Counter-Intuitive Mathematics: A Redux

In my previous column (from the April 17th edition), I discussed the irony of addition through subtraction. Specifically, I explored the “micro” perspective of how we can experience an increase in flavor through the subtraction of volume in a specific recipe or culinary technique. This column, however, will analyze the “macro” side of that equation. Can we increase our overall gastronomic enjoyment by the removal of elements from our diet and, if so, how do we accomplish this bit of ironic math?

As you know, I recently undertook a culinary experiment whereby, for a period of several weeks, I completely removed meat from my family’s diet and pursued an ovo-lacto menu. The subtraction element from this experiment is obvious: with the exception of dairy and eggs, all other animal products were no longer a part of my cooking regimen. Having completed that experiment, I feel a need to draw some conclusions and discuss to what degree (if any) this subtraction resulted in addition.

At the outset, I should mention that there was a non-culinary addition which I experienced as the blog of my vegetarian exploits was posted and followed. Beyond the supportive and inquiring comments left on the Observation Deck, there were also any number of casual conversations with readers who had been following the thread. Many inquired as to whether this was a permanent change and what had actually fueled the undertaking.

I have previously addressed what I feel are the basic reasons why people choose not to eat animal products and, frankly, my opinion has not changed. There are those who consider vegetarianism a moral issue. One such reader, a fellow attorney, asked me, “How is it possible to look into the eyes of what is clearly a sentient being and reconcile that with a death merely for culinary satisfaction?” Secondly, there are those who choose to eliminate meat because of dietary concerns - limiting animal fat has clear health benefits in terms of cardiovascular health. Finally, of course, there is the economic stimulus, which expresses concern over the net less of food experienced in the cultivation of animal products (as a result of the amount of feed, fuel, and fertilizer required to produce animal protein).

In my opinion, the first position - the accusation of gratuitous slaughtering of sentient beings for mere culinary satisfaction - holds little merit. I, personally, choose not to subscribe to the rationalization that, by ordering a steak, I have signed a death warrant to be executed miles away at some slaughterhouse. The health issues, as well as the global economic issues, however, remain of concern to me. Furthermore, these positions support the idea of addition through subtraction.

Over the course of the experiment, I re-discovered many recipes and techniques which were infrequently used. Vegetable preparations, from roasting peppers to making mushroom duxelle spreads and olive tapenades, can not only be acceptable substitutes for meat products, but can also be quite satisfying. While certainly the family menu would include the occasional quiche or soufflé, those vegetable preparations have become a regular part of the repertoire.

I also rediscovered a fascination with the vast array of breads which are available either through artisan bakers or from my own oven. During my experimentation period, loaves of roasted garlic focaccia, ciabatta, and dense whole grain breads became a standard at the dinner table. These provided an ongoing source of satisfaction when combined with herbed and spiced olive oils, bruschetta spreads, or when dunked in a soup or sauce.

Overall, the experiment proved to be enjoyable and probably more healthful and environmentally conscious, with the ancillary benefit of perhaps saving one of those sentient beings from my grocery store death warrant. As I digest, both literally and figuratively, the results of the experiment, I have also experienced an interesting revelation. I have frequently pontificated on the issue of culinary mediocrity. Not a few times I have opined that it is far better to forego four franchise restaurant meals for one truly special meal - that a large quantity of cheap, mediocre food is not nearly as satisfying as a small quantity of more expensive, but, nevertheless, spectacular food.

My experiment taught me that the same holds true for my overall dietary sense. We tend to consume the burger from Mickey D’s just because it is a matter of habit. The plain, run-of-the-mill pork chop or chicken breast is on our plate because meat is always on our plate. When that meat has been absent for a period of weeks, as I determined when dining out and ordering beef, I don’t believe I have ever enjoyed a steak so much. Truly, I can’t determine whether it was a matter of an absence making the heart grow fonder or whether it was truly a superb piece of meat, but, in either case, the truism struck home. Even if I choose to be an omnivore and my enjoyment of my carnivorous side is enhanced by limiting it, how is that a bad thing?

The conclusion that I have reached is another example of addition through subtraction - this time on a more macro scale. To the chagrin of some, I must report that my experiment has not caused me to abandon all of my carnivorous appetites. I still enjoy meat, but my attitude towards overall menu planning and the composition of my diet has, in fact, undergone a change - a change which I feel is consistent with my overall aversion to culinary mediocrity. By minimizing the animal protein consumed, the menus in which it is included are more thoughtfully considered and enjoyed. In short, because there is less animal product purchased, that which is purchased can be of much higher quality AND because it is no longer an everyday experience, when it is a part of the menu, it is far more enjoyable.

I do not yet know if my health benefited from my experiment and subsequent dietary modification, although I suspect checking my cholesterol levels would answer that question. I recognize that by eliminating a few pounds of meat from my family’s weekly grocery purchase, I have probably not had a significant impact on the overall global food supply. On an individual basis, however, this type of addition through subtraction represents a responsible decision – one which is further supported by the fact that, by decreasing my level of consumption, I have drastically increased my enjoyment of that which is consumed.
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Volume 3, Issue 9, Posted 8:23 AM, 04.23.2007