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 …
How did I ever come this far in life without knowing about the sacred amalgamation of onions, celery and carrots? It has changed my culinary world forever. The colourful combination, known as “soffritto” in some parts and “mirepoix” in others, drives the flavour of this baked quinoa sensation that offers all the comfort of chicken soup or fish pie without requiring the inclusion of any animal flesh or secretions.
I have adapted it from a friend’s recipe that was adapted from another recipe that was probably adapted from a non-vegan version at some point in its genesis. This will feed four, but even when I make it for the two of us, there are never any leftovers.
2 cups of vegetable stock/bouillon
1 cup quinoa
8 tbsp olive oil
2 tsp cornflour dissolved in 1 cup water
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, crushed
4 celery sticks, finely chopped
2 carrots, finely chopped
1 tbsp mixed herbs (Italian)
1 cup plain vegan yoghurt (Alpro) – if this is not available it is possible to sour soya milk with a little lemon juice or vinegar
1 tbsp squeezed lemon juice
1 tsp ground black pepper
Bring the vegetable stock to the boil and add the quinoa, turn down and simmer on a low heat for about 20 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 180° C (350° F) and wipe a thin coating of olive oil onto the sides of a rectangular baking dish.
Heat the olive oil at a moderate temperature and gently sauté the carrots, celery, onion and garlic, adding them in that order at 2 minute intervals and then giving them another 15 minutes.
Take the quinoa off the heat and thoroughly stir in the dissolved cornflour, yoghurt, mixed herbs, lemon juice, black pepper and the sautéd vegetables.
Empty the mixture into the baking dish and bake in the oven for about 45 minutes. You are looking for the top to brown nicely, so check it after about 45 minutes and finish it off under the grill, if needed, to make sure it is evenly crisp without being burned.
I’m currently working my way through Louis Fischer’s “Life of Mahatma Gandhi”. I say “working my way through” because it is impossible to simply read about such a life without being forced to look long and hard at one’s own. One of the many things that strikes me about Gandhi’s life is his unending experimentation.
Many of his contemporaries found this a very frustrating aspect of their Mahatma. As much as they loved him, it was difficult to keep up with his ever evolving attitudes and approaches. Just when people thought he had nailed something down, he would move on, backtrack, repent, try something else. This champion of non-violence and enemy of the British System, nevertheless supported the British war effort by recruiting and serving in an ambulance corps. During his lifetime, Gandhi completely reversed his opinion on inter-caste marriages within Hinduism – from complete disapproval to virtually insisting on it. And he never stopped radically changing his dietary habits in line with his evolving view of human health and ethical vegetarianism.
He was a slippery fish – you never quite knew how he was going to respond to something, but he was always ready with a reasoned answer to his surprised and exasperated followers. This apparent inconsistency was not a weakness but appears to spring from a humble openness to change and learn, make mistakes and experiment.
In spite of all this it appears that three things remained fixed, two of which were phenomenally practical. He maintained a lifelong commitment to Khadi (homespun cloth), he never gave up his focus on integrating the “untouchables” in society (he renamed them “Harijans” – children of God), and he was unashamedly religious. Khadi, Harijans, and God – these were the forces he believed in for the transformation of India.
I admire the clarity with which he was able to pick the issues he would die for (as he nearly did on a couple of occasions due to self-imposed fasts). But, I am also determined to learn from the humility with which he was able to try new ways of aligning his convictions with his actions, and to say, “I got that wrong” and move on to try another approach.
Gandhi’s own body and soul, his surroundings and his sphere of influence were a laboratory in which he was prepared to constantly refine and improve his methods in search of the truth. He reminds me that our goal in life is not to become an increasing point of stability and so-called “reliability” but to be dynamic beings, adept swimmers in a sea of change, lifelong experimenters and unashamed modifiers of our selves.
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.
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 embarrassed 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, and 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 quickly surmised that all the arguments in favour of abstaining from meat also 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 protein?
Well, we don’t need as much protein 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 absorption 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 guarantee 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 its 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 bizarre 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 human’s moral right to inflict that suffering. It was pondering this question that lead me to take another step toward 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 the 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 have nothing to commend them. 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 across 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 “welfarists” who they regard as enemies of the true and fundamental ethical shift that needs to take place. The welfarists 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 go all-in there.
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 across 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 abolitionist 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 from 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 them. 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 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)