For three years in my mid-thirties, I lived in San Francisco, California, which is sort of the mecca for sustainable food. Having been raised in the Washington, D.C., area on a diet that featured a heavy rotation of frozen meals (my family was partial to Stouffer’s, especially the french-bread pizzas) and take-out, the ideas and produce in California blew my mind.
The Ferry Building farmer’s market became a new haunt for me. I ate many delicious things I’d never eaten before, most of them from organic farms or producers: stinging nettle, persimmons, burrata cheese, puntarella (a type of chicory), squash blossoms, pluots, raw “lasagna”… the list goes on.
I had already made the decision to start eating meat again after abstaining for 13 years, assuaging my guilt by telling myself that I would only do so when I knew the meat had been produced sustainably.
But ironically, San Francisco — where I had the most education and awareness about sustainable eating — is where I often fell farthest from observing my own rules. It’s true that whenever I bought meat, I got grass-fed versions from either the farmer’s market or Whole Foods. But at restaurants? Forget it. Anxious to sample everything I could from the wave of charcuterie and bacon-flavored everything (even ice cream!) hitting menus at the time, I rarely stopped to ask where the meat came from. I just wanted to learn and try it all.
Washington offers fewer temptations than San Francisco in this regard (though significantly more now than it used to 10 years ago), and I still observe a mostly vegetarian diet supplemented by (usually) grass-fed meat from Whole Foods. But for restaurant meals, which I love, I really had abandoned consciousness. So recently, I’ve tried to skip ordering meat dishes when I’m out, unless the menu says where the meat came from.
This may be just my perception, but it seems like meats besides beef have been left behind the rising tide of consciousness surrounding sustainability. There seems to be far less eco-conscious labeling for pork cuts, bacon and sausage made from pork, which is a shame, because I LOVE pork. Here, too, I am trying to buy more responsibly, though it’s less clear what that even means when it comes to pork. As Michael Pollan has astutely pointed out, those of us who want to do the right thing are looking for a label that reassure us in some way — and that is how “supermarket pastoral” marketing came to be.
One of our coaches for the diet, chef and sustainable food expert Barton Seaver, reminded me as we were discussing this project that the big issue for many of us isn’t where we’re buying our meat, but how much of it we’re eating. It was his idea to add the task of capping daily meat consumption to our energy diet. And indeed, if we all reduced our animal-protein intake and added more vegetables, whole grains and plant-based proteins, both our health and the planet’s would improve.
Like Tatsuo, I probably consume more fish than beef and often have gotten confused about which choices are the right ones in, say, sushi restaurants. However, I’ve done a slightly better job of confining myself to sustainable varieties in this area than I have for meat.
At sushi places, I’ve stopped ordering eel and try to order more scallop, crab and shrimp — though for all I know, the shrimp are imported and therefore not desirable. If I were really on top of my game, I’d bring this list with me to restaurants, or open up my more limited pocket seafood selector, but the reality is that most places don’t tell you where the fish is from, which makes a big difference in whether you should be eating it or not.
Again, I’m forced to conclude that whenever I can, I need to lean toward vegetarian options in restaurants and save my meat and seafood consumption for home-cooked meals, when (I think) I know where the food comes from.