The Tortured Omnivore

Even His Holiness the Dalai Lama isn't a vegetarian. Who's to say that we can't eat mindfully, offer up thanks however we may, and still go to Peter Luger's every once in a blue moon?
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I'm a tortured omnivore, and you probably are, too.

On an almost daily basis, my email inbox is stuffed to capacity with extremely cute photos of animals and their people and -- working at home as I do -- I can comfortably spend hours looking at them. This is, in part, because it's very hard to do anything but stare at pictures all day when you have three cats and a 90-lb. dog trying to sit in your office chair. With you.

Recently, I was on the receiving end of this Raeanne Wright photo of bestselling author Jon Katz getting bussed by his mega-ton steer, Elvis. ElvisKissingJon.Rean#1A11FA.jpg

Now, I've never met Elvis, but I gather that this fellow, on his way to meet his maker, proved to be such a nice, affectionate guy that his farmer just couldn't part with him. Farmers usually don't like to publicly admit to such tomfoolery, and when Katz heard tell of his embarrassing plight, he stepped in. Elvis now lives on Katz's famed Bedlam Farm, where the former enjoys the companionship of a few donkeys, some sheep, a brace of dogs, and a couple of cows who he evidently really likes (although not quite as much as the Snickers Bars that make his great bovine eyes grow misty with desire).

I mention Elvis here because he is, like so many other animals I've known (including chickens, lamb, and pigs, who are purportedly smarter than dogs), the kind of beast that (being a food writer) keeps me up at night. I adore animals. In thirty years, I could be a cat lady if I'm not careful. But if my cholesterol cooperated and my blood pressure simmered down, I could also eat a nice, heavily-marbled bistecca alla Fiorentina virtually every night of the week, drizzled with some peppery Tuscan olive oil and a squeeze of Meyer lemon.

Slow-roasted pork butt rubbed with fennel pollen, garlic and Maldon sea salt? Count me in. Pretty little spatchcocked quail stuffed under the skin with smashed garlic cloves and hot red pepper and then thrown on the grill? I'm there. Tiny abbachio--that milk-fed baby lamb that hasn't yet tasted grass and prefers just to frolic around happily? Sign me up. Just don't show me a picture of it beforehand.

I will freely admit to being sort of a Ted Haggard-like pathetic food-lover, the kind that can talk the talk but just can't walk the walk - the kind that I myself denounce for not doing more to make that vital connection between what I love to eat and what I love to scratch behind the ears. Taken to task for this a few years ago, I became -- on a dare -- a vegetarian. This conveniently occurred right around the time that everyone in America, including my partner's ex, suddenly claimed to be a practicing Buddhist (seconds before she cut someone off while speeding onto the freeway in her gas-belching minivan). For a few months, I felt good. I felt healthy. I felt moral. I felt clean. I felt ethical. I felt like I wanted a porterhouse with a side order of creamed spinach.

And then I heard what may be an apocryphal tale involving my hero, Alice Waters, and my other hero, His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Apparently, the spiritual leader was invited to a meal at Chez Panisse, and, making the assumption that he was a vegetarian, the kitchen prepared an elaborate meatless lunch for him. Someone -- was it Alice? -- welcomed His Holiness to the restaurant, and asked if they could get him anything.

"Yes," he said, "I would like some lamb."

A more recent trip to the States had His Holiness enjoying local veal at a Milwaukee restaurant. It seems that nothing actually grows way up in Tibet, and if this tale is true, even His Holiness the Dalai Lama isn't a vegetarian. This is not to say that he doesn't possess a profound connection to all sentient beings; he doubtless does. This isn't to say that he isn't good and kind and decent to animals and probably demands that they be treated by others the same way; I'm certain he does. When he's about to tuck in, I'll even bet that he takes a second to offer a small, silent prayer for what's on his plate. But at the end of the day, the man enjoys his meat. So who's to say that we can't eat mindfully, offer up thanks however we may, and still go to Peter Luger's every once in a blue moon? Isn't this what moderation and a symbiotic connection to what we eat is really all about?

If I should ever meet sweet, dear Elvis, my pockets will burst with his beloved Snickers bars; assuming I can reach them, I will scratch his mammoth ears and rub his velvet-soft snout. I will likely blink back tears the next time I'm about to enjoy my adored bistecca alla Fiorentina; but instead of turning it away, I'll just give thanks for what some great beast provided me with, and prepare my meal with the utmost care and respect I can afford.

Till next time - slow down, eat well.

Bistecca alla Fiorentina

Serves 2

1 Porterhouse steak, preferably grass-fed, 2" thick (about 2 pounds)

Extra Virgin Olive Oil

1 fresh lemon, sliced into quarters

Sea salt and fresh black pepper, to taste

1. Let steak come to room temperature.

2. Heat a gas or charcoal grill to medium-high heat. (For charcoal grillers, you'll be able to hold your hand over the grate for five seconds; for gas grillers, this is the equivalent of 425 degrees F.)

3. Rub steak on both sides with olive oil, and place on grill so that the tenderloin (the narrower part of the steak) is sitting over indirect heat.

4. After 8 minutes, revolve steak one quarter turn and continue to cook for an additional 8 minutes. Turn steak over and repeat the process, cooking until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the steak reads 135 degrees F.

5. Remove to a platter or meat board, tent loosely with foil and let rest for 10 minutes.

6. Slice steak (which should be served medium rare to rare) against the grain, drizzle with more olive oil, a squirt of lemon, and sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste. Close your eyes, say thanks, and enjoy.

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