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How I Learned to Love Meatless Meals

About 15 years ago, I was chatting with two women at a cocktail party when one of them noted she was a vegetarian. Other than feeling a flash of pity -- poor thing can't eat a steak -- I didn't think much about it until she wandered away to get a Pinot refill. 

At that point, the other woman whispered, "Well, that's a pretty good sign that she's not a lot of fun!" We snickered and shoved a few more pigs in blankets down the hatch.

I've thought about this conversation a lot in the past few years. When I replay it and think of my glib response, it feels like watching a pregnant Betty Draper in "Mad Men" throwing back a martini: How could she not know?

How could I have dismissed this woman when it was likely that some major soul-searching had gone into her decision to stop eating meat? How could I not have known?

Maybe it was because that cocktail party was about eight years before Eric Schlosser's "Fast Food Nation" described the disturbing conditions of the slaughterhouses and meat-packing plants feeding the country's fast-food system. 

And before Michael Pollan asked us in "The Omnivore's Dilemma" to question everything on our plates and how it got there. 

It was way before investment bankers were leaving Wall Street to start organic chicken farms and before new dad and literary darling Jonathan Safran Foer proclaimed in his 2009 vegetarian manifesto, "Eating Animals": "We are equally responsible for what we don't do. In the case of animal slaughter, to throw your hands in the air is to wrap your fingers around a knife handle."

The Meat of Our Problem
Today, anyone interested in food or the environment (or anyone who reads the newspaper) knows how hard it is to ignore the evidence mounting against factory-farmed meat, which, according to an analysis of USDA and EPA data by the advocacy group Farm Forward, is 99 percent of the beef, pork, and poultry sold in this country. 

Raising livestock for food is one of the largest contributors to global warming, accounting for 20 percent of man-made greenhouse gases emitted each year. The Meatless Monday movement, an initiative in association with the Bloomberg Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, states that if all Americans skipped their daily 8 ounces of meat one day per week, we could save more emissions over the course of a year than if we gave up traveling by cars, trains, planes, and ships combined. 

There are the health benefits, too, of course. People who consume a plant-based diet weigh less, have lower incidence of heart disease, diabetes, and many cancers, and on average live longer than meat eaters.

So why aren't we all vegetarians? Why can't I -- enlightened me, post-Pollan, post-Schlosser, post-I-know-the-provenance-of-the-food-on-my-plate me -- become a vegetarian?

Anthony Bourdain, meat's most vocal cheerleader, will tell you the answer is "bacon," as he did on "Larry King Live" last fall. 

But our attachment goes beyond sheer pleasure. Tara Austen Weaver, who was raised a vegetarian, developed thyroid issues, and was advised to eat meat by an acupuncturist (it's a journey she chronicles in her new memoir "The Butcher & the Vegetarian") claims there's no other food with which Americans are so emotionally connected. 

"People give up things all the time," she says. "Look at how many people are on gluten-free diets right now -- but it's not this personal affront. What is this love affair with meat?"

Can Veggies Be Fun?
For me, the love affair was this: Growing up, I sat down at 7 p.m. every single night to a meat-veg-starch dinner. To give up one-third of that equation would feel like giving up one-third of my family history. 

But it goes beyond that. I love to cook. As I write, the smell of a roasting chicken permeates my house; in my freezer, I have about 8 pounds of organic pork products. For me it came down to: Meat Eating=Fun, therefore Vegetarian=Boring.

But last year I was forced to rethink that formula. Not only was the chorus of pro-vegetarian heavy hitters getting too loud to ignore, but my husband was diagnosed with high cholesterol as well. So I started down the path toward significantly reducing our family's meat consumption -- and I found it led to some surprising places.

A Trip Around the World
On a bleak, leafless day in December, I was in my neighbor's kitchen sampling Sichuan peppercorns that he had briefly pan roasted and then smashed into a paste with his mortar and pestle. He hadn't eaten meat in 15 years; plus his teenage son was a newly converted vegan. 

He had been enthusiastically exploring the spices and flavors of Asian cuisines, which, he explained, are traditionally vegetable-based. The peppercorns were a revelation -- smoky and rich, spicy but in a beautiful, lingering way. 

He pulled out Fuchsia Dunlop's Sichuan cookbook "The Land of Plenty" and began pointing out his favorite recipes. Next to that cookbook was David Thompson's 688-page "Thai Food," which had worked my neighbor into a frenzy of dog-earring. Try this relish. Read this recipe. Go to this town for this sauce.

There was clearly no lack of fun in his kitchen.

He sent me home with a stack of Southeast Asian cookbooks and directions to a nearby Asian superstore. I'd probably driven past it 800 times in the six years I'd been living in the neighborhood but had never once noticed it. 

Some of my new recipes called for ingredients that sounded like what you'd find at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry -- pumpkin tendrils and bird's-eye peppers -- but all of them were available right here. I left with tamarind water, a peppery hot sauce called mala, and a can of mandarin juice. At home I stared at my bounty, and the ensuing endorphin rush ignited a cooking frenzy.

Later that week, I had a bag of gram flour procured from the local Indian market (3.2 miles away) for a recipe from Madhur Jaffrey's "World Vegetarian": chickpea flour "French fries" served with a fresh tomato sauce. The next week I was introducing my kids to Korean pa jun (scallion pancakes). How fun was this?

Reimagining Dinner (and Lunch, and Breakfast ...)
The more I talked to chefs, cookbook authors, lifelong vegetarians, "flexitarians," and hard-core vegans, the more I learned how, for almost all of them, refusing meat was never a limiting proposition. If you approach it the right way, everyone kept saying, it's the opposite; it can be a world-expanding adventure. 

Kim O'Donnel, the former "A Mighty Appetite" online columnist for The Washington Post, took a Meatless Monday pledge with her readers and says this attitude can be a smarter way in than the save-the-planet angle. 

"You don't have to label yourself something different," she says. "This is not a sacrifice -- it's a celebration. My incremental approach is more about diversifying diet than it is pushing anyone toward an ism."

While I'm not yet a wholesale vegetarian, this revelation has thrown my dinner strategizing into a tailspin. My process used to go something like this: I have some pork chops. What farmer's-market bounty might I surround them with? 

Did I have it all backward? Does every one of us majorly carnivorous Americans have it backward? Shouldn't it instead be: I have kabocha squash. What meat should I have as a side dish? Or: I have this huge bag of masoor dal. Maybe tonight's the night I debut a curried red lentil soup with yogurt.

I have also taken the Meatless Monday pledge, which I've noticed has rather insidiously begun to morph into Meatless Morning and Meatless Afternoon pledges. How far will I take it? I can't say for sure, but at this point, I'd be crazy not to keep my options open.

Text by Jenny Rosenstrach

Resources and Recipes: How to Be a Healthy Vegetarian

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