I have a weird relationship with meat.
Like most of my contemporaries, I grew up eating beef. As a kid, my dinner plate usually contained protein (hamburger or chicken), starch (potato, rice, or bread), and some kind of vegetable. Day in and day out, that’s what my family ate for dinner. Apparently, it was consistent with the nationwide trend. The height of meat consumption in the United States was in 1976. (Source: chart in article USDA. Economic Research Service, Food Availability Data.)
My first exposure to the idea “vegetarian lifestyle” was in 1973, two years after Francis Moore Lappe wrote the groundbreaking Diet for a Small Planet. I was one of the millions who decided to become a vegetarian for about two weeks. Lappe’s book was incredibly influential at the time. It laid out the connection between a healthy planet and a vegetable-based diet.
I supplemented Diet for a Small Planet with The Moosewood Cookbook, a wildly popular vegetarian cookbook with cute little pencil drawings. When I had a yen for no meat, Moosewood was my “go-to” book.
Back in the 70s, being a vegetarian was cool in a hippy-dippy kind of way. There was a cafeteria I used to go to where all the food was overcooked and the tables were dusty. We experimented with meatless stews, barley, lentil-based salads, and a lot of overcooked vegetables.
The 1980s were very different. I was young, single, and working. So I ate out a lot and was very good at Chinese take-out.
The book that most influenced my cooking was The Silver Palate, a meat-based and wildly popular cookbook. Each recipe had many ingredients that were luxurious and expensive. The Silver Palate is a great cookbook but not really suitable for day-to-day cooking. One of my favorite recipes for example was apple pie with sour cream in it.
In the 1990s I got married and gave up red meat. It was really my husband’s doing. I went along as an eager to please newlywed. I just insisted on the occasional beef stew and the once-a-year flank steak cooked over a cherry wood fire.
Chicken became the dominant protein in our diet. We ate an incredible amount of chicken. Other than the occasional fish, and spaghetti once a week, we ate chicken almost every day. It is a wonder we didn’t start clucking. Once again we were on-trend. Chicken consumption has more than tripled in the U.S. since 1970 this trend has been linked to beef falling out of favor.
Meanwhile, chickens have almost doubled in size since the 1960s. They have grown in size from 3.75 pounds in 1970 to 6.18 pounds in 2016. Boneless, skinless chicken breasts (which provided the basis of much of my cooking) grew from the normal four ounces to a gigantic ten-ounce slab. (There has to be a Dolly Parton joke here.) This is largely a result of massive selective breeding, industrialized poultry farming, and antibiotics. (Source: Why chickens are twice as big today as they were 16 years ago, Market Watch, 1/6/2017).
While our protein variety was dull, I made a concerted effort to learn how to cook starting in 2003. That was the year I left my busy corporate job and started working for myself. In an effort to save money and get away from processed food, my cooking got a lot more interesting.
Cooking using oriental, Indian, Mexican and other flavors made the chicken seem, well, not so repetitive. Recipes were easy to find on the internet. Cooking classes on YouTube provided a great introduction to stir-fries and curries, Even better, I could type my ingredients into google and come up with recipes that at least approximately matched the ingredients I had on hand.
In the past year, I’ve noticed a new transition in our diet and we seem to be right on trend again. Our chicken consumption (thank goodness) is down to once a week. We have doubled our vegetable consumption, added kefir (a homemade fermented milk product) and turmeric to our diet, and cut sugar consumption by 75 percent.
Change is good but it means that I’ll be dipping into the internet for a while longer to keep up with our tastes and interest in good health.