The New Vegetarianism


A delicious bunch of purple mustard greens from the New Amsterdam Market, grown in Queens.

In the past, vegetarians have extolled their dining habits with evangelistic fervor. They were often prone to wrinkle up their noses, and even make snide and pious comments, when others were scarfing flesh around them. This was always good for dramatic effect, but didn’t win many converts. In their book, you were either with them or against them, and there was no middle ground.

The fact of the matter is, eating vegetable matter in large quantities is good for you, and it’s good for the earth. Vegetarianism would receive many more adherents if gradualism were encouraged, rather than an absolutist approach. After all, if the purpose is to save animals, and conserve the earth’s dwindling resources, three-quarters of a loaf–encouraging others to incrementally decrease their consumption of meat, poultry, and fish–is much better than no loaf at all.

I’ve seen this attitude slowly come to pass. I’ve always invited vegetarians to dine with me on reviewing meals, and taken careful note of what they had to say. I’ve excoriated restaurants for not offering vegetarian options, coining the term “vegetarian friendly” (since adopted by many others), to indicate restaurants that offered a decent collection of meat-free options, rather than a single app and entree.

One fellow diner boasted, “I’m veggie at home. I only eat meat when I go out with Sietsema.” Another recently told me when I warned her that there was a chicken stock underlying an excellent squash soup, “No biggie. That doesn’t bother me. I’m just not going to eat a piece of meat or chicken.”

Much good could be done if the consumption of meat were accorded special occasion status, or even if the general population were encouraged to foreswear flesh on one or two days per week. Vegetarian and vegan organizations would accomplish much more by wielding the carrot, rather than the stick. And for their part, unreconstructed meat eaters need to stop making fun of people who bring a moral focus to what they eat.