The way of all flesh
Why not give up vegetables for Lent?
This article is taken from the March 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.
For Lent, I am abstaining from vegetables. It may seem counter-intuitive, because “Carnival” or “Carni Vale”— which the English in their glum way call “Shrove Tuesday” and the French, more cheerfully, call “Mardi Gras” — means “Goodbye to Meat”.
The worldly, historic purpose of Lent is to eke out deficient livestock, doomed, unless slaughtered, to die, emaciated and inedible, on sparse or frozen pastures. Nowadays, however, vegetables seem a sacrifice both reasonable and pious.
If I wanted to be lampooned in Private Eye, I’d say that vegetables are the new meat: marketed as dietetically superior, and flattering to a moral form of snobbery.
Like meat in the old days, they are the preferred food of people who want to look down on the rest of us. Flesh and fish are now humbling meals, consumed in self-abasement. “Veganuary” and “Dry January” — wicked, secularist attempts to subvert the sanctity of Lent — repel me from conventional kinds of penance.
If you want something like meat, have meat. If you don’t want meat, have something unlike it
I want to defy the absurd propaganda of meat-haters, who try to shame the ill-informed into vegetarianism with mendacious allegations about the environmental cost of carnivorism. Scientifically, they’re on a par with Pythagoras’s denunciation of “passion proteins” and the meat-phobic campaigns of the nineteenth-century evangelists who hawked joyless, overpriced breakfast cereals.
I also want to expose the folly of people who, in flight from the butcher’s shop, grab textured soy concentrate from supermarket shelves: theirs is the idiocy of the ersatz. If you want something like meat, have meat. If you don’t want meat, have something unlike it. My sacrifice would be greater, of course, if I disliked rare steaks and juicy roasts. But I like vegetables, too. So that’s all right.
Being a Spaniard helps. Traditionally, in Spain, vegetables form a distinct course, rather than sharing a plate with the serious bits of the entrée. Served separately, portions of both elements of a balanced meal can be mercifully bigger than in the English prodigium of “meat and two veg”.
Some meat, moreover, is too good to be garnished. To pair Tournedos Rossini, for instance, with peas or cabbage, or foie gras with chips or beans would be as sacrilegious as putting Chateau d’Yquem in a cocktail, or serving cognac-and-coke.
Rossini’s favourite dish is the most defiant gesture an eater can make against woke drivel, vegan ideology, dreary economy and politically correct puritanism. If prepared correctly, it combines offences of alleged ecological impropriety, alleged dietary imprudence, and alleged indifference to animal welfare. It outrages every frail sensibility and challenges every prevailing orthodoxy. Yet in Rossini’s case it fed genius. So, it’s good enough for me.
As with all great dishes, there are rival ways of doing it. Most modern recipes should be eschewed, because they make concessions to the criticisms of the bien-pensants or truckle to whatever’s “trending”. My recipe is unorthodox in some ways, but is a triumph of trial over error, and admits of no compromise.
By Holy Week, will I have exploded with protein, collapsed from heart failure, or perished from scurvy?
I start with an unbarded filet mignon, marbled with fat. I rub in olive oil — not what Escoffier would have done, but invaluable to guarantee the right balance between a caramelised carapace and meltingly tender flesh. The foie gras is a thick tranche from the liver of a well-nourished goose.
My family used to holiday on a farm in the Dordogne, where the happy geese gave one almost as much pleasure, as they squawked and wobbled cheerfully through life, as they did after death in providing incomparable repasts.
So I ate them without compunction. The slices of truffle, which should dot the foie gras and overflow onto the surface of the steak, are best if white and black are mixed.
To salt before serving is an abomination, which can ruin the meats. They should be seared quickly in a ferociously hot pan with a ridged bottom, and the foie gras switched to top the steak before reserving, briefly, while madeira — sweet and rich, for preference, such as Bual or Malmsey — swills out the pan juices, and anoints the meat: the fashionable habit of pouring the sauce around the edges, like the red rim round a tired eye, enhances neither appearance nor flavour. The sweetness of the sauce complements the hot foie gras, as a Monbazaillac or Sauternes will do when you serve it cold.
By Holy Week, will I have exploded with protein, or engorged on lipids, or collapsed from heart failure, or perished from scurvy? No — because my pudding of fresh fruit shall keep, simultaneously, the vegetables at bay and the proteins in check.
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