Our Missing Vegetarian Lexicon and the Infantilizing of the American Palate

February 15, 2011 · 23 comments

What would you do with these vegetables?

You remember the 1970s, don’t you?

That blissful time of communes and collectives and peaceniks, of lentil nut loaf and bland steamed vegetables and birdseed-like undercooked millet and flavorless “health bread” so dense that it could be used as ballast on the Queen Mary. Then came the books: Laurel’s Kitchen (who was Laurel, and where is she now?), and Mollie Katzen’s ground-breaking bestseller The Moosewood Cookbook, that had vegetarians and wannabes cooking up things like zuccanoes and hummus using extraordinary, carotid artery-exploding quantities of fats and dairy.

In the late 1970s and early 80s, rumors flew around the New York restaurant community about Greens in San Francisco, where founding chef Deborah Madison elevated vegetarian cuisine to an entirely new, utterly remarkable level. All the while, I, a student at Boston University, was relegated to eating things like sprout-and-mashed-tofu-heavy East West Lasagna, and “chik’n surprise” every night in the vegetarian dining room, where they served 200 pale, thin kids instead of the 1,200 hamburger-munching carnivores who mobbed the general university cafeterias for dinner.

Twenty years after I graduated, we were all starting to talk about organics; then came the local food movement in the 2000s, and Alice Waters, followed by the battle cry for healthier meals in schools. After them came the crowd that said eating vegetarian wasn’t enough—not enough for us, not enough for the planet, and not enough for the egg chickens and the dairy cows (who, even stamped with the organic label, would still have, respectively, their beaks removed and their male calves sold for veal). Then came veganism, the cause being led by everyone from the hipster contingent among us, to Mark Bittman, to Jonathan Safran Foer. And it’s only now that some Americans are taking on Bittman’s burden of vegan-till-dusk, a lifestyle that supposedly allows one to eat whatever the hell one wants once the sun goes down, and still feel pretty good about it. And now, we’ve got Oprah and her staff of 378 to thank for pushing veganism beyond the parameters of the NY Times-reading, NPR-listening crowd (of which I am a card-carrying member): challenged to be vegans for a week, 300 of the original 378 Oprah staffers who signed up for the program finished it, losing a remarkable total of 444 pounds in the process. And what did they eat? A diet of processed, faux-meat products shaped and formed to act, look, taste like, and ultimately, replace meat. As one blogger said, where exactly were the vegetables? Where were the grains? If you look at the USDA food pyramid, is there a slot for Kraft-owned Boca Burgers, or soy cheese that melts just like Kraft American singles?

We want Americans to eat less meat and more vegetables and grains,  so what do we do? We riff on Jessica Seinfeld’s Deceptively Delicious, and infantilize them; we feed them what they’re used to: hamburgers and hotdogs made from compressed wheat meat or GMO-laden, soy-based tofu, and tell them “no really, it’ll taste the same. You won’t even know the difference.”

Why not insist that those taking part in this experiment eat the very things that define vegetarianism—vegetables—instead of more processed junk? It’s not  because there’s some evil, veggie-burger-making mega-corporation behind the project (although the GMO soybeans  processed to make some of the “food” may be produced by one). It’s because most of us don’t know what to do with vegetables to make them interesting, crave-worthy, and delicious. And those of us who implore Americans to start eating more vegetables forget this point: collectively, we’re vegetable idiots. And until we learn, we’ll be gobbling down more processed, meatfree junk in the name of health and the earth rather than eating the fresh stuff that must be prepared and cooked.

Vegetables are simply not a part of the American culinary lexicon: give a man a kohlrabi and he won’t know what to do with it. Give a man a steak, and he will. In this nation, built on the backs of the cattle industry, vegetables have almost always been relegated to a secondary or tertiary spot on the dinner plate, assuming they’ve shown up at all. Brussels sprouts and peas — canned, frozen, and cooked until gray and lifeless — were, if you were faced with them as a child, for throwing, or for burying under cold mashed potatoes. Carrots—cut into rounds and overcooked—were bland and flaccid and palate-anesthetizing. Bad things would happen to you, digestively speaking, if you ate undercooked cauliflower, and let’s not even go near cabbage, even after your mother boiled it for three hours.  And the aforementioned kohlrabi? Forget it.

Compare this to the role of vegetables on the Asian or Mediterranean plate: you can eat Asian food — Malaysian, Indian, Vietnamese, Thai, Chinese — morning, noon, and night, and never once eat a meat protein and never once miss it because the food (not labeled vegetarian or vegan or gluten-free; it just is what it is) combines a wallop of flavor with texture and often, heartiness. It’s easy to be a vegetarian or a vegan in Asia because it’s a commonplace existence rather than a personal label linked to politics, or health, or both. It’s meat that’s a rarity, and soy-based meat-like substances don’t exist at all. By comparison, what would the American vegetarian lexicon look like if we were to describe it? Frozen patties meant to simulate meat—the very thing we’re wanting to eat less of, or eliminate completely.

So how to truly effect a major change in this multi-lingual nation of ours, and to get people from the youngest of ages to start speaking vegetable vernacular like a language (even if they aren’t destined to become vegetarians or vegans)? Start at the grade school level. Forget home economics and the in-school cooking classes that are starting to mercifully crop up all over the country. Instead, make botanical education a part of the earth science curriculum that virtually every American kid has to sit through in 8th grade and pass; then link that botanical education to the hands-on, practical act of cooking. Make them required classes so that not one graduating American kid leaves school without the basic knowledge of what a stalk of broccoli is, where it came from, and what to do with it.

It’s been a long time since I ate lentil nut loaf, that tannish, doorstop-weight amalgam of legumes glued together with a dozen eggs  and meant to fool my hopeful palate into believing that it was really tasting my grandmother’s meatloaf. In my home, those days are gone, forever replaced by market bags filled with the colorful, robustly-flavored vegetables that we eat every night.

Our grocery bill has shrunk substantially, as have our waists.

{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

1 elizabeth February 15, 2011 at 4:25 pm

That Oprah list has left me speechless–I love that the first one used “veggie” meatballs as a substitute when at least in my eyes the more obvious one would be to use spaghetti squash! It all resembles a vegan version of a certain Food Network show that encourages you to combine store-bought with fresh ingredients…

Completely in agreement about better food education for everyone, starting with kids. Diana Kennedy said something similar not too long ago that you might enjoy reading (I thought the reporter missed the point, but reading her quotes made up for it): http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/01/11/AR2011011103354_2.html

2 Vanessa February 15, 2011 at 10:06 pm

If only they would teach home ec classes in school again! Most kids these days don’t even know how to boil water let alone boil an egg or veggies. Nuking some sort of frozen, processed food-like item is the extent of their cooking skills. I wouldn’t care if it were vegetarian, vegan or carnivore, if only these kids would learn how to cook using fresh ingredients. Until then, we have truly lost the war against the waistline (and diabetes, high blood pressure, malnutrition and all those other ills.)

3 Angela FRS February 16, 2011 at 9:17 am

Absolutely beautiful article. I am so tired of vegetarian food that is meant to mimic “meat” and suffers as a result. Real food, people.

4 Virginia Goodings February 16, 2011 at 10:10 am

The author makes a good point, and I am learning. But please do not make those of us who have made the choice not to eat meat and still use Bocca or Morningstar or Yves or Gardein substitutes, feel guilty. It is better than eating dead animals. And, at least in my case, I spent 55 years of my life eating the old way. It takes time. Educate us, don’t diss us!

5 edie February 16, 2011 at 10:34 am

Yes, the next generation must learn about food, and how to cook it.
The ‘home ec’ programs need to teach the basics of soup and stew making, veggie preparation, grain cookery – not how to make chocolate chip cookies and pretzels!
Love this post!

6 amelia from z tasty life February 16, 2011 at 10:56 am

this is a very well written (and needed) manifesto for a more plant-based diet. I am from Italy but live in the US and am shocked at how low the vegetables rank on the tables and on the palates. I have been giving my children (since before birth) vegetables daily. When they were babies I made vegetable “potage” (basically a soup of vegetables that was then blended to puree consistency…so easy) daily and they have (I think because of exposure and variety) since been vegetable lovers (they are un-picky eaters because I chose to serve them what we as parents were eating and not to cater them with sweet-bland-processed-unhealthy foods). They love greens. They eat raw fennel for a snack. They are always curious to try something new from the market. They enjoy worldy cuisines, and we are ok taking them to any restaurant with us and ordering only from the adult menu (never from the kids one). It’s a matter of education and exposure, as you well say. And yes, we need a lexicon. Vegetables are beautiful, healthy and tasty… we just need to learn how to prepare them. And how to buy them too. We need to fill our grocery cart with vegetables first…then last with the rest.
Thank you for sharing your thoughts and spreading the voice.

“‘Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants” ~ Michael Pollan

7 Elissa February 16, 2011 at 11:04 am

Hi Virginia,
Many thanks for taking the time to post on Poor Man’s Feast.

Indeed, you are right; it does take time, and it is better than eating dead animals (and I know how hard it is—I fight that battle with myself every day, and little by little, I’m getting there). What irked me was the fact that eating a vegan diet was set up as a health-related challenge among the Oprah staffers, who previously ate hamburgers, hotdogs, etc etc etc, which were in turn replaced by faux versions of the real thing. I would have hoped that the challenge included lessons in preparing fresh food because, alas, many veggie burgers and veggie dogs, fakin bacon, etc etc are overly processed, packed with sodium, sugar, and are often made from GMO soybeans, which are riddled with chemicals. If we look at it from a purely moral point of view, you are absolutely correct: at least you’re not eating dead animals. If you look at it from a health point of view, it sort of feels like robbing Peter to pay Paul. The answer? Teaching those same 300+ people how to cook fresh vegetables and grains, and make spectacularly delicious food.

I apologize if I offended you in any way; it was not my intention.

Many thanks again for reading.
Elissa Altman

8 Jenn Sutherland February 16, 2011 at 1:25 pm

*standing ovation* Thank you for this well written post…I hope that as more of us foodies and bloggers stand up in favor of eating real, whole foods that there will be a rippling effect to create real behavioral change in how we eat as a nation. I know that most people aren’t interested in cooking as much as I do, but I think we need some Food Super Heroes to help us remember the beauty of a simple foods and that anyone can achieve better health through spending time at the stove together…and that it can be more fun than any video game.

9 Elissa February 16, 2011 at 1:34 pm

Hi Jenn, Thank you for such a lovely comment. Elissa

10 Elissa February 16, 2011 at 1:35 pm

Can I come live with YOU? Thanks so much Amelia.

11 Julia February 16, 2011 at 2:57 pm

So very well said! Thank you.

To those who are put off by getting “dissed” for relying on Boca burgers and Yves crumbles: was your choice to stop eating animal products an effort to get closer to your food — and thus your body, the earth, the animals? If your meals are still coming from a box in freezer, you’re not moving in that direction.

12 coleen February 16, 2011 at 4:07 pm

Excellent article. Speaking from personal experience, I became vegetarian 2 years ago, out of disgust with factory farming practices. At 39 years old, with manly man for a husband, and 2 kids who were quite used to our “old style of eating” (we ate alot less meat than your average family, but still, many meals centered around it, with the veggies or grains as an aside, and the grains were typically quite white) I tried once prior to go vegetarian, and gave up after a few months because I was starving. I ran out of things to make, or the fortitude to keep learning new things, in order to make it work. I think what I hadn’t anticipated was in giving up meat, it would mean entirely relearning everything I ever knew about cooking, if I wanted to feel any type of satisfaction from eating. The second time around, when I finally did make becoming vegetarian work, I was only able to pull it off through the use of fake meats. Granted, it is still processed food, but it met my goal, which was not to contribute to the suffering of animals and factory farms.
That all said, I rarely use them now. In 2 years I have learned alot. I have discovered countless foods I’ve never heard of, had a hard time finding, didn’t even know what I was looking for at first, and have had to visit many stores with no luck to finally find a store which carried said item. It’s been hard work to entirely change what was a basic foundation of my life, how I cook and feed my family, but I am very glad I’ve done it. I feel I put a significant amount more time into cooking now, which can be difficult with kids at home, but 2 years into it, I continue to enjoy the adventure. I still have a long way to go.
My overall point got lost in my rambling, but what i wanted to say is those fake meats should not be what sustains a vegetarian diet, but for a family on the go who needs a quick dinner, or a meat eater who wants to go vegetarian but has no idea how, it’s a good way to break into this new world, and I think many people just use those meats as a stepping stone to tide them over as they learn how to truly eat vegetarian.
In a fast food world, with a family on the go, if you are making the effort to really cook properly with vegetables , grains and legumes most of the time, no harm in fake meat for those pinches when you need “fast food”

13 Chris February 16, 2011 at 5:58 pm

It’s meat that’s a rarity, and soy-based meat-like substances don’t exist at all.

In fact, seitan was first developed in China and Japan; as was tofu. Tempeh is fermented soy beans. You can make your own seitan at home instead of purchasing store bought products. I’m tired of omnivores chastising vegans and vegetarians for eating foods they only know as packaged. If they actually tried the wonderful dishes that are in the best vegan cookbooks (like Veganomicon) maybe they would see these foods fit into an overall meat-free lifestyle. It’s variety that’s the important factor in any healthy diet.

14 Elissa February 16, 2011 at 6:36 pm

I’m not sure what you mean when you say

It’s meat that’s a rarity, and soy-based meat-like substances don’t exist at all.

In fact, meat *needs* to be a rarity.

I do absolutely agree with you about the indisputable lineages of seitan, tofu, and tempeh; the only thing is that in Asia, they are served as seitan, tofu, and tempeh….not compressed and hyper-processed to look and taste like a Big Mac.

I also totally agree with you about Veganomicon, which is a spectacular book (which I use on occasion….imagine me, an omnivore, cooking vegan!). And if you look at the table of contents, you’ll see that Isa and Terry include three very important sections BEFORE getting into the recipes: How to Cook a Vegetable; How to Cook a Grain; and How to Cook a Bean. All of those instructions were completely absent from Oprah’s experiment. If you turn to page 96 of Veganomican, the authors have a great recipe for black bean burgers. They could have called them patties, or flattened croquettes. Either way, the ingredients speak for themselves: black beans, bread crumbs, spices—the sum of which make an absolutely delicious vegetarian dish. I’d have been delighted to see THESE show up on the Oprah diet….because they’re made up of Real Food. But frozen patties and fakin’ bacon and on and on? No. Veganism and vegetariansim are both about eating delicious, natural foods devoid of animal products….and not processed into oblivion.

15 Mary Jo February 17, 2011 at 9:34 am

I agree with you, Elissa. Eat real vegetables and appreciate them for what they are, not as ‘reasonable (not really) facsimiles’ of hot dogs, bacon, etc. I feel the same way about the plethora of fat free products also available in the marketplace. Learn to eat less of those things that you perceive to be ‘bad’ for you and learn to savor the flavor when you do have a bit of real butter, real cheese etc.

I really enjoy your blog, Elissa. You always make me think, usually make me smile and inevitably make me want to get in the kitchen and cook!

16 Priscilla Martel February 21, 2011 at 11:10 am

Right on.

17 Allen Peery February 22, 2011 at 2:21 pm

I wonder why fat, sugar starchs and chocolat taste so good? If they, univerally didn’t there wouldn’t be a fast food industry.

18 Jenny February 25, 2011 at 12:39 am

I love this blog post! I am a microbiology student who is on her way over to a dietetics program, and it shocks me when people brag about eating very healthy when they whip out a veggie hot dog (some of which even have high fructose corn syrup, which is health suicide, might as well drink the equivalent in hard alcohol). Replacing animal protein and fat with sugar and preservatives is a step in the wrong direction, really much worse for you in so many ways from a pure metabolic, scientific perspective. I spent four years as a vegetarian, and feel much better after switching to healthy, local meats, fresh fish(fisherman’s wife, it’s a fantastic gig) and veggies pulled fresh out of the backyard. If you get down to the nitty gritty science of it, do yourself a favour and just eat whole food. It comes the way it is for a reason- fruit sugar in a perfect package of fiber, animal protein with heme iron, and fats with essential minerals. Respect your food, animal or vegetable! No matter what your diet, go to the source.

19 molly February 25, 2011 at 7:52 pm

when i left home for college (some 20 years ago), i immediately became a vegetarian — not for any high, ethical purpose, but simply because i could not stand to handle raw meat. to this day, i credit those two years (didn’t last long) with introducing me to the fundamentals of great eating. i learned more about coaxing phenomenal flavor — about herbs, spices, heat, aromatics, attention — from my food from my vegetarian cookbooks then i have, before or since, from any ‘carnivorous’ cookbook.

i married a carnivore, and we have since incoporated (small amounts) of meat back into our diets. i still quake at the thought of cooking steak (twice a year), but will dive into kohlrabi without a second thought. maybe it’s just me, but i remain convinced that if you want to eat well, eat vegetables.

20 Mike from Testosteroned November 16, 2012 at 1:47 am

So I recently authored an article on how to increase testosterone, and now I feel guilty for recommending meat. Thanks a lot! 🙂

A few days ago I posted a status on my FB account like “Sorry vegetarians, but I need meat in my meal not to feel hungry within 30 minutes of finishing it.” I got some real thoughtful responses from the vegetarians in my circle of friends that were basically trumpeting your cause in a less eloquent way. Now I’m torn :-D.

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