Yesterday, HuffPost ran a fascinating piece from Wray Herbert on the mental underpinnings of meat eating. As he describes,
The average American consumes more than 250 pounds of meat a year, an appetite fed by the slaughter of 10 billion animals. Yet we spend a fortune on our pets, too. The fact is that we both care for animals and eat them. How do we manage the psychological tension created by these seemingly conflicting values?
Psychological scientist Steve Loughnan of the University of Melbourne calls this the “meat paradox.” He and his colleagues have been working for years to understand the psychological gymnastics we use to resolve and live with this moral dilemma….
They’ve found some intriguing and consistent differences between meat eaters and vegetarians. For example, meat eaters tend to be more authoritarian in general, believing that it is acceptable to be aggressive and controlling with subordinates. Meat eaters are also more likely to accept inequality and to embrace social hierarchies. Apparently these attitudes — toward other humans — make meat eating less morally problematic. Interestingly, omnivores who value inequality and hierarchy also eat more red meat than do their less dominant peers. Meat eating is also closely linked to male identity — indeed, so closely that meat is often seen as metaphorically male.
Herbert goes on to describe some experimental results that further untangle how our brains make sense of the rightness or wrongness of eating animals. His conclusion is a powerful one:
Readers will recognize these findings as consistent with the theory of cognitive dissonance. When behavior is a poor match with beliefs and values, something’s got to give. Vegetarians change their behavior. But the rest of us — nine out of 10 — ease the discomfort by altering our beliefs — about animals’ minds, suffering, and moral standing.
The full piece is well-worth a read. Check it out here.
When having dinner with a vegetarian, it’s best to assume that this guest is not quietly hoping the discussion will swing over to food philosophies. Still, people rarely hesitate before asking vegetarians why they don’t eat meat, as if the answer couldn’t possibly transform lively dinner table discussion into a sad symphony of fork-scrapes. They also seem shocked when, unlike the couple that’s designated cheating “hall passes” for celebrities or whatever, we haven’t left even one kind of meat option as a loophole. “Not even fish?” they might ask, bewildered. Disbelief then leads directly into maternal concern over whether we’re getting enough protein, the entire table inexplicably morphing into one hydra-headed grandma.
Even worse than an infantilizing spinach inquisition is the experience of having somebody peg you, in all regards, as hippie ambassador to the animal kingdom. Some people seem downright offended by vegetarians, just in general, and are always looking for ways to prove that meatlessness is meaningless, because animals are going to suffer at your hands one way or another. It’s an exercise in futility, though, to challenge a vegetarian on the supposed hypocrisy of eating eggs or wearing leather or whatever. For one thing, pretty much everybody is a hypocrite about something. More importantly, though, it’s entirely possible to not be a hypocrite and still be an asshole.
On our recent West coast trip, J, I and the friends who hosted us in the Bay Area (thanks again, V & E!) had lunch at LYFE Kitchen. I first learned about the restaurant from an article by Mark Bittman that I blogged about as our trip got underway. In his piece on whether good fast food might be possible, Bittman describes the LYFE Kitchen concept and team:
In Culver City, I visited Lyfe Kitchen (that’s “Love Your Food Everyday”; I know, but please keep reading). Lyfe has the pedigree, menu, financing, plan and ambition to take on the major chains. The company is trying to build 250 locations in the next five years, and [industry trade magazine] QSR has already wondered whether it will become the “Whole Foods of fast food.”
At Lyfe, the cookies are dairy-free; the beef comes from grass-fed, humanely raised cows; nothing weighs in at more than 600 calories; and there’s no butter, cream, white sugar, white flour, high-fructose corn syrup or trans fats. The concept was the brainchild of the former Gardein executive and investment banker Stephen Sidwell, who quickly enlisted Mike Roberts, the former global president of McDonald’s, and Mike Donahue, McDonald’s U.S.A.’s chief of corporate communications. These three teamed up with Art Smith, Oprah’s former chef, and Tal Ronnen, who I believe to be among the most ambitious and talented vegan chefs in the country.
In his feature on LYFE for Wired magazine, Frederick Kaufman briefly describes some of Roberts’s work at Mickey D’s before he left:
[T]he young Roberts launched himself into a 29-year career at McDonald’s, culminating in three years as president of American operations and then two more as president of the whole corporation. During his years as a top executive, Roberts often tried to push the chain toward healthier fare, such as mango strips, slinky-shaped carrots, and yogurt. At one point he even explored the possibility of a vegan McNugget. (“People would look at him like he was a Cyclops,” Donahue says.) …
On the journey that Roberts wants to take, organic food producers and Lyfe Kitchen will travel toward a realm of financial and foodie triumph. Success will be based on the strict market discipline that made fast food possible in the first place, a drill that can now extend beyond commodity beef, commodity wheat, commodity soybean oil, commodity sugar, and commodity potatoes. Market research Roberts did at McDonald’s convinced him that mothers, the dominant decisionmakers about mealtimes, are more focused than ever on healthy food. So this time around, brussels sprouts and quinoa will enter the picture. This time around, the end result—the food—will look and smell and taste more like an entré from some bistro in Brooklyn than a 30-second stop along Fast-Food Alley. But the process will be roughly the same, in that the problems of enormous scale can be solved through similar uses of technology, efficiency, and experience. “I would say that the pattern of this mosaic is very familiar,” Roberts says. “The strategy of the rollout, the people and their skill sets, the systems of training and hiring and finance and accounting and supply chain, the development of the property and real estate system—they are all very similar.”
In other words, Roberts will take all the tricks he learned from old-style fast food and apply them to the next phase of American eating.
Kaufman’s full piece is worth a read: check it out here.
The Culver City restaurant that Mark Bittman visited was the company’s second; the Palo Alto store I visited was the very first. They’re building company-owned stores and also pursing a McDonald’s-like franchise model. Franchisees will be glad for company support, since outfitting these restaurants isn’t cheap. (Kaufman’s article provides a good overview of the computer-choreographed system in the LYFE Kitchen kitchen.) As Lisa Jennings reports for the trade publication Nation’s Restaurant News,
The estimated buildout cost for a LYFE Kitchen unit is about $1.5 million, including kitchen equipment.
LYFE Kitchen is known for its use of state-of-the-art energy-efficient equipment, which is a key component of the systems that allow for the cooking of fresh food in house consistently. A turbo combine oven, for example, allows operators to turn out the concept’s signature Brussels sprouts the same way every time, [Donahue] said.
While Chicago — where LYFE Kitchen is based — will be home to the first franchise location, Donahue said the company is eager to line up operators in Colorado, in particular, where they feel the brand will be embraced by diners in cities like Denver and Boulder.
The company is also working to develop relationships with farmers in the territories targeted so restaurants can deliver on the promise to use local ingredients where possible.
Interesting to see efforts to extend the McDonald’s model into fresh veggies, no?
But enough about the business side of things. How’s the food, and what are the prices like? Let’s start with Bittman’s take:
I sampled across the menu and came away impressed. There are four small, creative flatbread pizzas under $10; one is vegan, two are vegetarian and one was done with chicken. I tasted terrific salads, like a beet-and-farro one ($9) that could easily pass for a starter at a good restaurant, and breakfast selections, like steel-cut oatmeal with yogurt and real maple syrup ($5) and a tofu wrap ($6.50), were actually delicious.
Lyfe, not unlike life, isn’t cheap. The owners claim that an average check is “around $15” but one entree (roast salmon, bok choy, shiitake mushrooms, miso, etc.) costs exactly $15. An “ancient grain” bowl with Gardein “beef tips” costs $12, which seems too much. Still, the salmon is good and the bowl is delicious, as is a squash risotto made with farro that costs $9 — or the price of a “chickin” sandwich at Veggie Grill or a couple of Tendercrisp sandwiches at Burger King….
Lyfe isn’t vegan, so much as protein-agnostic. You can get a Gardein burger or a grass-fed beef burger, “unfried” chicken or Gardein “chickin.” You can also get wine (biodynamic), beer (organic) or a better-than-it-sounds banana-kale smoothie. However, I fear that Lyfe’s ambition, and its diverse menu, will drive up equipment and labor costs, and that those costs are going to keep the chain from appealing to less-affluent Americans. You can get a lot done in a franchise system, but its main virtues are locating the most popular dishes, focusing on their preparation and streamlining the process. My hope is that Lyfe will evolve, as all businesses do, by a process of trial and error, and be successful enough that they have a real impact on the way we think of fast food.
By and large, I wholeheartedly agree. Some of the food was super tasty. I ordered the beet-and-farro salad that Bittman enjoyed so much, and it was probably the best thing on the table. I’d happily order it again; drop the price by a dollar or two and I’d probably eat it weekly. Runner up? Those signature Brussels sprouts and butternut squash, garnished with craisins. J also enjoyed his meatless-sausage and mozzarella ravioli, though at $12, it was overpriced and too dainty a portion for a guy who was trying to put away some fuel for an impending squash game. Alas, the sweet corn chowder ($4) was generic, and everyone else hated the cardboard-like crust on the flatbread so much that I didn’t even bother trying it. I liked the banana-kale smoothie more than J and E, but it too was pricey at $5, and the $3 baby kale salad also needs to come down a bit in price if this model is to catch on. I thought the nicest surprise was the LYFE Chia water for just $1: a tasty, refreshing treat comprising “Filtered Water with Chia Seeds, Strawberries, Ginger, Mint, and Lime” and only 63 calories. Here in Madison we’ve long been home to a number of stores from Noodles and Company, the very successful and (compared to LYFE Kitchen) very affordable quick-casual restaurant. No doubt building a menu off cheap, processed grains helps Noodles keeps costs down, but it strikes me that LYFE Kitchen would do well to figure out what Noodles is doing right and apply some of that to their own model to help ensure their success.
A number of the items on her list aren’t necessarily specific to vegetarian cooking, but #1 is: “Vegetarian meals are satisfying to the point that meat is superfluous.” As she writes,
I rediscovered how delicious, how satisfying all-veggie meals are and that we really don’t notice the lack of meat on the plate when we skip it. So many vegetarian dishes are flavorful and hearty, completely filling and interesting to the senses. Should we crave meat, sure, we can add a small portion of a locally raised chicken or something. But we haven’t once cared to add meat to the menu since I started cooking again. It feels great to return to a way of eating that I know is more sustainable, more healthy, and have it not feel like a deprivation.
And, for one more preview, here’s a bit of her explication of reason #3, “Making food pretty makes you feel more satisfied during and after a meal”:
Jan Chozen Bays, in her book Mindful Eating, writes of the seven hungers: eye hunger, nose hunger, mouth hunger, stomach hunger, cellular hunger, mind hunger and heart hunger. We eat for different reasons, and usually because we are feeling at least one of these hungers though we may not be hungry in the way we normally think we are, when our stomach is empty. Our bodies might be craving a certain nutrient, or our hearts might be craving a childhood comfort food. But in this culture of rushing and hurrying, what we often don’t realize is how many hungers we can satisfy by taking the time to make our food beautiful and enjoying that process and sight before we eat.
Find the full post here.
And, for a little inspiration, check out Heimbuch’s “12 Easy recipes for eating local and vegetarian in March.”
Denise Sakaki recently had a nice post over at Honest Cooking. In it, she interviews a former vegetarian turned conscientious omnivore. As Sakaki describes in her introduction,
Like many people who have taken the time to carefully consider their dietary choices, Jane has been a vegetarian for several years, but recently, she made the decision to become an omnivore. It seems like an unusual decision, but her reasoning is heartfelt and educated, and potentially a sign that others are making similar choices, based on the movement towards improved farming practices. This person’s story is not an argument for or against certain dietary principles, it’s an intelligent viewpoint into being aware of how livestock are cared for, and how that affects our health of body and mind, as well as an inspiration for us all to consider feasting responsibly.
It’s a nice piece that captures one individual’s process of thinking through her beliefs about food that comes from animals. As Jane puts it herself,
My life up until now as a pescetarian, vegetarian and vegan helped me gain extensive knowledge about nutrition and cooking without the use of animal products. Having not had meat in the equation for so long allows me to stay away from the all too common mentality that a meal isn’t complete without meat. Meat is a privilege and a treat. I hope that as our society progresses, more and more people learn about where their food comes from and the importance of eating consciously.
Head here for the full piece.
I can’t undertake this six-week thing pretending it’s the beginning of forever. Maybe I will have some kind of vegetarian conversion experience. Maybe I won’t. But the last times I decided to stop eating meat, I didn’t provide myself with any continuing education that might have helped me to, well, not really want to eat meat.
So this time I am not only not going to eat meat, I am also simultaneously going to read a lot about meat and what it takes resource-wise to produce it — so that this information is doing more than lurking in the back of my mind in some half-remembered Granta article or image of a pigeon-pecked turkey carcass. I’m going to learn about slaughterhouses. I’m going to look at pictures of dead animals and read books about them. I’m going to try to watch someone kill an animal. I’m going to find out about what industrial farming does to animals and to the planet…. [I]t’s my sneaking suspicion that the more you know about meat, the less you actually want to put it in your mouth.
With Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals as her primary guide, she examines many of the practices at the core of factory farming. So, the descriptions (and occasionally photos) can be pretty stomach-turning. What’s most appealing to me about her posts is her attempt to confront the harsh realities of not only raising and killing vast numbers of animals for food but also our own human weaknesses. As she describes in her third post,
I am, so far, not succeeding in squelching my desire to eat meat. The stuff still appeals to me, obviously, or I wouldn’t have put that piece of bacon in my mouth. Yes, I did so before I’d read the pig chapters [of Eating Animals] very closely. But the idea of bacon, even though I haven’t eaten it again, is still far from disgusting to me. Even after reading all that.
And I was feeling so good about being so quickly grossed out by chicken and fish! It occurs to me that maybe I just don’t like chicken and fish as much as I like bacon.
It is dawning on me that for now, no matter what I know, or how much I learn, if I can stick to not eating meat it is probably going to have to be a decision, something I force on myself. The thing is, I think eating factory-farmed meat is wrong, and that is a long way from where I was when I started this. But my desire to eat meat has not gone away, either.
So now I say I despise cruelty against animals, and insist that I am affected by it; what does it mean that I could still feasibly eat them?
The black bean burger may have disappeared from Monty’s Blue Plate Diner when their menu was revamped, but it lives on at Monty’s sister restaurant, Hubbard Avenue Diner. Hubbard’s veggie burger is the subject of the second installment in my recently initiated Conscientious Burger series.
- Menu description: “Spiced black beans, salsa, Monterey Jack cheese, and a dab of sour cream on a kaiser roll. It’s messy, but worth it.”
- Also served with: Lettuce, tomato, and pickle slices
- Included sides: French fries, coleslaw or applesauce. Waffle fries, pasta salad, bowl of soup, cup of chili, vegetables, or fruit cup may be substituted for an additional 1.29. Substitute side salad for 1.59. Substitute a cup of soup for .99.
- Price: $8.49
- Website: For more about Hubbard Avenue Diner, including hours and menus, head here.
I recently tried this burger two different ways: as is with an upgrade to veggies for my side, and dairy-free with a side of their homemade hot applesauce. I liked the old-school kaiser roll with its dusting of corn meal on top. Hubbard’s house-made black bean burger is substantial and straightforward, without a lot in the way of spice or other ingredients, so the simple taste of black beans is the patty’s dominant flavor. That said, gluten-sensitive diners might want to be cautious and do more than skip the bun; the host I conferred with wasn’t sure of the recipe details, but thought that flour was on the list, no doubt as part of what holds the beans together. Hubbard doesn’t have any menu items with guacamole or avocado, which I had hoped to add to my dairy-free sandwich, but at my request my server was happy to bring me (at no extra charge) a side of the corn relish that’s an ingredient in one of their salads. Due some confusion in the kitchen, I ended up with an entire soup cup of the relish, rather than a small ramekin. Alas, it didn’t really add much flavor in the end. Similarly, while the cheese and sour cream added messiness for sure, they didn’t really add much else. The salsa, on the other hand, along with the large piece of leaf lettuce and slices of tomatoes, really worked great with sandwich and added the kick of bright flavor that the burger was calling out for. So, next time I order this, I’ll ask them to hold the dairy and add an extra side of salsa. And, if the weather is chilly like yesterday, the hot applesauce will definitely be my side of choice.