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September 2006
You Be The Vegetarian
By Martin Rowe

   

 

As a publisher, I look forward to and dread trends. I’ll explain why in a moment, but the trend I’ve noticed recently is the enormous number of books being published on what might loosely be called food politics. There’s Marion Nestle’s What We Eat (North Point), Jim Mason and Peter Singer’s The Way We Eat (Rodale), Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma (Penguin), Nina Planck’s Real Food: What to Eat and Why (Bloomsbury), Eric Schlosser and Charles Wilson’s Chew on This! (Houghton Mifflin), and Grub by Anna Lappé and Bryant Terry (Tarcher)—and that’s just in the first six months of 2006.

As the titles themselves show, Americans are looking for guidance and authenticity. They’re confused and they want their food choices demystified. Their consciences have been pricked and they want them salved. These books are admirably direct: Nestle takes the reader around a supermarket; Mason and Singer provide an analysis of the life-choices of three families; Pollan samples four different kinds of meals; Grub is full of recipes; Planck knows how to negotiate farmers’ markets; and Schlosser and Wilson are down with the kids. It’s the kind of practical knowledge that busy consumers, who really don’t want to think too hard about their food choices, can digest easily and feel good as they go about their over-scheduled lives.

Now, back to the anticipation and the dread. It’s good that all these books are out there, because the subject of our food choices might be treated with a bit more respect, and the information provided by the authors is useful, sometimes compelling, and occasionally challenging. But the dread, of course, for a publisher, is that your book will be by-passed in favor of another. Right now it seems as though Pollan’s book is getting all the attention. And that’s a shame, because his view, while beautifully expressed, is only one among many.

As the title suggests, Pollan is an omnivore himself. He wants to eat everything, but to do so sustainably and with a conscience. He abhors industrial farming—for its waste, pollution, and appalling treatment of animals—and he’s skeptical about big organic farms that may be organic in name only. He’s got no problem with vegetarianism, as long as it’s not thought of as a genuine option for the U.S., or for him. He also feels that vegetarians miss out on the cultural benefits of eating meat, of being part of a heritage, and that they’re rude because they cause their hosts such trouble.

Well, these are more a set of reactions than an argument, but Pollan’s book did cause me to reflect on another trend I’ve noticed—one also full of anticipation and dread. I call it YBTV: You Be The Vegetarian. First the anticipation: In my experience the old questions of “What about protein?” or “Won’t the world be overrun with cows?” are no longer being asked when you say you’re a vegetarian. Now you get a wry smile, a slight tilt of the head, and something like the following: “That’s great. I used to be a vegetarian, but then I had a health issue,” or “That’s great. I wish I could be as good as you,” or “I’m almost a vegetarian, but I love chicken.” Now the dread: All of these statements actually mean one thing: “That’s great—for you. Me: I’m not open to persuasion, least of all on questions of morality or diet. Sure, it may be more sustainable and it’s good not to take part in factory farming. But, right now, I am where I am and you are where you are, and that’s the way it’s going to be. You be the vegetarian.”

So, it’s good that vegetarianism is so mainstream that it’s no longer a cause of shock-horror looks or bafflement. It’s good that so many venues offer vegetarian options. But in the process of being accepted, vegetarianism has become merely another lifestyle, another part of the supermarket of personal choices that all these books attempt to guide us around—good for you but not good for me.

No less a place than Kripalu Yoga Center, for instance, founded by a vegetarian and for the last couple of decades a haven of healthy vegetarian food in a spiritually polluted world, is now offering meat to its retreatants. Cook, Deb Howard is, she says, “excited about helping us all go the next step in our spiritual maturity by making responsible dietary decisions for ourselves and creating an atmosphere of embracing individual choices and nutritional needs.” Or, to translate, “You Be The Vegetarian.” It’s clear that, although the omnivores may be baffled and stressed out by the messages they’re getting about food (thus the need for these books and, probably, Kripalu), they don’t want to do anything that will make them stand out or, God forbid, change them. Their dread that they’ll be thought bad guests trumps their interest in eating with conscience.

I’m not sure what the answer is. The complexities of the bioindustrial and globalized food industry are huge, and vegetarians’ answer to omnivores can’t just be “Just try some vegan cake. Then you’ll understand.” Vegetarians have to be more sophisticated, to integrate their vegetarianism into a politicized worldview where the principles of sustainability and nonviolence mean that, yes, sometimes, the latest soy ice cream or vegan restaurant isn’t the only thing on the conversational menu. It’s a worldview that I think Satya espouses—one that is challenging the mainstream to move beyond vegetarianism without making it about eating meat, if you see what I mean. It may simply be an excuse for a terrible pun, but I hope that such a worldview and that of the omnivores can cross-Pollanate soon.

Martin Rowe is the co-founder of Satya and the publisher at Lantern Books.


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