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The Harm-Reduction Omnivore

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Long before Michael Pollan changed the way we think about food, we were influenced by our own resident activist. Emma, then age seven, returned one summer from Marin Humane Society camp proselytizing against animal cruelty and dolphin-safe tuna. We endured her preaching for a few days, until her hunger for Chicken-of-the-Sea got the better of her. I resumed packing lunch boxes with a sigh of relief, but also with a pang of regret. Deep down, I knew Emma was right.

As our little girl became a teenager, she graduated from chewing to eschewing meat even before mad cow disease made front-page news. This time, strengthened by the fervor of adolescent idealism, her resolve stuck for good.

At first, accommodating Emma’s vegetarianism was easy, practically a throwback to toddlerhood, when default meals of milk and cereal were commonplace. Suspicious of anything green or spicy, she was initially more of a carbo-tarian. Soon the grocery cart was piled high with braised tofu and arugula. Big Macs were supplanted by Boca Burgers.

Sick of preparing separate meals, I became adept at leaving pancetta out of pasta carbonara and concocting hearty salads with optional chicken on the side. I discovered quinoa and the wondrous, budget-friendly versatility of legumes. And did you know that roasting cauliflower or brussels sprouts with a whisper of olive oil at 400 degrees for fifteen minutes is just this side of heaven?

Initially, I missed the slow simmer of beef stew and pot roast rubbed with garlic and rosemary. But parents are used to sacrificing for their children, so I no longer brought red meat into the house. One day Emma was tempted by the fragrance of barbecued chicken on the grill. She did not succumb. When I asked how she resisted, she simply said, “I want it, and then I remember that chicken is not for me.” Watching Emma ignore a passing appetite for a greater purpose inspired me to try to live up to her example.

But I did not want to go cold turkey, or give up turkey at all, for that matter.

In the treatment of addiction, there is a concept known as harm reduction, in which the addict is encouraged to decrease high-risk behavior, such as drunk driving or sharing needles, while on the path to a clean and sober lifestyle. The same principle can be applied to food. I now think of myself as a harm-reducing omnivore. I don’t quite have the fortitude to pass up succulent barbecued chicken, and I still relish a great steak at a restaurant now and then. But I try to minimize the damage of my choices, moving ever closer to vegetarianism, the foodie equivalent of a clean and sober lifestyle. Now most of our meals are meatless. I make sure that rare, juicy steak is sustainably raised. I’ve traded in Foster Farms Valu-paks for the pricier free-range chickens from Petaluma. More and more of our food is locally grown, organic, and unprocessed. It may cost a bit more at the grocery checkout or farmer’s market, but it’s a far better bargain when the environmental, transportation, and moral expenses are calculated.

Emma grew up and moved away, but the idealism and habits she instilled in us remain. What started out as a begrudging way to humor her has become a tasty and easy choice of better health for ourselves and the world. Now soups brimming with spinach and butternut squash simmer on the back burner. Our younger daughter feasts on fresh red peppers instead of Doritos. We try to follow Michael Pollan’s haiku-like dictum: “Eat Food. Mostly Plants. Not Too Much.” There is too much suffering, too much acreage, too much petroleum, too much methane in every steak, no matter its succulence. We may still be People Eating Tasty Animals rather than fully deserving members of the real PETA, but we are headed in the right direction.

Sometimes I grow nostalgic for shrink-wrapped packaging and not knowing where my food comes from. Ignorance really can be bliss, or at least easier and cheaper in the short run. But there’s no going back to oblivion now. The path of harm reduction leads to better health, humanely treated animals, a lighter conscience, and a planet less imperiled. Not to mention a killer salad composed of arugula, black beans, and fresh corn. This time, I think I’ll skip the optional shredded chicken.


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