The New (Almost) Vegetarian
Once a voracious meat eater, writer Salma Abdelnour is now shocked to feel a persistent new craving for vegetables. Here, she catalogs her conversion and charts the zeitgeist.
My high school class didn’t vote on a person Least Likely to Become a Vegetarian, but if it had, I would have won. Back in my teen years, I took huge pleasure in picking arguments with militant vegetarians, and that continued through college, where I lived in a student co-op house filled with the kind of people who would freak out if someone cooked meat on the same griddle they used for tofu scrambles. The more packages of fermented soy protein and imitation-chicken wheat gluten my housemates stacked up in the fridge, the more I saw it as evidence of their lack of fitness for the real world. At the time, vegetarians struck me as, at best, third-rate ethicists whose animal-rights case was as anemic as they were. At worst, they were tragic characters who were depriving themselves—and trying to deprive others—of one of life’s great joys.
Lately, though, I don’t feel as much contempt for vegetarians. In fact, I think I’m slowly and steadily becoming one. Like a bull getting revenge on a cocky toreador, vegetarianism is jabbing its horns into my side. Have I surrendered? Not yet. But I’m surprised at how little I’m resisting.
I’m finding it oddly amusing to watch the carnivorous and vegetarian forces inside me battle it out. I love meat like crazy—I’ve always loved it, in just about all of its forms, including the gamiest offal and organ meats. But just as the food world becomes more and more meat-obsessed—in fawning new books like The Shameless Carnivore and magazines like Meatpaper, and on menus that show off the most obscure cuts chefs can find—I feel myself inching away.
What’s finally starting to win me over to vegetarianism? I can’t pinpoint any one reason. Several factors seem to be conspiring to make me crave meat less. Until recently, I’d never heard a bulletproof case against meat, and I’ve always defaulted to the “If it feels good, do it” rationale: Eating a nice big steak made me full and happy. Plus, I could brush off animal-rights activists by focusing on the argument that a carnivorous diet is part of the food chain: Animals eat each other, we eat them, end of story. But whatever the relative merits of that position, devouring a burger doesn’t feel as good as it used to. Along with bacon and cheddar, my burger comes loaded with guilt about factory cattle farms—not only what they’re doing to the animals, but also to the environment and to my body. It’s harder to dodge all the health studies showing that carnivores are more prone to heart disease, stroke and certain cancers (including breast and colorectal), while vegetarians, on average, live longer, healthier lives.
Sure, anyone worried about the health and environmental impact of industrial meat can always buy from small, eco-conscious farms. On these ranches, animals presumably roam free on clean, well-tended pastures and lead joyous, if ultimately short and utilitarian, lives—an arrangement that conveniently makes for better-tasting meat that’s also better for you. But it can take a lot of time and energy to eat only responsibly raised meat. A more vegetarian diet—which used to seem like a tedious, high-maintenance project—now feels, ironically, like the path of least resistance.
But I’m too much of a hedonist to be swayed by reason alone. Besides the lighter mental burden that comes with eating less meat, I’ve noticed that when I skew vegetarian, I feel better physically—leaner and more energetic. While I never used to flinch from eating short ribs at dinner one day and a lamb burger at lunch the next, I now instinctively crave nonmeaty food after a carnivorous feast, and sometimes for several days after. At restaurants, my eyes would once automatically shoot over to the pork and duck and lamb dishes on the menu; now, the seafood and vegetable options are lighting up like a game-show board. Granted, seafood doesn’t really get around most of the problems with meat: It takes homework to choose species that are neither overfished nor loaded with the toxins that come from polluted waters and certain aquaculture practices. And anyone who avoids meat for animal-rights reasons can’t overlook the fact that fish are animals, too. But in my case, eating seafood still feels less taxing overall on the brain and body.
I guess the word for centrist eaters like me is flexitarian, but I hate that term: It’s too clinical and earnest-sounding. I agree with The Shameless Carnivore author Scott Gold that cheeseburger vegetarian is much more useful. Just, please: Never give me a tofu cheeseburger.
At least one positive development in these gastronomically tortured times is that a vegetarian life doesn’t have to mean fake-meat dishes made with soy derivatives and animal-protein knockoffs. Now, people who crave powerful flavors, surprise and subtlety in their food can eat brilliantly at restaurants, whether or not they order meat.
At Ubuntu, a year-old “vegetable restaurant” in Napa, I was blown away by everything made by Jeremy Fox (an F&W Best New Chef 2008), from house-baked flatbreads topped with ingenious combinations like sauerkraut, Emmentaler cheese, garlic confit and a runny fried egg, to a roasted and pureed cauliflower dish spiked with vadouvan, a pungent Indian spice blend. I’m even finding vegetarian tasting menus at haute restaurants like Per Se in Manhattan, where chef Jonathan Benno (an F&W Best New Chef 2006) creates a never-predictable lineup that might include a smoky eggplant soup with turmeric and Icelandic yogurt, or luscious ricotta-filled agnolotti with fava beans and sage. In Seattle, former Herbfarm chef Jerry Traunfeld is about to open Poppy, where he’ll serve each guest an assortment of small plates—inspired by Indian thali platters—that will include just one or two meat dishes along with a number of vegetarian ones, like a tangy chickpea salad with yogurt, cumin, cilantro and mint and a crunchy tangle of celery, pear and hazelnuts tossed in a mustardy vinaigrette.
As I continue to feel my way into this vegetable-focused lifestyle, I’m obviously in no position to preach to anyone about what they should or shouldn’t eat. In fact, after I hand in this story today, I’m headed to a big pork-shoulder dinner. I’m excited at the prospect of sitting around a giant hunk of braised pig and pulling strips of tender pink meat off the bone. But this may be the only meat I eat all week. And who knows, at some point in the future, I may skip meat extravaganzas altogether. But by all means, keep the invitations coming; I promise I’ll never turn into one of those sniffy, sanctimonious types—even if, one day, I decide to skip the pork and stick to the side dishes.