The Catskill Animal Sanctuary in Saugerties recently hosted the Valley’s first Vegan Lifestyle Festival, offering attendees a chance to discover how diverse, tasty and interesting vegan food can be. We can assume that the event attracted animal lovers, but many people who love animals still eat them. Me, for one, I sadly admit.
Only about four percent of the U.S. population is vegetarian. Even knowing that a meat-heavy diet is bad for us, dreadful for the planet, and a living hell for factory-farmed animals, most of us still eat meat. But revelations about pink slime and the other unhealthy aspects of food pumped full of hormones and antibiotics have reduced meat consumption in this country by a startling 12 percent since 2007 – a figure that amounts to several billion fewer animals that had to suffer. Couple that with the increase of more interesting (and international) vegetarian cuisine and it’s a good start toward a better world.
Mark Bittman, a food columnist for the New York Times, recently published a book called VB6, in which he describes how he’s a vegan before six p.m. (VB6 for short), and then eats whatever he wants, in moderation. He came up with the plan six years ago, when he was 40 pounds overweight, pre-diabetic, with high-cholesterol, and didn’t want to spend the rest of his life on medication. He swiftly lost weight, controlled his blood sugar, and feels great. Such a regimen, he points out, makes you generally more conscious of what you put in your mouth.
Like Bittman, I’m a “flexitarian,” someone who’s mostly vegetarian who eats meat on occasion — and I gladly fork over whatever it costs for humanely raised meats. I can hear dedicated vegans hissing at me for this wishy-washy approach, but if it’s all or nothing, most of us will do nothing. When I mentioned to a vegan acquaintance that I didn’t think I could ever give up cheese, he cheerfully replied, “Then don’t.” So I’m a flexitarian on the path to becoming a cheese-atarian. And I’m getting so adept at vegetarian (sometimes cheese-laden) dishes, my still-carnivorous husband is happy to eat meatless meals for days in a row. I’m not sure he even notices.
Surprisingly, given all the good news about plant-based diets, there’s still a perception that vegetarians are some kind of Birkenstock-clad, nuts-and-berries-noshing fringe element. As I was writing this, a friend who’s invited us for dinner e-mailed to ask if vegetarian food would be OK with us. She and her husband are good cooks who are willing to devote hours to making dinner, so why the apologetic tone? A few months ago, the Washington Post’s food editor, Joe Yonan, caused a little kerfuffle when he “came out” as a vegetarian — and had to remind everyone that it wouldn’t prevent him from doing his job. So, vegans, vegetarians and fussy fellow flexitarians weaning yourselves off meat: let’s not apologize for making smart and compassionate decisions about food. And let’s politely ask for more choices in restaurants. No more cobbling together three side dishes for dinner.
P.S.: There are a zillion vegetarian cookbooks out there. Among my favorites are Greens by Deborah Madison, The Best Meatless Mediterranean Dishes by Susann Geiskopf, and Vegan Soups and Hearty Stews for All Seasons by Valley resident Nava Atlas. The Catskill Animal Sanctuary offers classes in Compassionate Cooking, and there are recipes at the Web site casanctuary.org. Eat your vegetables!