The King cake's been cut. And if there were beads involved, tuck them away. Remember, Fat Tuesday exists only because it is in balanced juxtaposition with the 40 days of Lent -- a time set aside for guilt, contemplation, fasting, sacrifice and service, depending on your flavor of spiritual commitment. The pope's tweeting about it, so it must be important.
Lenten fasting is best described as a First World fast. The Catholic Church forbids meat consumption only today, Ash Wednesday, and every Friday from here until Easter. This "meatless" fast is actually pretty carnivore-friendly. Canonical law defines it as the omission of the flesh of animals and does not include fish, eggs or dairy. Falling down the loophole even more reveals that it also doesn't forbid "meat liquids." We're talking chicken stock, meat-based sauces like gravy, and animal fat -- like lard and bacon fat. This concept of Lenten sacrifice seems a bit watered down. Perhaps with a nice duck stock accompanied by a piece of bread fried in a little bacon fat and washed down with wine. Sounds super meaningful to us.
A word to the righteous -- remember that despite recent election-year squawking (oh, calm down already), you do have the freedom to flex your religiosity as you see fit. And we think 40 days dedicated to contemplating our habits and maybe making a few changes isn't altogether a bad idea. We're suggesting the sustainability route. Call it a thematic Lent, and we're here to help -- a top five list of sustainable Lenten food sacrifices to make over the next 40 days that could, idealistically, save the world. We're talking about trimming major food carbon footprints here, which fits in a little sacrifice and a little service while cementing more sustainable food habits.
5. Eat what you buy and quit wasting so much:
Forget cleaning your plate. Clean your refrigerator. The EPA says food leftovers are the single largest component of American waste. Food decomposition in landfills creates methane, a greenhouse gas 21 times more damaging to the environment than carbon dioxide, and landfills account for 34 percent of all methane emissions in the United States. Use the whole vegetable. Make stock from leftover bones -- remember, it's allowed. This also may be a good time to learn food preservation to extend the usable life of that giant stalk of Brussels sprouts you bought at the market. And speaking of the farmers market...
4. Buy local:
Every day, somewhere in L.A., there's a farmers market tucked into a neighborhood street or parking lot. And if you do your homework, you could feed yourself from a 100-mile radius for the entire 40 days of Lent. Easily. Why bother? The distance a food travels accounts for about 11% of the average household's food-related greenhouse gas emissions. Going local may cut into convenience, but what you lose in time, you generally make up for in quality. Eating locally also automatically plunges you into seasonal eating, a double sustainable win since you're not consuming your annual carbon footprint with one bag of Chilean cherries.
3. Eat less imported cheese:
We own a divine love for a ripe and runny French vacherin, a smoky, well-aged Dutch Boere Kaas gouda and a slice off a creamy wedge of Emmental Grand Cru. Cheese, imported or not, is already one of the most carbon-intensive foods you can buy, just one step behind beef. If completely omitting this ancient and well-loved food isn't a line you wish to cross, we can hardly blame you. Just embrace #4 and explore some local options, preferably goat and sheep's milk. California is growing its local cheese culture every year, and locally we have some fine cheese producers, including Soledad Goats, Drake Family Farms and Winchester Cheese, all of whom sell at local farmers markets.
2. Switch from refined sugar to honey:
That tablespoon of granulated sugar takes more energy and wastes more water to create than a similar tablespoon of honey. In fact, for honey, you actually need more plants staying in the ground to keep a hive healthy and productive. No stoves for labor-intensive evaporation or far-flung tropical cane or sugar beet fields required. It'll be a 40-day learning process as you adjust your taste buds and learn to gauge honey sweetness vs. granulated sugar. But the environment, and your body, will be better off.
1. Stop eating lamb and shrimp:
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Lamb has the highest carbon footprint of all meats you can eat. And we just found out that shrimp's carbon footprint is 10 times higher than beef's. In both cases, eating locally produced lamb or locally harvested shrimp helps.
A word on local lamb: Keep in mind that due to our super dry winter, local grass-fed sheep flocks are hurting and lamb production is predicted to decrease in 2012. This means indulging in local lamb will likely cost more this year. Do we want to hurt local lamb farmers even further by suggesting you avoid their product? Of course not. But if your priority is sustainable eating, this one choice packs a wallop.
Felicia Friesema is a Master Food Preserver with the UC Cooperative Extension and Co-Leader of Slow Food USA's Los Angeles chapter. You can follow her on Twitter at @FeliciaFriesema.