By Annette Gallagher Weisman
EdibleAspen – Spring 2010

It’s spring. Life is good down on the farm, where lambs gambol, cows graze and hens prance about like high-heeled runway models. But no matter how humane we try to make their lives, sooner or later many farm animals will end up on my plate.

Reading the following books made me think about what I choose to eat, my food budget, what locally produced foods are available seasonally and, as an omnivore, whether I would ever consider a vegan meal to be as delicious and protein enriched as, say, steak Diane with green peppercorn sauce.

Julie Powell’s sequel to her bestselling memoir, “Julie & Julia,” is a vegan’s nightmare.  “Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat and Obsession” (Little Brown, $25) may appeal to apprentice butchers, who could find Powell’s almost manic desire to learn their trade an absorbing read, but compared to her first book, a feel good story about a year spent cooking Julia Child recipes, her new vocation seems odd. What’s more disturbing is she appears to relish the gore – she likes “the electric smell of singed bone.” Despite an abundance of such off putting details, Powell’s second memoir holds our attention; one minute she’s full of bravado, the next an emotional wreck. For her, the breaking down of animal parts is a cathartic metaphor for her marriage in crisis, and the ongoing obsession with her lover, “D.” Powell writes well, reminiscent in style and tone to that of adventure seeking storyteller, Pam Houston. And although “Cleaving” could use fewer details about butchery, Powell’s emotional ride is worth the read.

Omnivores who’d like to consume less meat will find “Almost Meatless: Recipes That Are Better for Your Health and the Planet,” by Joy Manning and Tara Mataraza Desmond (Ten Speed Press, $22.50), a great place to start. Manning, a vegetarian, and Desmond, an omnivore, have come up with nutritious, creative dishes that epitomize Michael Pollan’s manifesto: “Eat Food. Not Too Much. Mostly Plants.” With an emphasis on food that’s healthier, cheaper and more environmentally friendly, comfort meals such as chicken and biscuit pot pie contain heaps of vegetables, while lighter fare, such as fish, bean and avocado tacos, have flavorful combinations that accentuate and complement one another. Talk about things that make you go mmmmmm.

Vegan chef Tal Ronnen is all about taste. In fact, in “The Conscious Cook: Delicious Meatless Recipes That Will Change the Way You Eat” (Morrow, $29.99), he promises omnivores they won’t miss the meat. Ronnen’s dishes incorporate gardein, a meat-like substitute for steak and chicken, as well as quinoa, a grain grown at high altitude. He hates sprouts, so you won’t find any among these simply presented yet sophisticated meals. What you will find is pages and pages of delectable recipes, such as artichoke and oyster mushroom Rockefeller and peppercorn-encrusted portobello filets with yellow-tomato béarnaise and mashed potatoes. Debunking the myth that vegan food is boring, Ronnen urges meat eaters to try eating food his way a couple of days a week. With such appetizing choices, I could handle that!

Farmers are heroes to chef Jeff Crump, who collaborated with pastry chef Bettina Schormann to produce “Earth to Table: Seasonal Recipes from an Organic Farm” (Ecco, $34.99), a book that lets nature write the menu. Inside you’ll find scrumptious meals comprised of locally produced foods. Lip-smacking recipes include white-truffle risotto with cauliflower, hanger steak with beef-horseradish relish and mile-high pumpkin pie. As well, there are chef profiles and how-to sections, such as planning an herb garden, and spotlights on seafood, dairy and meat. Crump believes when an animal is slaughtered, it is our ethical duty to use the entire body, not just seek the choice cuts desired by the outdoor-grilling masses.

When I was young, Halfners in Dublin, Ireland, was the place to buy rashers (thick bacon slices) and sausages, including black-and-white pudding, the contents of which I was ignorant of at the time. My mother bought other meat from our local butcher. I can only recall him from the neck down, specifically his wide girth, covered by a sometimes blood-spattered apron. Everything else in his shop looked pristine, from freshly shaved sawdust on the floor to the clean marble countertops and display cases in which a tableau of meat and fish were coddled together like contemporary works of art. But I never thought about where my food came from back then, only the taste. I’m likely to remain an omnivore, but one who is now more conscious of her desires, making sure that no matter where I purchase meat I know the source and that animals, whether alive or dead, are treated with respect.