Less is more – but for whom?

In The Woodstock Independent, 2013

Fatoush with a Tahina dressing.
Fatoush with a Tahina dressing.
The lower picture is Fatoush with a lemon and extra virgin olive oil dressing. That time, I used a bag of “value added” veggie trimmings from Costco. The bag contains shreds of Brussels sprouts, broccoli stems, bits of kale and carrot.

As the only vegetarian cafe in the area, I have many health-conscious customers. Increasingly they ask for gluten-free products. Most of my food is, in fact, gluten-free naturally. For those who want some kind of bread with their meal, though, I stock gluten-free crackers.

Last week we ran out of our regular product, and I had to run to a local store to pick up a substitute: $7.00 for a small box of rice crackers with just enough in it to provide a few small crackers to four customers. $7.00 for a product that has little nutrition, no fiber and is high on the glycemic index. This same $7.00 would buy me seven bags of whole wheat pita, each with 10 “loaves” of six inch pitas, from a small bakery in Chicago that makes the bread fresh on their premises. Enough for 70 customers. Wheat with protein, vitamins B1, B2, B3, E, folic acid, calcium, phosphorus, zinc, copper, iron, and good fiber content. Why does it cost so much more to get so much less? This question aggravated me all week.

I understand some of us need gluten-free products — yet I cannot help but feel we are being duped by a food industry that creates a health problem and then offers “solutions” from which it profits enormously. Gluten-free sales reached more than $2.6 billion by the end of 2010 and are now expected to exceed more than $5 billion by 2015. (Source: Packaged Facts, 2011). On the other hand, I wonder if many of us go gluten-free thinking it’s healthier but choose “substitutes” that are not only more expensive but nutritionally inferior.

Two years ago I first heard the term “value added product.” I wasn’t familiar with this term so did a little research. “Value added” refers to any step in the production process that improves the product for the customer and results in a higher net worth. I suspect the operative words are “production process,” which in my experience results not in added value for the customer, where value should be defined as enhancing health, but for the food industry, where value is defined as profit.

Those rice crackers I bought might be considered “value added”. They are simple grains of rice subjected to a series of steps involving water, heat, expensive machinery and sprayed on seasoning. Chicken McNuggets would also be an example of a “value added product.” A few weeks ago, a report revealed the real content of a Chicken McNugget, renaming it “Chicken Little.” The Nuggets turn out to be no more than half chicken “meat” and the rest fat, cartilage, bone, blood vessels and nerves.

While the real content of Chicken McNuggets may disgust some of us, there is nothing inherently wrong with using otherwise unusable parts of a chicken to create tasty food. People have always found ingenious ways to make the inedible edible: witness chit’lins (chitterlings) and gribenes. Chit’lins are the intestines of a pig, stewed for several hours and sometimes fried into what some consider a delicious treat. Gribenes are a by-product of schmaltz making. Excess chicken skin is cut into small pieces and sautéed in a pan until the schmaltz (fat) is rendered. The “cracklings” are removed, and caramelized onions and seasonings added for a treat that in pre-low-fat diet days was well-loved by many Jews.

Now that we know that fat, even animal fat, is not the cause of weight gain, diabetes and sickness in our American diet, who knows? These items may become popular once again. Coming soon to a summer near you: Gribenes and chit’lin stands!

What we do know is that when a “value added” product comes to us via the food industry, we can assume the way the product was turned into something that will “add value” for the industry probably decreases value for us. We can expect the raw food is subjected to heat and/or speedy, mechanized processes that result in undesirable changes in the food product (from the health standpoint), or cheap oils high in omega 6s are used or sugar or undesirable chemicals are added.

A real value-added product is one made from scratch with the best, whole food ingredients. An example is “Fatoush,” a way that Middle Eastern cooks found to use up stale pita. For a gluten-free version, leave out the pita. Although delicious with it, it is substantial, satisfying and delicious without it. A few chickpeas thrown in will replace the protein and B vitamins of the wheat, some avocado or olives will add fat, and walnuts will add crunch. No designer gluten-free products needed, just real food!

Fatoush means “crushed” or “broken” and refers to the Pita croutons that are a prominent feature of this salad.

Romaine, 1 “head”
Spinach, 1 quart
Radicchio, 1/2 “head”
Plum Tomato, 4 large
Cucumber, 1 large or 2 small
Green Onions, 1 bunch
Radishes, 5-6
Mint, 4-6 sprigs (1/4 cup chopped)
Garlic, 1-2 cloves crushed (opt.)
Lebanese Pita, 1 quart pita strips
Extra Virgin Olive Oil, 1/4 – 1/2 cup
Lemon Juice of 1/2 – 1 lemon
Sumac, 1 TB
Salt, to taste

Cut 2 Lebanese pitas into 2″ x 1/2″ strips and toast lightly or dry in oven. Set aside. Shred (slice thinly) the Romaine, spinach and radicchio. All greens should be in 2″ x 1/4″ strips. Deseed tomatoes and cucumbers. Petite dice (1/4″-1/2″ dice) radishes, tomatoes and cucumbers. Chop green onions and mint. Crush garlic. Toss the veggies, garlic and pita croutons together gently with the sumac. Toss again with extra virgin olive oil, freshly squeezed lemon juice and salt to taste. Gluten-free: leave out pita and add chickpeas, avocado, olives and/or walnuts.

Happy, healthy eating!

For more, visit my blog, vegetatingwithleslie.org, “Like” me on FaceBook/Vegetating with Leslie or follow me on Twitter,@vegwithleslie.

What we eat expresses our values: let’s do it consciously

Originally this post started with my reaction to the Trump phenomenon. I’m revising it because that phenomenon is just the latest expression of a deep-seated trend in American history and culture, in fact in all of human culture.

I’m not adding an image to this post because I couldn’t find one that adequately expressed what I want to say. The image in my head is the Garden of Eden, a vision in which creation lives in harmony. That world was vegetarian, and no part of it was devalued in relation to another part. All the images I found either didn’t include human beings or, if they did include human beings, they were white only.

* * * * * * * * * *

Words have power. The vocabulary of bigotry and devaluation and exclusion eventually leads to violence.

Symbols have power as well. Images have power. Rituals have power. All of these are non-verbal expressions of ideas.

Those of us who hope for a just and compassionate society must increase our sensitivity to the impact of words, symbols, imagery and rituals and how they are understood and expressed in society. A first step toward stemming the tide of disrespect and violence in our world is stemming the tide of negative words and imagery by opposing it with positive words and imagery.

A starting place for me to begin to understand the origins of violence in our world and to oppose it is with food.

Food does more than nourish me. It is a central part of my personal symbolism. I express myself with the food that I make and eat and share with others.

Usually my food talks about good health and love and caring. Today my food needs to say something else. It needs to say, people of the world, unite against lack of compassion, hatred and violence. Recognize the seeds of it everywhere. Those seeds are hardly restricted to one group emanating from the Middle East.

I want to put out a challenge. I would like to invite all of us to commit to sitting down, once a week, with at least one other person with whom we can share our meal. Let’s make that meal vegan, and let’s be certain that either we grow and prepare every item on our plates, or we purchase Fair Trade, sustainably produced raw ingredients to prepare the meal. In fact, extend the process to everything on the table. The salt. The plates. The napkins. Find out what was involved in getting each item to your table.

Perhaps the near impossibility of fulfilling this requirement will serve to make us aware of the pervasiveness of thoughtless violence that implicates us all, the thoughtless violence that underpins massive cultural, ethnic, religious, racial, gender and species-directed violence.

This meal will be our regular weekly time to reflect on this violence that threatens to engulf creation, violence against animals “produced” on an impossibly massive scale just for slaughter, violence against our environment, and violence against our fellow human beings in so many ways and at so many levels.

For some of us, this reflection may lead to further social action. For others, the communal reflection is an action in itself. The power of one sensitized person is far greater than the power of one radicalized individual.

For more, visit my blog, vegetatingwithleslie.org, “Like” me on FaceBook/Vegetating with Leslie or follow me on Twitter, @vegwithleslie.

Our Brain: All It’s Cracked Up to Be?


A brain is an interesting thing. I was just thinking about brains the other day. My thought process began this way:

I took a walk with my husband. Along the way, we saw a dead rabbit in an area where we had seen a feral cat the evening before. His reaction reminded me of times we had watched nature movies together. If one animal hunted another to kill it, he turned off the TV. Of course, I don’t like to see animals killed or hurt, but I wondered about his reaction. I said, “It’s natural. It’s just the way life works. It’s designed that way.” He said, “It’s a stupid design.”

That generated something of a paradigm shift for me. It’s the way nature works: it’s always been that way. I never questioned it. Whether or not there is divine intention behind it, sustaining life requires taking life, at least in this universe, even if it’s “just a plant.”

So my next thought was, what went through the mind of the first person who ate an animal? I mean, it had to start somewhere, right? How did a human being see a living creature and think, “Yum, that would be good to eat?”

Which brings me to brains. I did a little research about my questions. While I never got an answer to them, who first ate meat, and what went through their minds, I did read that the fact that human beings ate meat had a great deal to do with their larger brains.

One thing I know for sure: what was going through the first meat-eater’s mind wasn’t, oh, this will give me a bigger brain. The fact that someone back there ate meat had nothing to do with intelligence originating from their brains.

Yet we value our brains, right? If there is one thing we believe explains our great success in terms of survival and even dominance over creation, it is our brains. Our brains place us above the rest of creation, “only a little lower than the angels and crowned . . . with glory and honor.” (Psalm 8:5) We are the masters of creation because of our brains. Or are we?

Does it really make a difference that our physical brains are larger than other creatures? Or even that we have a brain at all? Does the presence of a brain make us more intelligent than other life forms with which we share our world? Are only human beings with big brains capable of intelligent reactions to their surroundings?

Some science suggests not. In “The Intelligent Plant,” an article in The New Yorker (Dec. 23, 2013), Michael Pollan presents findings that plants exhibit reactions to their environment like alarm and demonstrate intelligence related to their own survival. Plants engage in group behaviors aimed at protecting the community. They recognize “kinship” bonds. They adapt to their environment and manipulate it.

The new (and tendentious) field of plant neurobiology presents us with the idea that “it is only human arrogance, and the fact that the lives of plants unfold in what amounts to a much slower dimension of time, that keep us from appreciating their intelligence and consequent success. Plants dominate every terrestrial environment, composing ninety-nine per cent of the biomass on earth. By comparison, humans and all the other animals are, in the words of one plant neurobiologist, ‘just traces.'”

Pollan adds, “Indeed, many of the most impressive capabilities of plants can be traced to their unique existential predicament as beings rooted to the ground and therefore unable to pick up and move when they need something or when conditions turn unfavorable.” Organs that cannot be regenerated, including brains, are not an asset for plants.

The article was fascinating, but even more fascinating than the article was the reaction of some scientists to the findings of their colleagues. A lack of willingness to contemplate the possibility of intelligence among plants hardly communicates the intensity of the reaction among some.

Admittedly, the thought that animals possess intelligence and react to their environment, experience pain, fear and love and react to immanent death, is a paradigm shift still in progress. It is not as unthinkable, apparently, as the idea that plants might have intelligence and reactions to their environment. And these ideas do present some problems, not the least of these, what can we eat?

If we contemplate for a moment that brain size, or even the presence of a brain, does not make us superior beings, where do we get the authority to kill and eat anything? Finally we come face to face with the central moral paradox of our existence here on earth, that it requires taking life to sustain life.

As we journey through our lives, we both eat and nourish, destroy and enrich. Our gift and our burden as human beings is that we can make conscious decisions about the balance of eating and nourishing, taking and giving.

At the very least, plant neurobiology may induce us to pause and reflect on the source of each and every bite of food and the wonder of creation. Perhaps it will serve as the ultimate test for human beings to learn to respect and honor “otherness,” something for which we have limited skill, even among our own kind.

For more, visit my blog, vegetatingwithleslie.org, “Like” me on FaceBook/Vegetating with Leslie or follow me on Twitter,@vegwithleslie.