Vegetarians and vegans are always pointing to famous vegetarians and vegans, because– I guess– not only is it gratifying to know that there are successful people out there who embrace a cruelty-free lifestyle, but also because it is a small defense tactic. After all, people tend to view us meat-free people as kooks, a myth perpetrated in no small measure by television and the rest of the media which tends to usually present us as airheads acting on a whim.
In real life, however, studies have shown that the most intelligent among us are more likely to embrace a meat-free lifestyle early in life. It does make sense, doesn’t it? After all, one would have to be sensitive and strong to make and carry out life-changing decisions that run counter to what the rest of the world is doing. Besides, the greatest intellects of the past are on our side. From Pythagoras to Leo Tolstoy to Gandhi to Einstein and George Bernard Shaw, each one of these great people embraced and expounded the virtues of a vegetarian diet.
I am also often thrilled to find glimpses of sensitivity toward the creatures of the world in some of the greatest works of contemporary art and literature.
Recently, I finished reading what must be one of the most evocative books I’ve ever laid my hands on, Joyce Carol Oates’ We Were the Mulvaneys. This 1996 book documents the lives and times of a happy, bustling family that goes through a terrible tragedy, careens helplessly toward a breakup, then reunites toward the end of the book.
Oates is a great writer who needs no introduction to any book lover, but I especially love her liesurely, indulgent style, her way of grabbing your attention and then keeping you hanging in suspense before you get the answer, her remarkable eye for the smallest of captivating details that most of us might just brush past without noticing.
One of the things I loved about this book was how beautifully Oates portrays the chemistry between humans and animals. There are plenty of animals in this book, because the story begins on a farm. Among the most evocative of relationships is that between Marianne Mulvaney and Muffin, her cat. Here’s what Oates writes about an aging Muffin.
“Marianne waved away a swarm of mosquitoes, seeing that Muffin was sitting, or lying, in the grass, sphinx-style, forepaws neatly tucked beneath his chest, tail curving around his thin buttocks. She picked him up gently and held him. How thin he was! Yet how soft and fine his fur. He did not resist her; but neither was he kneading his paws against her as usual, nor did he begin to purr immediately.”
Surely Oates must love cats, for who else but a cat lover could capture so vividly one of these classy, enigmatic, independent creatures! And I loved that throughout the book, she turns an equally compassionate, understanding eye toward animals.
Near the beginning, through the voice of Judd Mulvaney, she writes: “There were many deer on our property, in the remoter wooded areas, but it was rare for any to pass so close to our house, because of the dogs. (Though our dogs never ran loose at night, like the dogs of certain of our neighbors and a small pack of semi-wild dogs that plagued the area. Mom was furious at the way people abandoned their pets in the country– “As if animals aren’t human, too.”)”
Don’t you just love that?
Now on to today’s recipe, Okra with Onions and Potatoes, which is one of my favorite side dishes. I adapted this recipe from Madhur Jaffrey’s World Vegetarian where she describes the dish as being from the state of Gujarat in western India.
Although the original dish did not include onions, I added them because I love the complimentary flavors of onions and okra when they are teamed together. With its sweet-sour-spicy notes this dish is bound to captivate any palate, even one that claims to hate okra.
20 pods of okra, cut into 1/2-inch rings
3 yellow potatoes, cut into a 1/2-inch dice, then boiled until tender (I cover the diced potatoes with water in a microwave-safe dish, place a lid or a plate on top, and zap it for four to five minutes.)
2 medium tomatoes, diced
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
1/2 tsp mustard seeds
1/2 tsp cumin seeds
1 tbsp ginger paste
1 tbsp garlic paste
1 tsp ground coriander seeds
2 tsp ground cumin seeds
1 tsp red chilli powder
2 green chilies, minced
1 tsp sugar
Juice of 1 lemon
1 tbsp canola or other vegetable oil
Heat the oil in a saucepan or skillet.
Add the mustard and cumin seeds. When they sputter, add the onions and stir-fry until the onions become translucent and golden spots begin to just appear.
Mix the coriander and cumin powders and the ginger and garlic pastes in a small container with 4 tbsp of water. Add this mixture to the onions and cook, stirring, until the water evaporates.
Add the tomatoes, okra, potatoes, chilli powder, green chillies and salt and stir thoroughly. Add half a cup of water, bring to a boil, cover and simmer over medium-low heat about 10 minutes or until the okra is tender.
Add sugar and lemon juice. Check salt and garnish with mint or coriander leaves if desired.
Serve hot with rotis or dal and rice.