Vegetarian Cookbooks For Carnivores

Chefs are rapidly turning vegetables into the cash cow of the cookbook trade. Illustration by Serge Bloch.

Chefs are rapidly turning vegetables into the cash cow of the cookbook trade. Illustration by Serge Bloch.

If you are a New Yorker subscriber and a foodie, you look forward to the Food issue, which comes out in November each year, and anything written, at any time, by Jane Kramer. For good reason, the latter. Case in point:

Three years ago, I retired the chili party that I used to give in Italy at the end of August. This was a shame, because I liked my party, and thought that the chili made a nice reprieve from the ubiquitous barbecues of summer. Two of the twenty-four regulars at my party were vegetarians—one reluctantly, under a doctor’s orders. A doable number, it seemed to me: for years, I put out a bowl of pasta al pesto just for them. Then, from one chili party to the next, everything changed. 

Seven formerly enthusiastic carnivores called to say they had stopped eating meat entirely, and would like to join my vegetarians for the pesto. Worse, on the night of that final party, four of the remaining carnivores carried their plates to the kitchen table, ignoring the cubes of beef and pancetta, smoky and fragrant in their big red bean pot, and headed for my dwindling supply of pasta. “Stop!” I cried. “That’s for the vegetarians!” Aggrieved, they replied, as in one voice, “But we’re kind of vegetarian now.” Some have yet to forgive me for scooping the pasta off their plates.

Until that summer, the only books I had read about food proscriptions and taboos were Leviticus and Deuteronomy, those inadvertently comic masterpieces of the Old Testament, so addictive that I keep copies on my laptop. But since then I have collected a stack of vegetarian food histories with names like “Eat Not This Flesh” (by Frederick J. Simoons), “The Heretic’s Feast” (Colin Spencer), and “The Bloodless Revolution” (Tristram Stuart), from which I’ve learned, first, that people have been arguing about eating animals since the day they began eating or, more to the point, not eating them, and, second, that the history of their arguments is a hermeneutical minefield. Take your pick. There is the ascetic argument, which can be religious (monks, holy men, and hermits, attached to the discipline of renunciation), or the philosophical one (as old as Pythagoras, whose belief in the transmigration of souls is said to have led generations of like-minded Greeks to follow a “Pythagorean diet”), or the mystical one (shamans, saints, and quantum physicists, searching for the ecstatic union or trippy oblivion produced by hunger hallucinations). Then there is the natural-man argument, which Rousseau, with a nod to Plutarch, used in making the claim that eating meat was an aberration, a sustained assault on the innocence and empathy of childhood, and produced “cruel and ferocious” people, like the English. (English vegetarians preferred “like the Tartars.”) There is the caste, or “spiritual identity,” argument, like the one advanced by Brahmans who renounced flesh in order to distinguish themselves, in matters of high-mindedness and noble breeding, from the hungry poor. There is the ethical, or animal-rights, argument, which holds that the pain and terror suffered by slaughter animals is morally indefensible. There is also the health argument (doctors and nutritionists, alarmed by the rise in illness and obesity in a high-fat Big Mac world), and the carbon-footprint argument (environmentalists, equally alarmed by the amount of energy consumed, and ozone layer depleted, by the livestock industry that feeds that world).

Then there are the subsets of rejection. There are the orthodox Jains, who will eat the visible sprouts and leaves of root vegetables but not the roots themselves—which is to say, they will eat plants but not “kill” plants. There are the vegans, who will refuse not only animal flesh but anything that living animals produce, including honey (because it comes from bees), eggs, milk, and, by extension, cheese. Some vegetarians will refuse fish but happily consume oysters, clams, and mussels—on the ground that those mollusks, having neither eyes nor a central nervous system, do not qualify as “real” animals, capable of feeling. The list goes on, because at the end of the day vegetarianism turns out to be a highly idiosyncratic spectrum. It runs from the strictest vegans to the “kind of vegetarian” vegetarians, who will eat fish and occasionally chicken, and even indulge themselves, once a year, in a Christmas rib roast, to the ladies who lettuce-leaf lunch and their stick-figure daughters, dreaming of a size-0 dress, who will ram their fingers down their throats in order to throw up whatever meat they are made to eat.

I’m not a vegetarian. I would describe myself as a cautious carnivore. The “cautious” dates from a trip to Texas in the mid-seventies, for a book that introduced me to the pitiable state of industrial feedlot cattle, crammed into pens to be fattened on quasi-chemical feed laced with antibiotics and hormones, to say nothing of the frantic baying of ranch yearlings driven through chutes to be branded and cut by cowhands, their testicles fed to the foreman’s dogs. Not much later, I was in Europe watching the tubal force-feeding of French ducks and geese, for foie gras. But the truth is that I worried much more about myself than about those animals. What drugs and diseases was I ingesting when I ate their meat? For that matter, what waste was I consuming with fish bred and raised in the dirty waters of industrial fish farms? Today, I buy organic meat and chicken and milk and eggs, and the fishmonger at Citarella knows me as the woman who calls and says, “I don’t want it if it’s not wild.” (You can’t win this one, given the size of the dragnet fleets now depleting nearly every marine habitat on the planet.)

That said, I am unlikely ever to give up my applewood breakfast bacon, or the smoked salmon on my bagels, or the prosciutto that’s always in my fridge. A week ago, I read about an Ibérico tasting in the Financial Times. It had reminded the writer of an episode of the British sitcom “The Royle Family,” in which the son invites a vegetarian girlfriend home for dinner and nobody knows what to feed her until his grandmother suggests, “Very thinly sliced ham.” I’m with the grandmother, and should add that Spain’s Ibérico pigs lead pampered and pristine lives in oak forests, feasting on tasty acorns…

Read the whole article here.

3 thoughts on “Vegetarian Cookbooks For Carnivores

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