A month after we married in the late '70s, my husband Barry Evans and I decided to stop eating meat. Which wasn't that difficult because, although I was raised on fried chicken, Southern ham, pork chops and ribs, I never learned to cook meat myself. As a single woman in my 20s, the closest I came to meat was ordering chili at the corner diner.
We had different reasons for our decision. Reading Frances Moore Lappé's Diet for a Small Planet, I was appalled to discover that grain in developing countries had been replaced by livestock to satisfy the demand for meat in countries like the U.S. Barry, meanwhile, was outraged by the descriptions of animal treatment in Peter Singer's 1976 classic, Animal Liberation.
We weren't vegans (we hadn't heard the term yet) and we didn't even call ourselves vegetarians, since we occasionally ate fish. Like other non-meat-eaters I knew, we consumed copious amounts of quiche and other rich, cheesy meals, oblivious to the fact that dairy can be as damaging to the body and the planet as beef. According to Grist, an environmental online newsletter, one pound of cheese requires 10 pounds — about 5 quarts — of milk from a cow that emits methane, not to mention the grains that go into feeding the cow.
Almost 40 years later, I'm grateful for our decision. Research consistently shows that a low-meat diet reduces the risk of heart disease, diabetes, certain cancers and even early death.
On the fitness front, the belief that endurance athletes who don't eat meat are at a disadvantage has been debunked. While neither Barry nor I would call ourselves endurance athletes, we're as active now as the day we married. To celebrate my 60th birthday, we hiked 200 miles across England along the spectacular Coast-to-Coast trail, and every summer we backpack in the Trinities and the Marbles.
Beyond the health benefits, eating less food from animal sources is economical. And it helps the planet. What's not to like?
I'm occasionally asked if I miss meat. I remember fondly my college days in New Orleans, when my friend Jennifer and I would hitchhike from the Tulane campus to Bud's Broiler, the best hamburger joint in the city. Seated at one of Bud's funky wooden tables and devouring our hamburgers, with Arlo Guthrie thrumming "The City of New Orleans" on the jukebox, beat dinner at Galatoire's or Commander's Palace or any other legendary New Orleans restaurant, hands down.
The thought of hamburgers rarely crosses my mind but I still swoon over the smell of bacon, and Barry salivates whenever he smells steak. No surprise — we humans are indiscriminate omnivores, wired to opportunistically eat anything.
But I'm already overwhelmed by the plant-based choices on the market, with all the new or rediscovered ones that keep cropping up. Between tofu and tempeh, grains, nuts, beans and legumes, I barely have time to keep up with the plants, let alone think about meat.
All that said, if meat had played a regal role on my dinner plate all my cooking life, dethroning it would be no small matter and I wouldn't know where to begin. I'd recommend starting with the lowly, lovely chickpea, or garbanzo bean, common to African, Indian, Greek and Middle Eastern cuisines. Chickpeas are the world's second most widely grown legume after soybeans and one of the earliest cultivated foods (7,500-year-old remains have been found in the Middle East). According to one anthropological theory, it was one of eight "founder crops," the first known domesticated plants in the world that form the origin of agriculture.
Chickpeas are technically not a bean but a legume, which is lower in starch. They're cholesterol-free, a good source of fiber and protein, and highly versatile: You can find a slew of recipes on the Internet that contain chickpeas combined with peanut butter, almond butter or sesame tahini. Many Americans are introduced to chickpeas through hummus but you can also find chickpeas in soups, stews, patties, burgers, snacks, dressings and even cookies. The stew recipe below is seriously tasty, simple and quick — a perfect starter for the cook who wants to reduce meat intake.
Chickpea and Peanut Stew
1 onion, chopped
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 zucchini, chopped
1 bell pepper, any color, chopped
1 cup vegetable broth or water
1 can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
5-6 tablespoons peanut butter
1 16-ounce can diced tomatoes
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon coriander powder
1 teaspoon turmeric
Salt and pepper to taste
In a large saucepan, warm the oil over medium to medium-high heat and cook the onion until translucent and almost soft. Add the garlic, zucchini, bell pepper, cumin, coriander and turmeric. Cook for 2-3 minutes.
Stir in the chickpeas, tomatoes and peanut butter. Once these are incorporated, add only as much water or broth as needed for a stew-like consistency. Bring the pot to a boil and then cover and let it simmer about 10 minutes. Serve alone or with rice.
Louisa Rogers is a leadership trainer, writer and renowned cook, at least in her own home.