Tag Archives: michael pollan

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.