Almost 16 years ago I found myself taking a job in beautiful Southern California in a little town called Rancho Santa Margarita not far from Laguna Beach. It was a change of pace for me, certainly from a cooking and eating perspective, but I remember those days fondly.
As nice as everyone was, I felt a disconnect stemming from the unavailability of common food items. A lot of grocers didn’t carry grits. It was tough getting a butcher to understand the existence of tasso. Shrimp were plentiful but carried no taste. I was out of my element for sure, but I took it as a chance to broaden my horizons. I did my best to take advantage of what my new home had to offer in the obscure Asian markets, wonderful Mexican dishes and strong local produce.
Before too long I found myself working an evening shift at a video editing facility where my self-perceived nonregional accent was considered Mayberry-esque by my co-workers. I guess the “you can’t take the Mississippi out of the boy” adage held true in my case, but I had nothing to hide. I charmed them all by giving them their first exposure to boiled peanuts and had the staff almost literally eating out of my hands.
One evening a curious employee of half-Mexican descent began quizzing me on all the crazy things people from the South eat. He always tried to shock me with culinary stories about his Mexican family and friends eating all these “weird” foods. But in the spirit of one-upmanship, I was always able to counter his menudo with my chitterlings or mudbugs.
This reached a new height about this time of that year when he came to me and proclaimed, “A lot of people in Rosalita get so hungry for meat during Lent that they will eat turtles. Turtles, Andy.” I burst his bubble when I let him know I had a bowl of turtle soup on my way to the New Orleans Airport when I came out there. One-upmanship.
It was at this point that I really began to think about Lent every time it rolled around. Growing up Baptist, we didn’t really discuss the topic very much. I remember a few Catholic friends not eating meat on Fridays, but for the most part it didn’t affect me. The story of the turtles always had my brain turning. What do we consider meat during Lent?
According to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (www.usccb.org) meat includes animals such as chicken, cows, sheep and pigs, as these are all animals that live on land. Birds are also considered meat. The real fun begins when we discuss what IS allowed. Saltwater and freshwater fish are okay as well as amphibians, reptiles and shellfish. Butter, gelatin, cheese, milk and eggs get the green light since they don’t carry a “meat” taste. They also say that broth and the like is not off limits.
Regionally, animals have been excused over the years as Lent-worthy dinner. Alligator was given the go-ahead in Louisiana. Beaver was once on the “do not abstain from” list. Capybara has even made its way to the tables of Venezuela this time of year. Globally there are some exceptions that give me the feeling of, “Yeah, you can eat that, but why would you?”
I personally find the creatures of the sea to be the most delicious and could very easily eat fish every day and only eat meat on Fridays. Of course I don’t want to rock the boat. It wouldn’t pay to be different since so many churches have the Friday night fish fry. This is one of the modern practices that exist because of Lent that I think all men of faith should adopt. A small donation, a little fish, a beer or two, everybody wins.
For those looking to replace the meat in their lives for this season as well as any other meatless holy day, here are a few substitutions that may have slipped your mind. Get creative. Find recipes you can look forward to (even though this is supposed to be about sacrifice).
Don’t forget the egg salad. On the right bread, egg salad can be a first-rate choice for any meal. It doesn’t stick to your ribs in the winter months, but the groundhog has spoken. I was in flip-flops today. Eggs in general fill me up. Fried with a biscuit, an omelette, a frittata and carbonara for pasta are some ways to leave you not missing the meat. But none hold a candle to the almighty deviled egg. How can something so heavenly have such a name?
Eggplant is a great meat substitute. Fried eggplant in a gritty batter over pasta with a good tomato sauce is so good it may at some point be classified as meat. Grilled or roasted eggplant goes great on a sandwich with onions, red bell peppers and cheese on sturdy bread.
Tomatoes obviously make a monster sandwich. Of course fried green go well with the crab cakes that are so popular here. I’m fine with a hothouse tomato in a pinch. Just sliced with salt, pepper and mayo is my favorite. With goat cheese is a close second and a Caprese salad comes in third. You can put basil with anything that has tomatoes.
Mushrooms can taste almost like a steak if you cook them right. Grilled portabella mushrooms fit nicely on a bun and are even better stuffed with seafood. Fried mushrooms fill me up quickly.
Don’t neglect the “lesser” side of seafood. You don’t have to pay premium prices for Royal Reds and lobster tails to have a delicious meat-free dinner. Try your hand at making easy salmon croquettes or tuna patties. The canned foods can shine if you know what you are doing. Same goes for crabmeat dip with cream cheese and green onion.
After all the Lenten seasons I neglected, I’m sure to make this one an interesting departure from meat. Variety is key. I know it’s supposed to be about sacrifice. Nobody said it had to be boring.
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