We were listening to a re-broadcast of an interview by public radio host Joy Cardine with Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, author of "The Face on Your Plate," "When Elephants Weep," and "The Pig Who Sang to the Moon." The host said she was a vegetarian, and proceeded to relate a brief story of the moment she knew she could no longer eat meat. It got me thinking of the moments we remember in life — usually traumatic national events that we can never forget. But what about the other, more personal life-changing events we experience, like deciding to become vegetarian, for example. Do people remember "the day they decided not to eat meat anymore?" Well, I do.
I was in my 20s and had been going through dietary changes for a while. First I decided to eat healthier. I'd been reading about diet and health and the dangers of the "Standard American Diet" and decided to make a clean sweep of all the unhealthy food in my (and by default, my husband's) diet. I went through the pantry and bagged up all the white stuff — you know, white flour, white pasta, white sugar — all of it. Being a frugal person by nature, I was filled with anxiety about what to do with all this stuff. I didn't want to contribute to another's ill health, but I hated just throwing it away. So, I hauled it across the street to my friend Suzanne's apartment, explained that I wanted to improve my diet and not eat this stuff anymore because I believed it to be unhealthy, and asked if she wanted it. After all, everyone has their own ideas about what's healthy, and can make up their own minds. I told her what I knew. She looked at me intently for a moment, and then said, "SURE!" Then, with great enthusiasm, she started unpacking the bags. I assuaged my guilt by thinking that she would just go out and buy this same stuff anyway.
Eating healthy was going well, and I began to think about a vegetarian diet. We'd been attending meditation retreats where there were lots of vegetarians, and I'd been doing more reading and thinking about food issues. Then we went on a camping trip to Canada, and one evening we attended the nature program at the campground where we were staying. A film was shown about the plight of prairie dogs. One of the struggles facing this little animal was its misfortune to be living on cattle ranches, where the prairie dog tunnels cause injuries to the cattle who step into the holes. There were graphic shots of ranchers blasting the prairie dogs with their rifles; no gory detail was spared, and it was horrible. You can probably see where this is going. Anyway, I just couldn't get those images out of my mind.
We were in the supermarket checkout line after our return home, and I was staring at a package of stew meat in our cart. I picked it up. "Do we really want this?" I asked my husband? "Probably not," was his reply, and I took it back to the meat counter. And that was it —the day I decided to be a vegetarian. And do I remember the day I became vegan? Of course, but that's another story for another day.
My first attempts at cooking vegetarian food were pretty grim. The very first dish, chuck full of brewers yeast, got ditched. But it's a lot easier to be vegetarian now, and even vegan, than it used to be. There are countless amazing cookbooks and blogs with recipes and ideas. I recently reviewed Peta's Vegan College Cookbook, and although it wasn't generally suited to my style of cooking, there were a few recipe gems that I really enjoyed cooking and eating. This recipe was inspired by one of them. If you use canned beans and tomatoes, you can throw it together with almost no effort. Or, if you prefer, you can cook dried beans and roast your own tomatoes. I like to make the bean and tomato mixture pretty spicy because I love the contrast between the spicy beans and the sweet potato, but you can just leave out the chilies or jalapeños if you don't care for spicy food.
Black bean and tomato stuffed sweet potatoes
4 medium sweet potatoes, scrubbed
1 15-oz. can black beans, rinsed and drained (or 1-1/2 cups cooked black beans)
1 15-oz.can diced tomatoes with green chilies, (or a can of tomatoes plus 3 tablespoons of diced green chilies from a can, or 1-2 finely chopped fresh jalapeños)
1/2 cup sliced green onions, white and green parts
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley or cilantro (opt.)
1/4 teaspoon salt (if needed)
fresh ground pepper, lots
1 small avocado (or vegan sour cream)
2 tablespoons lemon juice
Slice a very small piece from the end of each potato. (Or, you can prick them all over with a fork.) Bake at 425˚F for about 40 minutes or until nice and soft all the way through. You can bake them right on the oven rack. I like to use the toaster oven for this unless I'm using the big oven to make other stuff, too. When they are ready, place them on a plate to cool slightly while you finish up the filling.
Cook the the onion, garlic and oregano (and jalapeños, if using fresh) in the oil for one minute. Add the beans, tomatoes, canned chilies (if using), salt and pepper. Heat gently until hot. Stir in the parsley or cilantro. Taste for seasoning.
Open the avocado and scoop out the pulp. Mash and mix with lemon juice, a tiny pinch of salt and fresh ground pepper.
Split the potatoes lengthwise and gently push the ends towards each other to create a pocket.
Fill the pockets with the bean mixture and top with avocado or vegan sour cream.