A former omnivore comes out as vegetarian

March 5, 2013

I’ve been calling this my second “coming out,” because it reminds me of the first time, when I was dealing with quite a different subject.

For one thing, when I tell people about my recent switch to vegetarianism, I’m getting the same kinds of questions, especially from chefs and fellow food journalists, that I did so many decades ago when the news was about my sexual orientation. One chef sidled up to me while I was at the bar of her establishment recently and whispered, “Is it true what I heard?” And a few weeks ago, when I broke the news to a friend over dinner, she responded with two queries: “When did this happen?” and “How long do you think it’s going to last?” They were the equivalent of those parental hand-wringers “Is this a phase?” and “Where did we go wrong?” I’m expecting someone, somewhere, to say, “You know we love and support you, no matter what you eat.”

Actually, the reaction from some quarters has been not too far from that: One interview subject, founder of an imitation-meat company, said something along the lines of, “The food editor of a major daily newspaper is vegetarian? This is huge!” And several food journalists have confessed, under their breath, that if it weren’t for their jobs, they’d do the same thing.

I’ve been talking — and writing — about this trend in my dietary choices for a while now, with frequent mentions in my Cooking for One columns about beans (“I started eating less meat”), veggie burgers (“moving away from meat eating”) and grilling (“eating very little meat”). But I’ve always qualified it because, the truth is, I’ve been worried about the reaction from food obsessives who think you can’t be serious about the subject unless you’re an omnivore. Most famously, Anthony Bourdain has referred to vegetarians as “bad travelers and bad guests,” “a persistent irritant to any chef worth a damn” and “the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit.”

Nice, huh?

Maybe he just hasn’t met the right vegetarian yet. Maybe he hasn’t wanted to. Or maybe his are the views of a food-world dinosaur. I get his mission to convince people to swallow up the world in all its grease-spattered glories, and to never say no to somebody’s grandmother. But anybody who doesn’t understand the compulsion to eat less — or no — meat isn’t paying attention to news about its environmental impact, or doesn’t care.

In any case, I’m compelled to make the veg-head proclamation now because, among other things, I think it’s only fair that readers understand the tastes of their Food editor, and to reassure them that the section’s omnivorous nature will remain intact. Besides, unlike Bourdain, I’m not a purist about any of this. I’m still tasting little bites of meat, poultry and fish here and there — very occasionally — because I’m curious about a chef’s new take or because I need to keep up on a trend for my work.

Mostly, though, I’ve come to think dietary choices are like religion: You might be raised one way, and your friends might be inclined in another, and you might go on quests for knowledge and inspiration (I will resist comparing Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” to the Bible). But ultimately you make a very personal decision. And no matter what somebody like Bourdain thinks, I think the absolute rudest thing you can do — even ruder than turning down somebody’s grandmother — is to show a lack of respect for someone else’s decision about what they’re going to consume. Eat and let eat.

But let's get back to the most common of those questions I’m being asked: When did this happen?

I first started shifting a few years ago. I hadn’t bought industrial meat for the better part of a decade, but I noticed that even the beautiful, humanely raised pork and chicken and beef I was buying from farmers was piling up in my freezer. Why wasn’t I cooking it? Subconsciously, I was reacting to all the meat-eating I was doing in restaurants and at events.

Then I found myself gravitating toward vegetable-centric, if not vegetarian, dishes in restaurants, because I knew that eating less meat is better for the environment and better for my health. On the latter, there were no medical scares. But I’ve known that as I age, large quantities of meat are harder and harder for me to handle, physically and even philosophically.

It all came to a head — a pig’s head, of course — at the Cochon 555 competition, a celebration of nose-to-tail pork cookery that I helped judge in Washington in 2011. As I sat around the judges’ table eating bite after bite of sometimes-delicious, sometimes-not concoctions of ears, jowls, loins and trotters, I started to see the nose-to-tail thing (“everything but the squeal”) a little differently. I embrace the philosophy that if we are going to eat animals, we should respect them enough not to waste perfectly edible parts. But that doesn’t mean we — or I suppose I should say I — need to eat it all in one sitting. Not if it sends me into a food coma, anyway.

When’s the last time you went into a food coma from a vegetarian meal? I usually feel fabulous afterward, no matter how much I indulge.

More important, over the past few years I’ve been falling for vegetables: learning more about them in their seemingly infinite varieties from farmers like Zach Lester at Tree and Leaf and from market managers like Robin Shuster at 14th and U, and then growing my own in a now-defunct community garden on 15th Street NW and during my year of homesteading at my sister and brother-in-law’s in southern Maine. And I’ve been tasting more and more dishes at restaurants that prove that vegetables can be the star of the plate — sometimes the only star, with no need of meat even to serve as a garnish, as fashionable as that has gotten, too.

I plan to showcase those vegetables every week in this, a new recipe column for the Food section called Weeknight Vegetarian. (Cooking for One will become occasional rather than monthly.) First up: a five-grain risotto adapted from a version chef Cedric Maupillier serves at Mintwood Place in Adams Morgan.

The recipes — mine and from others — will be vegetarian, not vegan, because I’m too enamored of cheese, milk and eggs, and I can’t imagine that changing. Although, come to think of it, that’s what I used to say about meat.

Yonan is author of the upcoming "Eat Your Vegetables: Bold Recipes for the Single Cook” (Ten Speed Press, August 2013).

Joe Yonan is the Food and Travel editor of The Washington Post. He got the cooking bug from his Indiana-born mother who let him use her stand mixer when he was 8 years old because it was cool.
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