The New Vegetarianism: Sides Move to the Center

I had read The Botany of Desire and The Omnivore’s Dilemma (well, most of it) and it was all starting to sink in.  Back in June I announced my new dietary policy on Twitter:


I had some early wins.  I found that the braised vegetables and couscous with Indian spices at South Park Café is the best dish there and just ordered it every time I went.  I discovered whole wheat pasta. I finally really fell in love with kale. 

But my overall diet remained relatively stable.  I’ve always thought dinner meant a main dish with meat at the center, so if sometimes that meant pasta instead, it was a minor change. I could never get my head around a lot of the options that I associated with vegetarianism: textured vegetable protein, seitan, soy cheese. When I’ve had meat substitutes at friends’ houses, they tasted fine, but they just seemed weird to me, and I definitely wasn’t in the habit of buying them.  After reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma, I was even less inclined to go that direction, as Michael Pollan points out the ways in which these food products are part of a larger, very broken food system based on soy and corn.  

Then I heard Michael Pollan speak at our own conference, the Web 2.0 Summit.  Most of what he said, I already pretty much knew, but hearing him say it in person, and in my severely weakened state (I was in the final stretch of a veritable conference marathon, and extremely burned out) it sank in in a way it hadn’t before.  Two things stand out: 

  • Food choices are intensely political, and
  • To eat responsibly, “eat sunshine.” 

I thought for a minute about the box of “sunshine” that we get delivered from a local organic farm once a week from time to time.  We used to be Full Belly Farm customers, but we would sometimes forget to pick up the box, and frequently find ourselves unable to use all of the bounty of the earth it contained within, and so we ended our subscription, feeling that throwing food away was probably one of the worst ways to manage our consumption.  We had recently resubscribed, this time to Riverdog Farms, which delivers directly to Clementine’s school, making it slightly (only slightly, sadly) easier to remember to pick the thing up.  Then I realized that I’d been thinking about the veggie box all wrong, and that this time around I could make it work for me and my family.  

The problem with the veggie box delivery had been that I had been seeing it as a starting point, and all the steps that followed from that starting point were just too much to fit into my insanely busy working mom lifestyle.  We’d get the box, and I’d look at it and say, okay, I need to take all this produce and make five meals out of them, which means I need to figure out a whole bunch of recipes and go shopping for the other ingredients in the recipes and then have it all planned out and then get home early enough that I can get the chicken in the oven an hour ahead and make all the side dishes and get it all together and always have what I need or this food will go to waste.  Cooking a meal had a certain definition to me, and on the many nights that making a main dish (often meat) and a couple of sides seemed like way too much to do between 6 pm and 7 pm and still get Clementine to bed at a reasonable hour, I would throw up my hands and get take out.  And end up throwing out half the veggie box.

In contrast, here is my new approach:

  1. Open fridge.  
  2. Take out vegetable(s).  
  3. Cook (usually by whatever means is simplest).  
  4. Serve.

The realizations I came to, sitting there backstage listening to Michael Pollan and feeling exhausted and overwhelmed, were two-fold.  

  • I don’t need to make a “main dish.”  We still eat out a couple of nights a week, and we can have complicated, meaty, expensive main dishes at restaurants.
  • I don’t need a “recipe” with a dozen ingredients.  If I have time (not just to cook but to shop for the other ingredients) I will make something a little more elaborate, but Chez Panisse Vegetables will generally suffice for a few very basic ways to prepare any given vegetable, and it’s perfectly good just cooked.  I keep garlic, onions, lemon, and my spice rack stocked, and nine times out of ten, either tossing with olive oil, salt and pepper and roasting, or sautéing with onions and garlic is all the recipe I need.  

There is still something of a sense of the veggie box as a stressor or source of guilt; I think of it as a game of Tetris, where the pieces keep falling onto your pile and if you don’t put them together properly they will pile up and cause you shame and defeat.  But it is much less now, mostly because I am winning the game.  We still throw something out every once in a while, but we are eating most of what we get.  And it turns out that throwing out vegetables (especially when you compost them, as I do) is a whole lot less wasteful than throwing out meat.  Mark Bittman’s new book Food Matters gives you an excellent sense of this: “it requires 40 calories to produce one calorie of beef protein.”  Corn (grown locally), by contrast, requires 2.2 calories.  I don’t think we need to worry about the occasional head of cabbage we can’t get through.  The changes we’re making in our diet by reducing the overall amount of meat and eating locally grown, organic vegetables easily outweigh small amounts of waste.

Food Matters, by the way, is really worthwhile and also played a big role in my new food policy (yes, I consider myself the President of Casa Clementina; Chris is speaker of the house and Clem is like, I dunno, John Stewart or something).  I haven’t tried any of the recipes in there yet, but his articulation of the problem with meat and his description of his diet (in the classic sense of the word diet) is a great complement to Michael Pollan’s more exploratory and story-based writing.  Here’s a smattering of his pull quotes (and a few from the actual text):

  • The people in many developed countries, including the US, consume ½ pound of meat per day.
  • Meat consumption would have to fall to 3 oz a day to stabilize greenhouse gasses produced by livestock. (And note that only stabilizes; it doesn’t begin to solve the greenhouse gas problem)
  • If we each ate the equivalent of 3 fewer cheeseburgers a week, we’d cancel out the effects of all the SUVs in the country. 
  • 2,200 calories are required to produce a 12 oz can of soda
  • 50% of the antibiotics administered in the United States go to animals.
  • About 70% of the world’s farmland is dedicated to livestock production.
  • Changes in government farm policy have encouraged increased meat production for at least 35 years.
  • Agricultural subsidies cost taxpayers $19B a year and benefit only 3100 farmers.
  • Spinach has more than twice as much protein per calorie as a cheeseburger.
  • Americans consume 10 times as much meat as people in many developing countries.

If you’re feeling sorry for my family because I’m such a lazy cook, perhaps that’s fair.  But they haven’t complained (and frankly, I’m the one making the effort to cook; if either of them would like to make a meal, they may make what they want).  Clem likes spinach (I cook it with garlic, currants and toasted almonds) and even navy bean and kale soup.  She’s a good eater.  Chris has always been a big a big meat fan, but he doesn’t seem to mind.  More elaborate, meat-centered meals still feature prominently in our diet, just less often, and usually when we go out.  This mirrors Mark Bittman’s plan almost exactly; my main departure from his suggestion is that I like to try the vegetarian dishes at restaurants, because it helps me build a sense of what’s possible with a vegetarian diet, for those nights I feel capable of something more than a sauté with garlic.  

So I’m not a vegetarian, at least not by the traditional definition, because I still eat meat when it’s served, when it’s convenient, and when I really want it.  And to the extent that the stereotype of a vegetarian is a tofu- and tempeh-eating leather-hater, I’m definitely not that.  What I am is a veggie-phile, a la Mark Bittman and Michael Pollan.  I suspect that there are a lot more out there like me.

74 responses to “The New Vegetarianism: Sides Move to the Center

  1. Great post.

    I’m a burrito addict myself, but I’m thinking: Veggie burrito?

  2. Veggie burritos rule! One thing I didn’t mention is how awesome beans are. They’re full of protein and fiber. They’re the my new meat.

  3. So when you make these dinners from your box o’ veggies, you just put out a pile of spinach or green beans or broccoli or whatever for dinner, with nothing that Americans would recognize as a main dish?

    We’re eating a lot less meat and a lot more veggies at our house — but we still have a long, long way to go. And we love cheese.

    Precut, prewashed vegetables from the supermarket are a wonderful thing. Just pop a bag of spinach or broccoli in the microwave, and you’re good to go.

  4. consider east asian and indian spices when cooking veggies. i do stir-frys that’s fabulous with brown rice -and my family doesn’t miss the meat, at all. indian lentils are also hearty and easy…

    but may require a recipe! (sorry…) 🙂

  5. jen, this is awesome. i became a mostly-vegetarian 9 years ago for a lot of these same reasons. i still eat fish but not every week (oysters, sushi, yay for every once in a while) and, like your elaborate meat eating, usually only when we go to restaurants (so i have more than one choice of what to eat – as a vegetarian, most restaurants only give you one or two options) or friends/families’ houses (who seem not to know what to cook for non-meat-eaters). i was on an additional no-dairy diet for a couple of months and discovered vegan baking (sometimes awful, sometimes amazingly delicious) and ate a lot more asian and indian food. i try to keep coconut milk in our house at all times because adding it to some quickly sauteed onion/garlic/ginger/curry and other vegetables makes a quick meal with a side of brown rice. tossing the rice with some sort of ground seaweed adds good minerals/nutrients and saltiness so my 4 year old will eat it.

    alice waters’ kale potato soup is one of our favorite recipes – yay for easy simple veg prep!

  6. I have to admit that after a decade of vegetarianism (a year of which was vegan, eesh), I eat a lot of meat now. Generally, every week, I consume a whole chicken, somewhere in the neighborhood of 2 dozen eggs, and miscellaneous other stuff; sometimes ground chicken and turkey meatballs, sometimes a steak. And I try to keep bacon in the fridge at all times, which I occasionally eat on its own, but often use as an accompaniment to, say, brussels sprouts. Or kale. Or anything edible at all.

    One thing I was just saying to Doug, who is next to me on my couch right now, for whom I made an omelet yesterday, is that I’ve been trying to refine my eating habits, carving myself some grooves that guide my behavior naturally, effortlessly, so that everything doesn’t have to involve such discipline and will power all the time. Mindfulness is great and all, but if I have to force myself to eat those vegetables every day, like you, I will end up throwing them out and eating take-out a good portion of the time.

    It sounds like you’ve started carving yourself some good grooves to consume those veggies, and that is wonderful!

    My current favored approach started with the notion that I ought to eat more salad. So I bought a head of some kind of lettuce every week, along with a bunch of salad veggies. Broccoli. Onions. Bell Peppers. Mushrooms. I sliced them all up to roughly salad size and kept them in a big ziploc bag in the fridge. Then I mixed up some dressing from the Joy of Cooking. Some cider vinegar, some blue cheese. I ate exactly one salad. And never another. I just don’t tend to make myself salad, I don’t know why. I love it at restaurants.

    It turned out also that my mediocre apartment fridge, if set to cold enough that things on the top shelves don’t spoil, partially freezes everything in the crisper drawer. Nothing wilts lettuce as fast as constant freezing and thawing. So that’s right out.

    But, serendipitously, it turned out the ziploc bag of chopped veggies stayed good for as long as 2 full weeks, and moreover, once I had it there and ready to go, I found that any time I cooked anything else — braising some pork, roasting a chicken breast, pan-frying some bacon, making an omelet — I’d intuitively reach for the ziploc bag, grab a couple fistfuls of the veggie mix, and throw them in the pan, dish, sheet, whatever, and braise/bake/saute/fry/steam them along with the rest of the food.

    I’ve been shocked by how many vegetables I can eat in a week without even realizing it. Seriously, I have one of the giant freezer ziploc bags, it’s like a gallon, so full of veggies it’s hard to close right now. This week’s mix is broccoli/onion/red bell pepper/crimini/dino kale, I think. I’ll eat the whole gallon by myself in a week. In some of the biggest omelets you’ve ever seen, omelets so large Doug noted that his was really more “chicken-vegetable medley with egg topping.”

    It really does feel great. It’s interesting, because in one way, mindfulness practice is all about bringing consciousness to my actions throughout the day, so it’s not really about trying to make this stuff habitual in the sense that it becomes thoughtless. Instead, I’m appreciating more that I can find ways to bring ease and lightness to my actions while still being mindful. I notice the feeling of the vegetables in my hand as I throw them in the pan, and the pleasant feeling of the ziploc bag seal as I pinch it shut, and the taste of the veggies as I eat them. I just find ways to do it all without the grudging sense of obligation, self-critical judging, and discontent that I used to bring to this stuff.

    It’s like, stop fighting yourself, and instead find ways to be your own friend.

    Congrats on the changes, they sound very positive.

  7. Veggie-phile is a great, fantastic word.

    As a vegetarian, it’s a massive pet-peeve when people say they’re vegetarian at restaurants, but when nothing quite catches their fancy, they order the salmon or the free-range organic steak or something.

    The problem for me is that now when I go to restaurants, fish is often offered up as a vegetarian option. It’s not! I can’t/won’t eat it, and that’s what vegetarian means.

    I love the taste of meat (mmm, bacon), but I don’t eat it, and haven’t for over a decade. I firmly believe that people’s choices are their own to make, even if I wish that people were more aware of the sorts of agricultural factors that you raise above.

    When the definition of vegetarian is changed, it means that I lose the ability to make my own choice. Now, fish stock is okay to serve to me because others have made the decision for me and lazily not come up with a new word.

    Veggie-phile. I freaking love it, please use it often and everywhere! 🙂 I certainly will encourage my veggiephile friends to do the same. Thanks!

    Also: check out; they’re a grocery box delivery company that started out as Small Potatoes Urban Delivery in Vancouver. I got their boxes for years – all (mostly?) organic, all fresh stuff sourced from small local farms, not strictly veggie but with an emphasis there, and they deliver all sorts of amazing things. We regularly got deliveries of 50 lb bags of flour. To our door. Delivered by bicycle. I cannot say how much I love them, and they’ve started to move into the US, which is great, because yeah, CSAs are nice and all, but they are often a pain to deal with.

  8. Mitch, yep, sometimes, it’s nothing that Americans would recognize as a main dish. And weirdly, they’re fine with it. Because guess what, they didn’t rush home from work to make it! I did! And they know it’s a) yummy and b) good for them. (Well, Clem doesn’t know that, but Chris does.) And realistically, Chris probably had meat for lunch, probably at Bucci’s, which probably means something substantial, and he’s probably going to say “I’m not that hungry” anyway. Why should I stress myself out massively for a kid who’ll eat three bites at most and a husband who’s “I’m not that hungry” anyway?

  9. Asha, Lentils are a favorite of mine. And asian spices too, though a friend gave me a moroccan spice mix for the holidays and it’s fabulous on all root vegetables. It has sugar, salt, paprika, garlic, ginger, cinnamon, cumin, “spices” & cayenne. Not sure about that vague “spices” ingredient but that’s what you get from Crate & Barrel, I guess. Particularly great on carrots. I may be lazy on real recipes but a dash of this or that can make a real difference. I’ve become a fan of the pre-mixed spice mix!

  10. Hi Jen,
    I will give you the keys to the kingdom with some Chinese and Thai spices from Ranch 99 market…

  11. Brian: “Stop fighting yourself, and instead find ways to be your own friend.” This is excellent advice in all areas of life, and why I wish you still lived in the bay area so I could be near you always. 🙂

  12. Josh, I was just bemoaning my lack of a good five spice mixture. Got some for me?

  13. Great post. The convenience of packaged food is coupled with emotional rewards. I never realized this until I had a child. She wasn’t yet 2 and loved the golden arches. I found myself drawn to Kraft Mac&Cheese (my mother had always bought store brand which was never as good) etc.

    I’m hoping my daughter and children everywhere start having the emotional connection to fresh. Thus far, I’m batting .500 on this. My daughter loves salads but still asks for white bread instead of the fresh bread I buy.

  14. Jen: As it happens, it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. I just wrote a way-too-long post about it!

  15. love the tetris analogy. strong work and an excellent post!!

  16. Jen, I’ve been thinking about this a lot since you posted it, then most of the day today. Like Brian, after my decade of hardcore vegetarianism, I’ve had trouble keeping focused on vegetables. I’m so glad you posted this because in a certain sense it shames me into being better about vegetables – I identify with “this group of people” (whether my friends or people interested in sustainable food & the environment) and we all know how much people will do to continue to belong.
    I’ve also just been having a problem of inspiration, but now that spring is starting up, a trip to the farmers market is everything I need. It’s a nice balance of motivations.
    Some other things are percolating in my mind about this, but I’ll save it for my own blog 🙂

  17. I’ve read Pollen’s In Defense of Food and now starting The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Will have to check out your other recommendations.

    I do get overwhelmed after work trying to pull together dinner. Takeout is easier, but want to make better decisions. Like your approach!

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