The other day I encountered an unexpected pleasure that made me think about some of the inconveniences of eating a meat-free diet. I am an itinerant counsellor for a school district, and school staffs often arrange potluck lunch days for their celebrations. If I happen to be in their school on one of those days, I am usually kindly asked to join them for lunch. However, typically most of the dishes are meat-based so they are out for me.
But the other day a school’s staff asked me to join them for their potluck salad and dessert bar lunch! Although I love my FITR salads, it can sometimes be hard to sit among all the great smells and sights of staff potlucks and eat a cold salad. It was such a treat to see all the delicious fruits and veggies made into colourful dishes, and I even found a source for a new mouthwatering quinoa salad recipe (thanks Cindi!). In retrospect, I realized it was the first time that I felt really “part of” the staff celebrations, and that led me to think of some of the other things I miss about eating meat.
I stopped eating meat for several reasons, but taste was not one of them. My mouth still waters at the memory of eating a thick juicy Alberta steak or a bacon sandwich, and I used to try to find replacements for these things. Generally, though, I find commercial attempts at replicating meat are disappointing. They do not properly capture the taste or (especially) the texture, and often they try to cover the difference by adding massive amounts of sodium. I have found a very few products that I like, but not because they are able to fool my mouth, just because I like them.
And I no longer try to find vegan copies of meat. Instead I’ve learned some tricks to look a little deeper at what I miss, and satisfy myself with other foods. I’ve already alluded in another post to how eating is tied to primal emotions, and eating healthfully involves really feeling those emotions. Eating mindfully is a part of that process. I once thought that if I went back to Alberta, I might just have a steak for old time’s sake, but then I played through a scenario in my mind. I closed my eyes and really thought about cutting into a steak, chewing the pieces, and swallowing the meat. I also thought about the living animal and the process of getting it ready and slaughtering and butchering it, and then the resulting cuts of meat being handled, packaged and sold. I could no longer actually visualize swallowing that bite of meat. I separated out the pleasurable parts from the unpleasant parts in my mind, and I realized that, when I want a steak, I don’t really crave meat- I crave the chewy and crisp texture, the smells, the warmth, the saltiness and the flavour.
And here is the emotional part- the combination of all those things together, I associate with Saturday summer barbecues in sunny Alberta with friends and family. When I visualize eating a steak, my brain is retrieving complex emotions from when I was first exposed to the smells and tastes of those happy times. The olfactory bulb (which we use to smell and taste) has a fast track to the amygdala (which processes instantaneous emotions), and the hippocampus (which stores memories). It is a part of the limbic system (emotional brain) and therefore has a huge effect on mood. By playing the mindful exercise of mentally rehearsing eating a steak, I was able to separate out the crucial components to reactivate the emotional experience, which in turn allows me to replace my meat with foods that give me the same pleasure.
So now when I want a steak, I replay the exercise and replace the steak with other foods to see if they will satisfy what I am searching for. Is it the charred crunchiness? OK, there are plenty of barbecued or dry-fried alternatives, like thin sliced extra firm tofu, well-cooked mushrooms or barbecued vegetables. Is it the salty juiciness? Anything marinated in my “Best in the World” salad dressing will give me that. If it is the texture my brain is calling out for, that is the hardest to find, and often I will have to just move in an opposite direction- maybe a crunchy food or a warm soup will satisfy the feeling in another way. I console myself with the knowledge that even when I still ate meat, it was impossible to find a steak where I live now that was anything like what I ate back in Alberta. (If anyone else has found a solution to the meat texture issue, I’d love to hear from you!)
I perform the same exercise with any meat. For instance, if I think I want bacon (another weakness) I play through the scenario to see if I am craving the saltiness, the texture, or something else. I have a few bacon substitutes that I have already posted, like beet bacon or mushroom bacon, but this exercise helped me find another trick. I used to love a toasted BLT sandwich when I went to a greasy spoon and I have discovered that a BLT in a cafe without the bacon tastes virtually the same. It is not vegan because of the mayonnaise (and often the bread) but I will bend on that at times, especially if there is nothing else suitable on the menu. From this I’ve realized that sometimes it is not the meat but the dish as a unit that I am craving, and leaving out the meat is not even noticeable.
One final thing I’ve learned (which may be obvious to many readers who gave up meat long ago) is that it was never really the meat itself that I liked. As I mentioned above, there are certain characteristics and associated experiences that I like, but those things exist independent of meat. I know this to be true because while I was moving toward veganism I occasionally indulged a desire to eat some meat. And, as long as I ate it mindfully- slowing down and tasting it and thinking about what I was eating, I did not enjoy the meat at all. My tastes had changed so that I detected flavours that seem unpleasant now, but also my associations had changed so the expected emotional charge (hooking in with the limbic system) was no longer there. With that experiment behind me, if my limbic system thinks I want meat, I am able to use my pre-frontal cortex to remind myself that meat is an old “addiction” and it won’t satisfy me any more.
What do you miss about meat, and what do you do about it?