I was surprised and gratified that vegetarianism and healthy living were highlighted at the International Food Bloggers Conference! While I’d be interested to read any cookbook by keynote speakers Karen Page and Andrew Dornenberg, their upcoming book The Vegetarian Flavor Bible is especially relevant to my kitchen. My husband and I are pescetarian but were vegetarian for decades and the large majority of our meals are vegetarian or vegan.
Karen Page shared that although she and her husband had been in the food world for a long time– he as a chef, both of them as writers– and had explored many aspects of food and dining, she never gave much thought to nutrition until recently. Their focus had been on pure pleasure. They’d become sommeliers, learned about the world of restaurant critics, and developed their index of flavor affinities through several of their books. But only when their parents and step-parents died within a ten-year period, all of cancer, did they turn their attention seriously to nutrition.
Page got a degree in nutrition, learned about the increasing health consequences of obesity, and studied the The China Nutrition Study. The two of them changed their diet and have been “eating vegetarian for the last 2 1/2 years.” She claimed vegetarian diets as a current ‘mega-trend,’ citing a USA Today survey that slightly over half of Americans were trying to eat less meat. She shared a fun, simplistic but true in its way quote from Bill Maher, “We won’t stop being sick until we stop making ourselves sick…The answer is not a pill. The answer is spinach.”
Another trend she cited is ‘treating plants like meat’ in cooking: smoking, grilling, ‘butchering,’ etc., creating meals far more exciting than the traditional ‘veg plate’ which she declared ‘dead.’ She pointed to Eataly Le Verdure NYC as an example of a restaurant creating truly exciting meals with vegetables alone. I left Karen and Andrew’s talk wondering whether they were right about vegetarianism as an increasing trend. I hear a lot about counter-trends like meat-heavy low-carb diets and the paleo diet. I certainly hope they are right: for one thing, it would be far better for the earth.
For me, concerns about health, the environment, and the treatment of animals have been important to how I’ve eaten and cooked since I was a teenager. When I was a teen, environmental concerns about meat-eating were more centered around the acreage it takes to produce meat, far greater than the acreage needed to grow the equivalent amount of vegetarian staples, and the idea that eating less meat would make it possible for all the world’s people to be fed. Diet for a Small Planet popularized that concept. Now that same concern about the amount of resources needed to produce meat is expressed more in concerns about climate change.
Later in the conference I heard a talk by Joe Yonan, food and travel editor for the Washington Post and author of Eat Your Vegetables. His talk was billed as being about how he found inspiration through change by taking a year to homestead on a farm in Maine. I was surprised that he too, talked about how he had recently become a vegetarian. He had begun the shift before his year in Maine but consolidated the change there. At the farm he spent his mornings doing labor like spreading manure and sifting the pebbles out of rock dust using a back-breaking homemade machine for the task. He cracked me up by saying that after sifting the rock dust “he would never complain about a chinoise again.”
He used his gardening time to get used to what he hilariously called ‘monotasking’ as opposed to the usual journalist or blogger whirl of Instagram/Pinterest/Facebook online posting and networking. In response to an audience question about how to not let all those unread emails and other tasks become a mental distraction, he said that he found exercise the best thing to calm his mind, quoting his friends Page and Dornenberg, “The healthiest people we know who are passionate about food are also passionate about exercise.”
I asked him what his inspiration was to become a vegetarian and whether it had anything to do with climate change. He said that he had looked in his freezer one day and seen that it was filled with humanely raised meat that he was not eating. With his job he ate out at restaurants a lot and was eating “clean and lean” at home to try to make up for that. It occurred to him that it might be better to flip that and eat more that way when he was out of the house, when it was not always possible to know whether the meat he was eating was humanely raised. He cited his current motivations to be vegetarian as “health, environmental concerns/fossil fuel, and a lighter conscience.” In answer to another question he noted that the amount of eggs and cheese he’s been eating has been gradually diminishing as his body and palate adjust to a vegetarian diet.
I’m so encouraged to see such influencers in the sphere of cooking and dining take a stand for less meat and a healthy lifestyle. In Karen’s talk she spoke of the mission of a food blogger to inspire, entertain, and ultimately to change the world. I hope the writings of these three will do all of that in the direction of a healthier population and planet.