When Meat-Lovers Banish Bacon


Photo by rick/FlickrCC

To try some of the recipes mentioned in this post, click here for Sophie's French onion soup, here for her roasted sweet potatoes with fried sage, and here for her spicy Asian-influenced peanut dipping sauce.

A year ago, almost to the day, I cooked a bacon-themed dinner for a few friends—salad with bacon crumblings, boeef bourguignon with thick bacon lardons and, my favorite, chocolate chip cookies topped with caramelized, chocolate-covered bacon. When I invited them over to dinner last week, I knew bacon would be banished.

I blamed Jonathan Safran Foer. Let me explain.

For as long as I've known both of them, Will, and his roommate, Aaron, have been meat-ophiles. When I type "[Will's last name] + bacon" into my Gmail account, I get pages of results. Aaron is a hunter. I've spent many a fine evening with both discussing the merits of different sandwich meats.

I jazzed it up with a mild goat's milk cheddar (everyone likes cheese), fried shallots (for crunch), and a spicy Sriracha mayo (wakes up the taste buds).

So when they told me they were "going vegetarian," I was shocked. Then I found out they'd both recently read Jonathan Safran Foer's Eating Animals, an exploration of factory farming, meat-eating, and the moral questions inherent therein. While neither views Foer as the paragon of human excellence, Foer's book had sparked the conversation anew. And now, no more bacon.

Over the next few weeks, with a dinner date looming, I progressed through the Five Stages of Grief:

Denial: Seriously?

Anger: Don't you dare suggest some manipulated soy protein as a main course. Manipulated soy protein does not a burger make.

Bargaining: OK, just a few chocolate-covered bacon cookies. For old time's sake!

Depression: Maybe we should call the dinner off.

Acceptance: I'm going to cook the best damned meal you've ever eaten.

I reached acceptance once I'd calmed down enough to listen to my friends' rationalization. Meat was not, it turned out, out of the picture entirely. Both Will and Aaron are concerned with reducing their meat consumption to ameliorate negative effects on the environment. Both are concerned with workers' rights and animal welfare, and both think that in an ideal world we would consume smaller amounts of higher-quality meat. While Aaron, the hunter, objects to factory-farmed meat, he will eat meat he kills himself, and meat from small farms. A few days before the dinner, he offered me eight Chukar partridge breasts from a recent hunt. And so, Aaron, Will, and Will's girlfriend, Jasmine, joined me for a not-quite-vegetarian vegetarian dinner. (Jasmine, for the record, is not enamored with Foer. So I had an ally.)

I decided to serve the partridge as an hors d'oeuvre: lightly breaded, pan-fried, and accompanied by a spicy peanut dipping sauce, a gourmet's chicken tender. I'm not a huge game meat fan, but when I tasted Aaron's wild partridge ("Watch out for buckshot!" he warned), I reconsidered. It was more succulent than any chicken I'd ever bought at the store.

I planned to begin with a vegetarian onion soup, and, for the meat of the meal (ahem), chose a vegetarian riff on a burger and fries: a recipe for kasha-mushroom patties I found in an old Gourmet (RIP), and baked sweet potatoes with fried sage.

I made a quickly-caramelized onion soup with red wine instead of the traditional white, which helped add body to the vegetable stock (as it is thinner than meaty stocks). With an added kick of brandy, some flour to thicken it, and a garnish of a crisp Gruyère crouton, the soup was gone in seconds. Caramelized onions are so good I could eat them plain, but floating in a soothing broth, they become wintry goodness in soup form.

Gourmet's "burger" is basically kasha mixed with meaty portabellas, veggies, egg, and breadcrumbs. It was easy to make and tasted great, but it needed something extra, so I jazzed it up with a mild goat's milk cheddar (everyone likes cheese), fried shallots (for crunch), and a spicy Sriracha mayo (wakes up the taste buds). While it wasn't particularly burger-like—it ended up crumbling a bit, and no amount of egg would glue it back together again—we finished the "burger" anyway, and agreed to serve it in a bowl next time, like couscous. The mushroom-kasha mixture was filling and, almost, dare I say it, "meaty," and I'd be hard pressed to find a more satisfying garnish to top any burger, meatless or not.

Our resident hunter pronounced the sweet potatoes the best he'd ever had, and everyone plowed through the simple dessert I set out: strawberries accompanied by crème fraiche and brown sugar for dipping. At nine dollars per person, this vegetarian meal was a little cheaper than the others I've cooked so far in this series.

After the meal, I put my name on the request list for Eating Animals at the library. (Yes, I still read library books.) I've read Michael Pollan, and, while working in the professional kitchen of a particularly sustainability-conscious chef, met and talked to the farmers who brought us our animals. When I saw them wheel in a pig or two at the start of the week and the butchers started divvying up the meat—this for the meat roaster, that for the charcutière—I often thought of the response Alan Dershowitz gave when asked what would be taboo in 50 years: eating animals.

I love eating meat. I love cooking meat. But if Will and Aaron, once my most meat-loving friends, are now living as modified vegetarians, I have to leave open the possibility that some day I, too, will change my eating habits.

If, when I read Foer, I go a modified-vegetarian route like them, and decide that consuming certain kinds of safely-raised meat is harmonious with my values, you better believe I'm going to find some way to raise a pig in my New York City apartment. I'll even let him sleep in my bed.

We're having bacon on my table.