Please Hold the Broccoli: a Vegetarian Manifesto
Ask me which is the most misunderstood, derided and generally knocked-about minority in America, and I'll surprise you with my answer: vegetarians.
As a member of the oppressed group, I say that with conviction - and with faint hope of righting things. I might as well try persuading Laura Bush to serve tofu at a state dinner. Oh, it's not that you carnivores bear us veggies any actual malice (unless you've invited twelve people to a barbeque and one says, "by the way, I never touch meat, fish, cheese or eggs.") No, aside from a few minor flare-ups, most of you view us with the same bemused tolerance you reserve for members of the Flat Earth Society. We don't mind that. What raises our hackles is your total ignorance of what we're about and - getting to the meat of the problem - what we eat.
To begin, let us glance over that vast thicket of philosophy, ethics and cooking savvy vaguely termed The Vegetarian Alternative (the hows, whys and wherefores).
When confronted by a vegetarian, meateaters almost invariably pose two questions, the first being, "How can you live on just vegetables?" followed closely by a suspicious "Why won't you eat meat?" (They often preface the latter with an incredulous "You mean you really don't eat any meat?" as though I must surely have a secret cache of T-bones in my basement freezer.)
The answer to the first question is simple: I don't. And, with the possible exception of a few Indian yogis, I don't think anyone else does, either. I eat a balanced diet of grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, fruits and vegetables - plus a few items you may have never heard of, such as tempeh and miso. And, since I'm what's known as an ovo-lacto vegetarian, I also enjoy eggs and dairy products.
Why am I a vegetarian? I could act indignant and tell you that the produce from 50% of America's harvested acreage goes to feed livestock, that it takes 16 pounds of grain fed to a steer to produce one pound of meat…and that a lot of people in this world are starving. I could bemoan the slaughter of innocent animals. Or I could remind you of the antibiotics, hormones and other drugs enough to make a hypochondriac envious, all injected into that piece of beefsteak you had for supper. But what good would all those explanations do? You'd only scoff. So I'll just smile and quote George Bernard Shaw: "Sensitive people don't eat corpses."
Maybe not, but the majority of you insensitive people are hard put to find anything else to offer us. Take away your prime rib, your lamb chops, your Sole Florentine and your chicken croquettes, and you're convinced there's nothing left to eat. "You vegetarians are sure dedicated, to live like that," you say with a sigh, either amused or pitying, depending upon your nature. (There is an almost universal notion that we survive on rabbit food, washed down with herb tea.)
The truth is, most of us veggies are outgoing, friendly souls. We also have discriminating palates and keenly developed taste buds. We love to be asked over for an evening of good food and good fellowship.
I've found that nonvegetarians faced with cooking for vegetarians fall neatly into two categories: Casual and Concerned. The Casual Cook thinks a vegetarian is no more difficult to feed than her son's hamster. Consider, if you will, this conversation:
"Why don't you join us for supper tomorrow night?"
"I'd love to! But, well, you know I'm a vegetarian…."
"Oh, that's no problem. I'll toss some extra salad."
This cavalier attitude would shock the Concerned Cook. She views vegetarianism as being an affliction, like being hard of hearing. In both cases, the answer is "more." Deaf folks must be shouted at. Vegetarians must be force-fed quantities of peas and carrots. Or, if the cook is really imaginative, and deeply Concerned, broccoli. (I can't explain this obsession with broccoli, but it's been served to me by every Concerned nonvegetarian I've ever had dinner with. must be the vitamins.)
Shall we just eat out, you say? Going to a restaurant doesn't end a veggie's tribulations. Sometime it makes things worse. Nonvegetarian friends mean well, anyway.
True, vegetarian eating establishments are springing up like shiitake mushrooms all over the country, and even their more staid brethren are altering their menus to include a nonmeat dish or two, with some cute name like "Veggie's Delight" or "Veg Mac." But all too many places lack even that ubiquitous American horror, the grilled processed cheese food on white bread sandwich (an old standby for desperate vegetarians.) We are forced to order a la cart (expensive) or from odd corners of the menu (hardship indeed; I once made a meal of salad, fried mushrooms, hushpuppies, apple juice and cheesecake.)
We vegetarians are a peaceful lot. Since we're not full of animal flesh and adrenalin, we don't raise a ruckus when you treat us like overgrown gerbils. I admit we act a bit superior from time to time ("People are starving in Bangladesh because of that steak you're eating!") but we're willing to coexist. All we ask is your understanding…and a decent meal. Give us our stir-fried tofu, our whole-grain breads, our black bean soup, our peanut soufflé, and we'll be happy. And oh yes, please hold the broccoli.
Statistics quoted are from Frances Moore Lappé, Diet For a Small Planet (New York: Balantine Books, revised edition, 1975).