A few years ago Gary and I worked on a project with Animal Place, the big Northern California sanctuary for farmed animals. We were developing an alternative for students in agricultural programs like Future Farmers of America and 4H. In FFA and 4H, children sometimes raise an animal, show him or her at a fair, and ultimately sell him or her to slaughter. It’s supposed to be a ‘learning experience’ in agribusiness and it indoctrinates young people into seeing animals as commodities for our exploitation and profit.
But for many children, that learning experience is they are about to betray an animal they love, someone who loves them back, which is extremely traumatizing.
Fish was a one-year-old sheep raised by a young person who cared deeply about him, and who had a major change of heart about our relationships to animals during the student ag program. She didn’t want Fish to be killed and eaten, and Animal Place’s Free For Life program gave Fish that opportunity to live at the sanctuary forever.
Students who participate in the program must sign an agreement that they will never raise another project animal, to stop the cycle of forcing children to raise and sell animals in these ag indoctrination clubs. Another way Free For Life serves its educational and outreach mission is counteracting the disinformation the ag industry feeds these students, such as farmed animals can’t live long, healthy, happy lives.
Here’s what we teach students about sheep instead:
Sheep express emotions, similar to humans, and even show signs of depression, like when they’re separated from their flock. They are social, love to graze with each other, and often rub their heads together and nuzzle. Because they have such a strong ability to stick together for companionship and safety, some scientists have suggested that sheep actually have cultural “traditions” that are passed down and taught to new sheep friends. Mother ewes usually take good care of their lambs and “talk” to them, which helps them form their loving bond. Ewes recognize their own lambs’ cries, even from a great distance. Sheep can live 10-15 years.
It doesn’t say if sheep actually enjoy being herded by people, so this vegan shepherd’s pie recipe honors the dedicated caregivers at Animal Place instead. It requires time and love, but the basic ingredients are simple, inexpensive, available at any supermarket nearly any time of year, and the only unusual tool you kind of need is a potato masher. It’s good wholesome peasant food like my ancestors in southern France might have made hundreds of years back.
For the pie filling
One pound brown lentils
1 onion, diced
6-8 porcini mushrooms, sliced (white button are fine if that’s all there is)
2-3 carrots, diced
2-3 celery stalks, diced
2-3 cloves of garlic, minced
1 green or yellow zucchini, diced
2 tablespoons herbes de Provence, maybe more (or a combo of thyme, rosemary, sage, poultry seasoning, whatever you’ve got on hand, in the equivalent amount)
For the mashed potatoes
6-8 Yukon Gold (yellow) potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks
Handful of fresh parsley, chopped
Cook the lentils according to the directions on the bag. Meanwhile sauté the vegetables and herbs in olive oil in a large frying pan until soft, about 10-15 minutes. If you have a big cast-iron pan, or fancy enamelware thing that goes from stovetop to oven, this is a good time to use it. Drain the lentils and add to the pan. Adjust seasonings at this point, because the lentils will make it far blander than it was before. Don’t be stingy, is what I’m saying. You’re feeding hearty French vegan peasants, or sanctuary caregivers, who have been working on the land all day.
Steam, boil, or pressure cook the potatoes. Most of us probably have a favorite way of making mashed potatoes so I’ll leave you to it. (If you have an Instant Pot and aren’t using it for mashed potatoes, then I swear I don’t know what’s wrong with you.) However, since we’re going in the oven, ensure your mash is plenty moist. You want their consistency to be spreadable, like cake frosting. Feel free to add some vegan butter or olive oil.
To assemble, pour the lentils and veggies into a casserole dish, pyrex pan thing, or if you used the big cast-iron skillet or fancy enamelware thing, keep it in that. Level it out if need be, and spoon the mash over the top and level that out a bit, too, but don’t make it perfectly smooth because the peaks will brown and look rustic. Sprinkle with a little more salt and pepper and then the parsley. Dish size matters, because if it’s too big, and there’s too much surface area, the end result might be too dry. If you’re in between two baking vessels, I believe in erring on the small side, and loading it up tall.
Bake at 350 for 25-30 minutes. Serves four, I think; we eat it two nights in a row.
Variations aplenty: I typically serve this with a salad but if not, I add a few handfuls of chopped greens (kale, chard, or spinach) when cooking the filling. Frozen peas are a classic addition. Most veggies work well as long as they’re mostly cooked through before baking. Use half the lentils plus canned white beans if you want. This dish is also great with Soy Curls, minced seitan, or veggie meats like chicken or sausage, in addition to the lentils or in place of some lentils.
If you can’t find Yukon Gold potatoes, regular russet (brown) are fine but you’ll need to make sure there is plenty of moisture in the mash.
Hey, here’s a new thing: if you’d like to be part of this magic, come visit us at the new FB group Thinking Vegan Recipes: https://www.facebook.com/groups/thinkingveganrecipes/