And other, more appetizing ways to eat your local environment
by Rikki Hall
Is it necessary to be vegetarian to be a good environmentalist? No, but it helps. You can be kind to the planet and human generations to come without going to extremes like a pure vegetarian diet. Environmentalism is not about being perfect; it’s about being better, being mindful of your impact on the world around you.
What is really important is that you know how to cook. When local produce stands start selling Grainger County grade-outs, good environmentalists break out stew pots and sharp knives. A good cook can turn a bushel of tomatoes into fresh salsa, herbed sauces, chili and lots more. Most of those things can be made entirely from local produce, maybe even from the harvest from your backyard garden. If you don’t know how to turn fresh tomatoes into something to serve with spaghetti noodles, you need to learn how or marry someone who can.
Going vegetarian is a great way to learn to cook. Six months without meat will teach you a cooking trick or two. You might discover how to make humus or whip up a marinade. A good environmentalist sees an empty pickle jar as half full of marinade. Someone visiting that environmentalist 15 minutes later sees the jar stuffed full of tofu chunks and sprigs of herbs.
The best thing you can do for the planet is try to eat a sustainable diet, and to a first approximation, that means eating local foods. When you eat from your own garden, you are at the heart of sustainable living. Of course, the same can be said of eating roadkill. Say what you might about possum; a person who can turn roadkill into a meal that causes no affliction more treacherous than bad gas or an unexpected housecall from Tim Burchett is a person who knows how to cook.
East Tennessee grows enough possum to harvest a few, but are they better fried or boiled? A sustainability cookbook would include possum recipes. We also have enough deer, turkey, boar and dove to make meat a critical component of a sustainable Appalachian diet. We should have had pigeon cook-offs instead of shoot-offs so we could still be culling fresh passenger pigeon from the sky. Instead, our cities bustle with exotic pigeons we don’t even use for soup.
A vegetarian diet reduces demand for meat, which eventually reduces the number of slaughterhouses and grazing cows and giant warehouses of chickens with their beaks cut off. Cows generate dangerous volumes of methane, a gas climate researchers monitor and suspect may be warming the atmosphere. Pigs and chickens foul rivers with their excrement. It takes more land and water to make a pound of animal protein than to grow a pound of vegetable protein. Both kinds work just as well in your body, provided you diversify your vegetable protein sources to include grains, legumes and nuts, which is not difficult.
Eating less meat eases the burden you impose on the planet, but less does not have to mean zero. If you are morally opposed to killing animals for food, zero is where you want to be, but that is a different motivation than the ecological motivation. If your goal is to reduce the impact your diet has on the environment, you should avoid commercial meat, but also commercial foods of all types. The packaging, processing and transportation that go into mass-produced foods exact a heavy environmental toll. You want local foods that you cook yourself. There are cooks who serve local foods in their restaurants, and they deserve your support.
Local food sources include meat. An edible plant expert would have a hard time collecting more food from Tennessee woods in a year than a hunter can kill in an afternoon. Our rivers and streams are full of fish, and there would be more of them and fewer toxins in their fishy flesh if we could just take better care of our waters. Ducks, doves, turkey and grouse are local food sources. There used to be bison in the woods and fields of East Tennessee before our forefathers extirpated them.
It’s hard to grow rice around here. Most native plants are poor food sources for humans. We could eat insects, but they are hard to harvest in quantity and harder to convince people to eat. Fish and turkeys happily gobble them up. Deer eat plants we have no use for as food. They can be our proxies. Rather than pursuing a strict vegetarian diet, a good Tennessee environmentalist supplements his or her vegetable diet with wild game and locally raised meat.
Right now, good environmentalists are busy in the kitchen and the garden.