TAKING VEGETARIANISM MAINSTREAM

veggiesVegetarianism has a bad rep: Many people still think vegetarian cuisine is boring, unhealthy, and eccentric. People make jokes about tofu and yogurt, and too many vegetarian recipes highlight (yawn!) eggplant, zucchini, artichokes and plain white rice. And over-steamed vegetables are the new Kings of Bland — as tasteless, colourless and wilted as the dreadful boiled vegetables they replaced, and as unappetizing as food can get.

If we’re going to get rid of the farm factories, the grotesque abuse of farmed animals, and the massive waste and destruction of Earth’s land for monoculture animal feed, we need to be bold, aggressive, and create some buzz about meat-free diets. The failure of vegetarianism to go mainstream has three causes:

  • Lousy marketing — With mad cow and the bird flu, there was a huge opportunity to make vegetarianism the prevalent human diet, and we blew it.
  • Public ignorance — Most people don’t know what it’s about, and believe the myths perpetrated by the meat and dairy industry, and even by some health professionals.
  • Lack of imagination and innovation — We need to use a lot more creativity to transform the food production, processing and distribution industries if we hope to supplant (pun intended) meat and dairy products as the staples of quality Western cuisine.

Here are ten steps the industry, and we as citizens and consumers, could pursue to take vegetarianism mainstream:

  1. The first thing we need is a new name. Vegetarianism misrepresents and under-represents meatless cuisine, and veganism sounds like a disease. And don’t get me started on lacto-ovo and other hyphenated vegetarianism, which gives meat-free eating an almost cult-like aura. Although I’m one of many to have gone (mostly) vegetarian but not yet vegan, that’s only due to lack of appetizing options, and I believe we must strive to eliminate all animal products from our diet. So I think we need one name for a meat- and dairy-free diet. It needs to be positive — what it’s about rather than what it’s not about. Even “animal-free” is too negative and political. Yet it must be unambiguous (“fresh-food” and “healthy-food” are too fuzzy). And it must be appetizing, short and sweet. None of the existing terms meet these criteria. My suggestion, and the term I use for the rest of this article, is botanic foods, (and those that eat only plant-based foods would then be botanivores), but I’m sure some creative minds could come up with something better.
  2. Teach people that grow-your-own botanic food is free. Everyone loves a bargain, and growing your own fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, herbs and spices costs almost nothing, gives you bragging rights (“this came right out of the garden this afternoon”), and gives you better-tasting foods. What we need, for those that live in inhospitable climates and cities with no garden space, is techniques, tools and plant varietals that let us grow edible plants indoors or on balconies. That could also cut down on the need for herbicides, insecticides and oil-based fertilizers. We need to make gardening easier without making it unnatural.
  3. Make botanic substitutes available in bulk. Most vegetarian meat-substitute products now in the stores are sold in tiny portions, over-priced, over-processed, and over-packaged. Just as you now buy a whole turkey, a five-pound tray of ground beef, or a whole side of pork, you should be able to buy their botanic substitutes in large quantities that are inexpensive and can be used easily in any recipe, not just the ones in the vegetarian cookbooks.
  4. Educate people that botanic foods are easy and quick to prepare. Pre-prepared foods are proliferating not because people are lazy, but because they are too busy to prepare and cook meals themselves. Many botanic foods can be served (and are delicious) raw, and an arranged medley of raw foods — fruits, nuts, legumes, berries, salad-stuffs, vegetables — with appropriate garnishes and dips and sides (wild or brown rice, potatoes, breads) can be visually stunning, very nutritious, and quick to prepare.
  5. Invent and celebrate botanic sauces. The master chefs of France learn first and foremost how to make great sauces (many of which are meat- and dairy-free), yet much ‘traditional’ vegetarian cuisine is terribly plain. We need to learn, and teach, the making of great botanic sauces, chutneys, dips, soups and other blends that add zip, variety and depth to botanic cuisine. The three most popular flavourings in the world — vanilla, lemon, and chocolate — are all botanic.
  6. Merge the best of international botanic cuisine. Much Asian cuisine is vegetarian, but there are meat- and dairy-free staples in almost every cuisine on the planet. In my opinion, for example, the Scandanavians make the world’s best breads. And there are plants in Africa that most of us, to our impoverishment, we have never tasted. Botanic cuisine needs to be a fusion cuisine, not a substitute for any local ethnic cuisine.
  7. Smash the myths and go on the offensive. We need to counter the myths, propagated by meat-addicts, the meat and dairy industry, and quite a few health professionals, that a botanic diet is unhealthy. There is overwhelming evidence that a botanic diet lowers risk of cancer, heart disease, and a host of other diseases that are endemic in our society, and this health improvement far outweighs the shortage of iron, zinc and B12 that may occur in botanic diets (and can easily be remedied by supplements in any case). And we need to start learning and telling (loudly) the truth about meat — the preservatives, antibiotics, chemicals and other crap in it, the dangers of food poisoning, bacterial infection, Mad Cow and other animal disease infection, not to mention arteriosclerosis and other diseases associated with animal fats. Fruit and vegetable farmers should be countering the meat and dairy industry propaganda in their own ads.
  8. Invent new substitutes for dairy and meat products. Many people have gone vegetarian but not vegan because some of their favourite foods — cheese and ice cream for example — still have no equivalents that are as palatable as the dairy originals. We need more research into this, because it’s a major stumbling block — people are willing to go botanic, but not if it involves sacrifice. And we should be cautious about over-reliance on soybeans for substitutes — too much high-sodium soy (like too much of anything) is not good for you, and monoculture of any kind is fragile and economically unwise. I read recently that the number of species and varietals of most commercial plants (fruits and vegetables) has dropped by 60-95% in the last twenty years (can’t find this again on the Web — can anyone help?) — which means that new plant diseases could decimate crops much more easily. Whose dumb idea was it to have everyone in the world eating just one specific varietal of broccoli — don’t they realize that biodiversity is critical to ecological resilience and evolution?
  9. End agricultural subsidies. I’ve talked about this before. Without these subsidies we’d have much less meat eaten, much less land given over to animal feed production, and much less concentration of farm ownership. They’re an abomination, we all pay for them, a handful of rich corporations benefit (and use the profits to brainwash us into eating their unhealthy products), and economies all over the world are distorted and bankrupted by them.
  10. Educate people that a botanic diet can help you lose weight. If nothing else catches the eye of most dumbed-down, meat-addicted, unhealthy consumers, the promise that a botanic diet can be delicious, nutritious, and almost painlessly take off the pounds (provided the foods eaten aren’t all starches and the sauces not too oily) should be enough to get people on the bandwagon.
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13 Responses to TAKING VEGETARIANISM MAINSTREAM

  1. Susan says:

    love those tofutti ice cream sandwiches. But they still have a slightly grainy taste. They’re nice and light, though, and you don’t feel evil for having inhaled two or three at a time.The pricing, though, is a huge issue. No co-op or natural food place where I live is remotely affordable to a working-class person. And Whole Foods, one of America’s leading natural food supermarkets, apparently pays its employees like Wal-Mart while simultaneously gouging the customer. Ick.

  2. Jon Husband says:

    new name ? If organic, Clean Food ?

  3. Myke says:

    I agree with your recommendations. My wife has become an expert at preparing healthy, non-meat Mexican food. Healthy food can taste great. But it requires a little more work, more creativity, and less herdness.

  4. Dave Pollard says:

    Susan: Price is definitely an issue. These days you have to be nice and efficient.Jon: Perhaps, except (1) there are no credible standards for organic yet and (2) it’s a bit ambiguous, especially if it’s to describe potatoes that come from the ground, and not to describe eggs.

  5. Kevin says:

    Maybe instead of trying to come up with a new name for botanic food, which by default makes it the “other” way of eating, we should work on giving a name to meat-eating. Currently it enjoys the status of being the “norm”, and anything that actually has a name, be it “vegitarianism”, “vegan”, or “botanic” must but some strange trend or cult practice. Of course I would have no idea how to make Outbacks register itself in the yellow pages as “carnivorian quisine”.As for variety, In Japan there are so many variants of botanic foods that are all(most all) amazing, and they use so many ingrediants I never knew existed. But, even if you stick to tofu, one of the best meals I ever had (before I even cared about what I ate) was an seven course tofu meal, from the apatizer to the desert, nothing tasted the same.These of course are not presented the same was as vegitarian food in the US. It’s not for people with a cause, it’s not for animal rights, it’s not even for health. It just is. People eat a mostly botanic meal one day without even realizing it, and the next day they may devour a prime-rib. I say “mostly botanic” because the people aren’t conciously trying to eat botanic, and there may be a small dish with some meat in it as well, but even that is better than a meat-based meal. Of course, the fact that there is not really a concept of strict vegitarian food here can be trouble to someone who is cutting out meat for a reason. It’s common to go into a restraunt, tell the waiter “No meat”, and they come out with beef-soup with the big pieces of beef picked out, or, in a more intimate setting, for the host to prepare a meat-based dinner anyway, and say “You should try it… you may like it”.

  6. Kevin says:

    Maybe instead of trying to come up with a new name for botanic food, which by default makes it the “other”, “abnormal” way of eating, we should work on giving a name to meat-eating. Currently it enjoys the status of being the “norm”, and anything that actually has a name, be it “vegetarianism”, “vegan”, or “botanic” must but some strange trend or cult practice. Of course I would have no idea how to make a restaurant put a special section in the bottom corner of their menu for “carnivorian cuisine”.As for variety, In Japan there are so many variants of botanic foods that are all(most all) amazing, and they use so many ingredients I never knew existed. But, even if you stick to tofu, one of the best meals I ever had (before I even cared about what I ate) was an seven course tofu meal, from the appetizer to the desert, nothing tasted the same.These of course are not presented the same was as vegetarian food in the US. It’s not for people with a cause, it’s not for animal rights, it’s not even for health. It just is. People eat a mostly botanic meal one day without even realizing it, and the next day they may devour a prime-rib. I say “mostly botanic” because the people aren’t conciously trying to eat botanic, and there may be a small dish with some meat in it as well, but even that is better than a meat-based meal. Of course, the fact that there is not really a concept of strict vegetarian food here can be trouble to someone who is cutting out meat for a reason. It’s common to go into a restaurant, tell the waiter “No meat”, and they come out with beef-soup with the big pieces of beef picked out, or, in a more intimate setting, for the host to prepare a meat-based dinner anyway, and say “You should try it… you may like it”.

  7. Kevin says:

    Oops. Looks like I accidently posted twice… the top one was just the first-draft… you can erase it. Sorry.

  8. Dick says:

    An interesting & challenging post & set of comments. The school at which I teach, St Christopher (check my sidebar) has been 100% vegetarian since its foundation in 1915. I know of only one other in the UK – the Krishnamurti school Brockwood Park in Hampshire.

  9. Some comments on your 10 points.1. Forget the name. People wouldn’t care if it was called ‘the death diet.’ If it was convenient and tasted good, people would eat it. People eat McDonalds don’t they?2. People don’t want to grow their own botanic food because it is not free. It takes time and energy and that equates to a cost. Not a direct dollar cost, but a cost nonetheless.3. This is important.4. Even more important than being easy to prepare you need them to be convenient for the lazy. Think fast food restaurants and frozen dinners.5. Honestly, 90% of the population doesn’t care about fancy sauces 90% of the time. We live in a society that eats mostly because of the need to eat, not the taste.6. Again, it has to be convenient. Cost comes into issue as well when you are importing (exotic) products from across the world. Can those plants in Africa be mass produced?7. There is a lot of propaganda out there from all sides of the debate. Adding more is not necessarily the best solution. Plus, some of the problems with meat you describe are simply not problems. How many people in the world have ever been diagnoses with the human form of mad cow disease? A couple hundred? Sorry, that small number doesn’t scare me. I am more likely to be struck by lightning picking botanic beans in my new grow my own botanic garden than getting mad cow disease.8. This is a tough one to do. Convincing people to (most likely) pay more for a meat substitute is going to be a tough sell.9. There are a number of great reasons to end agricultural subsidies although I have doubts as to whether it would make a difference in how much meat is eaten.10. A meat-filled diet can help you lose weight too. Worked for me.The fact is, 95% of the population is not going to give up meat for ‘social conscience’ reasons. Some will give up meat for health reasons but most will only do so if the replacement is proven healthy, just as tastey and most importantly at least and preferably more convenient. Taste and convenience is key. It must taste just as good and it must be just as convenient (again, think fast food restaurants and frozen dinners). If it is not, no amount of propaganda or name changes will change a thing. Furthermore, it is now being shown that a meat filled diet can be healthy. I lost 50lbs in less than a year with meat and dairy being a large portion of my diet. I am healthy and feel great and eat lots of meat. Based on my experience eating meat is healthy, convenient and tastey. That is a tough nut to crack if you are trying to sell me on vegetarianism.

  10. kara says:

    I’m a Vegetarian and proud of it!

  11. Ok. Mad cow disease strikes – the beef industry is crippled. They scream bloody murder, so what does the government do? Subsidies! You know what: stop feeding dead cows to other cows. I really never understood why the industry got government subsidies because of the inevitable result of their shoddy business practices. Slightly off topic, but… :)

  12. Dave Pollard says:

    Kevin: Thanks, that’s illuminating. Maybe if we had more of these wonderful botanic foods here it would be an easier sell.Dick/Kara: Bravo/Brava!David: Boy, you’re a hard sell. But you’re right that taste and convenience are critical. The other advantages are just (botanic) gravy ;-)Renee: Why government subsidies? Because the food processing industry are heavy donors to political campaigns, and because many farmers (including, sadly, many family farmers) are one-issue voters, and will support whichever party has the highest subsidies, even if that means ironically the end of the family farm in favour of corporate farms — the small farmer at least gets a decent price for his land when he sells. *sigh*

  13. kcmarshall says:

    A couple notes:re #5 – Only one of the 5 French master sauces could be considered vegan: Mayonnaise (egg), Veloute (chix or veal stock), Brown/Espagnole (stock), Hollandaise (egg/butter), Tomato.Personally, I’d prefer to adopt a diet incorporating organic, free-ranged meats in small measure than a vegan diet. I eat about 1 steak a year but would get militantly unruly ;) if you take my cheese away. And, yes, the cheese should be local, organic, craft-made also.Frankly, the diet that seems most sustainable to me isn’t vegan but the peasant diets that encorporate vegetables (usually home-grown) with carbs (pasta, rice, polenta, beans) and a very small but flavorful amount of meat for flavoring.Kevin

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