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Sidemouth - Vegetable State of Mind

You don't have to throw on a saffron robe and grab your tambourine, but let's talk about vegetables for a minute.

I don’t know about you, but ever since the eclipse two Sundays ago everything in my life has got all out of whack. For a lot of my friends as well. Probably it’s a coincidence, or chalk it up to the frisky beginnings of summer, but I can’t recall the last time I witnessed so many simultaneous breakups, or on the other hand, engagements and babies. Or haircuts or new apartments, for that matter. I am not fully sure what that eclipse means, or if I believe what it could mean, but it seems to have sparked the taking-care-of-business feeling. If you do believe in it, that celestial little gem of a happening is the beginning of our new time, our new consciousness. Our old brains can get trashed now and replaced with much friendlier, compassionate, indigo-y ones. Essentially everyone snapping out of it, waking up, because surely we would burn and maybe still even might at the rate we are going.


The food world at least has developed some little inklings of this type of revolution of mind. The hundred-mile, farm-to-table, small carbon footprint, sustainability and all that jazz is pretty standard now. I would even prefer if everyone stopped talking about it so much and we could all just take it as a given. Although I wouldn’t have it any other way, I have been finding that labeling restaurants as being “farm to table” can sometimes be a bit of a cop-out in terms of creativity in the kitchen.

In terms of farming, any way you slice it, industrialization is pretty much bad news. Vegetable or animal, to achieve the massive production capitals and keep everything nice and spit-spot in these places you have to do some pretty messed-up things to your “product.” Genetic modification is probably thing number one. Then we’ve got growth hormones (steroids) in the meat department, which also includes cramped “living” quarters, mechanized slaughter, and again, genetic modification. Not to mention the gigantic area needed to raise these super herds of cows. Deforestation (so long, rainforests) and decimation of the environment around these “farms” is par for the course. Not to mention all the manure and grossness concentrated in these spots, which in turn seep into the water table (remember Walkerton?). Nice.

Organic, natural, bio-dynamic, sustainable… those are all much better options, real farming. The farmers maintain a direct connection to the land, relying on their brains to maintain balance. They actually till their soil, for instance, or allow their animals to graze on grass, as opposed to force-feeding them grain, which is not a part of their natural diet. We have come a long way in this department in terms of awareness. Hooray!


Some are even taking it a step further with an approach that sounds a lot sexier, and without all the strange memories of bland tofu, lentils, and efficient bowel movements, without all the hemp-woven baggage of “Vegetarian Food.” It’s called “vegetable forward” and it is bright, beautiful, healthy, and good for our planet.

For a lot of people who’ve become vegetarian (which at this point is about 3% of the population) it used to be largely an animal rights issue, but in more recent years there has been greater emphasis placed on the sustainability of cutting out the meat. Just under a third of the Earth’s surface is used in the rearing of farm animals! It takes about 100,000 liters of water to produce one kilogram of beef. One hectare of land used to raise fruit, vegetables, or cereals can produce enough to feed 30 people, while the same land to raise animals used for meat would be about ten. It is a matter of efficiency, when you look at it this way.

Some people, like the Hare Krishnas, make a good case for vegetarian diets from a spiritual standpoint, or karmic view. Their religion has been referred to as the “Kitchen Religion,” and on Sundays all across the world at their temples there’s an insanely amazing homemade feast that they offer for free, some serving upwards of 300 people. Mind you, you have to stay there for three hours and don’t get to eat until after a lot of chanting, singing, and dancing, but it’s pretty fun, (maybe you want to have a little toke before you go?) and you just kind of get into it. It’s a really worthwhile, comforting experience to be around so many happy, peaced-out people.


I spoke to Keshava, Director of Communications for the North American Hare Krishna Temples, and he explained a few things to me. Basically, the Krishna way is a about living lives of compassion and mercy. They have a nonviolence approach to food and everything else. Their yoga is all about love: cooking with it, and extending it to all entities everywhere. This includes animals, who they believe have souls, and say it is not our right to take any of them away. There is also this thing that has to do with our consciousness called Ayurveda, which talks about how different foods affect your body and your mind. By these standards, flesh disturbs the consciousness, promoting lower levels of thinking—carnality, greed, violence—while a more plant-based diet keeps you in higher levels of thought. While it is a little strict, I see where they are coming from, and it’s especially appealing after eclipse insanity, let me tell you. I have now made three trips to various Krishna temples in Toronto and Brooklyn. My friends worry. I’m telling myself it’s for the food, though.

So while you might not want to throw on a saffron robe and grab your tambourine, let’s take this concept of cooking with love and being creative, and think about all the good karma we could have from not hurting the environment so much and talk about this vegetable forward idea. I first came across it on my twitter feed. It was from @chezjosebk, a pop-up  “Cooking and serving vegetable forward dinners for 20 guests every Tuesday @ the Whirlybird Cafe in Brooklyn.” I was curious, and what I immediately thought was, How interesting, a backlash against all the meat-centricness that has been so popular among many chefs these days. In Toronto alone within the last five years, restaurants called “Beast” and “Cowbell” speak for themselves.


For Jose Ramirez-Ruiz (who’s also sous-chef at ISA), working closely with local purveyors and producers--and even reaching out to other sectors of his community, such as artist friends and breweries--inspires his vegetable mind. He goes so far as to call his meals collaborations, a sort of symbiotic relationship where his food and ideas are directly affected by what kind of radishes he might receive that day, or what kind of beautiful flora one of his farmers might bring through his door. A dining experience at Chez Jose is very personal, and Jose makes a point of coming to speak with each table before the meal starts, explaining the menu, and creating an intimacy that mirrors his philosophy of creating personal relationships within his community. There is no menu. The courses just start coming out, beautifully arranged plates where the protein, if any, is always in the lower percentage in relation to everything else in any given dish. This percentage, if adopted by many, would make very significant environmental impacts.

I didn’t get the feeling that Ramirez-Ruiz really wanted to make a big deal out of his vegetable forwardness, but he definitely agrees that chefs have come to hold great power in terms of politics around food, expressing disappointment in a recent article by Thomas Keller (of French Laundry Cookbook fame) for the New York Times. Called “For Them, A Great Meal Tops Good Intentions,” the story basically says that a chef’s responsibility to create a great meal trumps everything else. I agree with Ramirez-Ruiz—that sentiment is dated and also a huge cop-out. Chefs with as much popularity as Thomas Keller, as Julia Moskin writes, “influence the entire global food community with the way they think, write, tweet and talk about food—not just the way they cook it.” Chez Jose is doing a really good job at proving Keller wrong. His artistry and innovativeness with vegetables are just as dazzling as his creative approach to the dining experience.

I know I will always crave a nice rare steak about once a month. This is when the sight of raw flesh makes me salivate like a cheetah upon the hide of a gazelle. But I am happy to ease up on my meat consumption and get into all the beauty that vegetables hold, the insanely colorful and psychedelic parts of my brain they have the ability to touch (have you seen glass gem corn?). Try slicing a watermelon radish super thin in rounds, it is craaaaazy. And we could all do with a little less carnal rage urge, right? Whether it is the beginning of a shift in consciousness or not, I see vegetables becoming big stars, at least for the next little while.

Previously - It's Not Fart