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Want to Eat Less Meat? Try Something Sour.

Picture an experiment:You are handed a clear, odorless liquid of mysterious flavor and asked to drink. (Shades of “Alice in Wonderland.”) You are then directed toward an image of a balloon on a computer screen. With each click of the mouse, the balloon inflates. The bigger it swells, the more cash you’ll receive — but if it pops, all is lost. You must decide when to stop.

In 2017, when the researchers Chi Thanh Vi and Marianna Obrist, then at the University of Sussex, in England, conducted this experiment, they found that subjects who drank a sour liquid were more likely to keep clicking. The taste of something sour inspires people to take risks. That hit of acid on the tongue: It’s a little shock to the system that makes you recalibrate the world and redefine pain as thrill. Those who were assigned a sweet liquid instead were less willing to roll the dice or maybe just more content with their lot. Sweetness numbs; sourness awakens.


Recipe: Chickpeas Escabeche With Plantain Strips


Is this part of why, in so many cultures, no meal is complete without a touch of sour? There is a practical benefit to sourness, of course, beyond the metaphysical: Before the invention of refrigeration, souring agents helped lengthen the life of food. Maybe our minds retain a trace of that original purpose, that this was a way to cheat death. Maybe we imagine we can keep cheating it.

In the Spanish-speaking world, the technique of cooking ingredients and then immersing them in vinegar is called escabeche, a word believed to derive from the Persian sikbaj, a meat-and-vinegar stew. (The Arab poet Al-Hariri of Basra, who lived in the 11th and 12th centuries, called sikbaj “the mother of hospitality,” and his 19th-century British translator Thomas Chenery noted that the king was the first person for whom the dish was made and “that none fed of it without his permission.”)

“Escabeche you can make with anything,” the writer and cultural critic Alicia Kennedy told me. In Puerto Rico, where she lives, starchy hunks of yuca or unripe guineos (bananas) are simmered until tender, then left to luxuriate in a marinade of vinegar and olive oil, expansive with garlic, onions, sweet peppers, grassy-bright cilantro and its swaggering cousin culantro.

That these happen to be vegetarian dishes is serendipity. Kennedy, 37, first started questioning the default of eating meat as a teenager; her spirited chronicle and gently, slyly persuasive manifesto, “No Meat Required: The Cultural History and Culinary Future of Plant-Based Eating,” came out in August. When she drives family and friends around the island, she can always count on finding escabeche at a food truck, on a menu otherwise devoted to carnivores.

In her own kitchen, she likes to use beans as the star ingredient: plump chickpeas or gandules (pigeon peas), a hardy local crop that slows erosion and grows easily in times of drought — something we should eat because it’s good for the planet, although Kennedy says with a laugh, “I try not to be pedantic.” And it’s delicious, too. She adds Spanish stuffed olives before serving, for extra richness. The beans are meaty enough to sate and at the same time small enough to scoop up with a chip, or, as Kennedy prefers, to be spooned, almost daintily (“like caviar,” she says), onto a delicate, whisper-thin strip of crisped plantain, hot from the skillet.

Omnivores often cast vegetarians as browbeating evangelists. When I gave up eating meat for a while in my 20s, I didn’t talk about it; I just quietly ate whatever vegetables were on hand, trying to cause as little trouble as possible. Nevertheless, one friend, an unabashed lover of steak, insisted on telling me repeatedly how joyless vegetarianism was. Finally, exasperated, I said: “Why are you fighting with me? I’m not trying to convince you to change,” and she said, “Well, if you really believed in it, you would.”

Kennedy is not a proselytizer. For her, the proof is on the table. “I can create food out of whatever is available,” she says. She recalls her early days as a vegan baker, conjuring eggs out of ground flax seed. “It made me think differently about where and what food is. You don’t have to search high and low.” So lunch might be leftover stems of portobello mushrooms, seared in a pan, or fritters made with the tiny yellow florets hidden inside a banana blossom’s purple cone of leaves — an ingredient she once didn’t even know existed.

“This has become my life’s purpose,” Kennedy writes in her book. “Showing people life without meat is still a beautiful life.” It is not, in fact, a life “without” at all, but one of more — of abundance.

‘‘Escabeche you can make with anything,’’ Alicia Kennedy says. She likes to use beans as the star ingredient.


Recipe: Chickpeas Escabeche With Plantain Strips


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