe its the scallions. Maybe she’s Italian.
I can’t reveal her name but Eggplant is her game.
The glorious appeal of this purple fruit is only just beginning to dawn on me, a latecomer to the aubergine scene. As a child, growing up in Zimbabwe, we called it by its more colonial name, “Brinjal”.
Perhaps something in my young palate discerned that the crisp, fried slices of mauve edged vegetable in the moussaka were close cousins of the deadly nightshade. Maybe I just didn’t like the way it soaked up any grease available. Whatever it was, I didn’t take to it. It always seemed a tragedy to me, however, that such a beautiful, shiny and richly coloured plant should not taste as good as it looked.
It is only in recent weeks, as I have been getting a huge, shining aubergine every wednesday in our Farmaround bag, that I have been learning to love it and wishing I could drop in on Micheal Franks’ freckle-kneed friend for some cooking tips.
“Raw with mayonnaise” is the only hint given in the song of the 19 different ways to cook an eggplant. That is a good start. I have tried a few more but I am a long way off 19:
Raw: Yes, I believe this is one of the best ways to go. Keeping those nutrients intact and slicing it up to eat alone with a dash of worcester sauce, mayo, or salt and pepper.
Ratatouille: It used to be a boring side dish in my house but if I get the seasoning right and it blows my mind. There are so many variants of this dish worth trying but most agree it should be slowly cooked. In my opinion it is even better a day later, cold, on toast.
Oven Roasted: With a medley of other seasonal veg like onions and squash – salt,pepper, dash of olive oil, in a pan, roasty-roasty, lovely, serve on a bed of couscous.
Grilled: Slice them up longwise like “minute steaks” and grill with a bit of seasoning.
I would love any further suggestions for ways to prepare aubergine but have one thought in closing. Yesterday, as I sliced into my aubergine, I thought I saw some sort of pattern in the arrangement of the seeds. Ancient soothsayers used to read a great deal into these patterns. I could not make out anything very specific, maybe the shape of a bird’s wing, certainly nothing as obvious as Marisa McClellan’s Divine Eggplant. I wondered what it might be trying to say to me, nevertheless.
Maybe I was just reaching out for the mystical union we are all looking for with the things we eat, a fusion of physical and spiritual appetites?