Vegan? Vegetarian? Flexitarian? Compassionate Carnivory?

Recently I came across this quotation from the novelist and essayist (and, I believe, genius) Marilynne Robinson, given in a 2008 interview with the Paris Review:

“I’m generally a vegetarian of the ovo-lacto type, minus the ovo, yet I’m keenly aware of the fact that Hitler was a vegetarian. When he visited Mussolini in Italy he rejected the state dinner. He didn’t drink or smoke. I hold him up as an example of how an aversion virtue can be a negative sign.”

What I think Ms. Robinson is getting at is that certain virtues trump other virtues: you don’t get ethical points for being a vegetarian if strict adherence to vegetarianism means you’re going to seriously snub someone. I tend to agree: I don’t like to eat factory-farmed meat, and will avoid it if I can do so politely, but generally eat what is put in front of me if rejecting it means rejecting someone’s hospitality.

(On the other hand, when it comes to factory-farmed ground beef, I’m willing to risk being perceived as a little rude on behalf of my kids; the scary strain of e.coli can wreak tragic havoc on small bodies.)

I strongly respect people who, for various reasons, take a stricter approach to ethically-motivated dietary preferences, and take on projects like vegan Thanksgiving side dishes for my aunt and her partner with delight. It’s fun to figure out how to swap out animal-based ingredients and still make something delicious. (Sweet Potato Casserole WORKS with coconut milk, I am telling you!)

And, though I am pretty much omnivorous these days (thanks largely to living in a place where the meat is NOT factory farmed and I can afford it), I have had very long stretches of vegetarianism and near-vegetarianism. But I think the case for eating LESS and BETTER meat is pretty strong.

For all that, though, to the extent that I will ever speculate about what, exactly, God’s kingdom in its complete perfection looks like–which isn’t much–I do feel pretty sure that it is wholly nonviolent, and, yes, that we’ll all be happily vegetarian, if not vegan.

But that’s not a present reality, or one that is even feasible or optimal for certain people in the world. Inuit people traditionally take almost ALL their calories from animals, and there’s not really another sustainable, affordable option. People living on tight budgets get protein from government cheese and SPAM.

How do we think through these issues theologically and biblically? I have some ideas, which I’ve shared elsewhere on this blog (for example, here) and which I’ve written about in this piece at the (truly lovely) indie online magazine, Catapult.

(And, of course, in my book.)

You may also like:

“There’s Really No Such Thing As Eating Guilt Free”

“From Vegetarianism to Fasting” (by Steve Thorngate at the Christian Century)

On Paper Towels and Bacon and Veganism” (by Katherine Willis Pershey at Any Day A Beautiful Change)


WE LIKE MEAT! (& The Food Matters Cookbook)

{Yes, I’m still away! This review of Mark Bittman’s Food Matters Cookbook originally appeared in the Spring 2011 issue of Flourish magazine.}

My family and I love meat. If the answer to “what’s for dinner?” is remotely carnivorous, my sons and husband are thrilled, and, I must say, I am too. During each of my pregnancies, I craved nothing so much as meat, especially red meat. But I’m also a little wary of meat, for lots of reasons—namely, the environmental destruction caused by factory farming, the treatment of meatpacking workers that isn’t any better today than it was when Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle, the health risks that are associated with eating too much meat—particularly the factory farmed kind—as well as the more acute risk of E coli O157:H7.

Both on my own and with my family, I’ve had extended periods of de facto vegetarianism—but I still love meat. And I think that there are some good reasons for continuing to eat it, although I try only to eat meat from animals that have been raised and slaughtered in ways that are responsible and humane. Of course, the price of this kind of meat accurately reflects its value, so we eat much less of it. Cooking and eating this way makes sense to us, and it’s making sense to more and more people—“flexitarians”—who choose to consciously limit their intake of meat while not foregoing it altogether.

Vegetarian cookbooks are of value to flexitarian types, in large part because they invite you to reconsider what a good meal looks like. For many Americans, a meal without meat seems incomplete, because meat is so often cooked and served as the “main” dish, while veggies and starches are “side dishes.” Mashed potatoes and broccoli seem lonely without a slab of animal protein to keep them company; sometimes people turning toward vegetarianism look to commercially produced meat substitutes to fill that gap. But those products are not always so healthy, they can be expensive, and as anyone who has eaten Quorn can tell you, they’re not guaranteed to be incredibly appetizing.

That’s where vegetarian cookbooks like Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone or Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Vegetarian come in—showing you that great meals don’t have to center around meat or meat substitutes. But what about those of us who don’t want to be vegetarian, but simply to eat more fruits, veggies, and whole grains and eat meat in moderation?

Bittman’s newest offering, The Food Matters Cookbook, does just that; it’s a treasury of more than 500 less-meat (but not meatless!) recipes following up on his 2009 book Food Matters, which told the story of Bittman’s own culinary conversion. Despite having been a professional food writer for nearly 30 years, despite even having written a vegetarian cookbook, at age 57, Bittman was 35 pounds overweight with high cholesterol, high blood sugar, sleep apnea, and serious knee problems. His doctor told him to go vegan, and go vegan he did: for breakfast and lunch. He still eats like an omnivore for dinner, but he’s changed the overall way he eats—many more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, much less meat, dairy, sugar, and anything that isn’t “real food.” At the same time, Bittman became aware of the multiple environmental concerns surrounding meat production and processed food (producing one can of calorie-free diet soda consumes 2,200 calories of energy.) Happily, on his new way of eating, Bittman saw his health improve—and those of us who watched his weekly videos at were able to see him grow much thinner and younger-looking in a relatively short span of time. Now, we can enjoy many of the recipes that helped him get there.

The best thing about Bittman’s recipes in general—and this book in particular—is that he teaches you how to substitute things to suit your tastes and what you may have on hand, and how to use one technique in various ways: One recipe, not three, shows you how to make baked tortilla chips, pita chips, and croutons. (“I think these might change my life,” my dad said of the tortilla chips. They were delicious.)

In this book he also offers guidance on choosing and substituting seasonally and locally available produce and tells you when you can substitute frozen vegetables, which is handy, since frozen vegetables can actually be a tastier, healthier, and more sustainable option in the winter months. Sweet Potato and Corn Fritters with Thai Dipping Sauce made with frozen corn brought a bit of sunshine into our winter meals, and we’ve eaten more variations on the whole-grain Sweet Potato Muffins than I can remember—carrot and spice, blueberry (from frozen blueberries), and coconut are just a few among them. Bittman also explains how to omit or include small amounts of meat or fish in many dishes.

While culinary professionals and purists sometimes criticize Bittman for supposed sloppiness, one of the things I value highly in this cookbook is the effort he has put into making wholesome home cooking accessible, easy, and fun: The Chipotle Black Bean Quinoa, for example, takes only a little while to put together and is healthy, delicious, and economical; Chickpea Tagine with Bulgur and Chicken was similarly simple and unusually tasty. And it’s hard not to love recipes like Vegetables au Vin with Coq, Chili con poco Carne, and the TLB: Tomato, Lettuce, and Bacon Sandwiches—recipes that take old favorites and retool them for those who, like me, want to continue to enjoy meat—but for the sake of creation, humanity, and health—not too much of it.