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Real Entertaining: A meatless Labor Day dinner

An abundance of late summer vegetables makes it easier to go meatless for the  Labor Day holiday.
An abundance of late summer vegetables makes it easier to go meatless for the Labor Day holiday. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

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By David Hagedorn
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, August 31, 2010; 1:26 PM

What images come to mind when you plan a menu for Labor Day? Hot dogs and juicy, fist-size burgers dressed in condimental finery? Lightly charred pieces of poultry shellacked with barbecue sauce? Two-inch-thick rib-eye steaks crusty and burned on the outside, purple-rare on the inside?

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That might be how things will play out at your house, but not at mine. This year, the chuck wagon will be replaced by a bandwagon pulling a load of vegetables. There won't be a morsel of meat on it.

While I was strolling one recent Saturday through the Mount Pleasant Farmers Market, the panoply of late summer fruits and vegetables inspired me: Why not use Labor Day as a kickoff for Meatless Mondays?

Huh? Where did that come from?

I'm one of those people who just don't think a meal is a meal without meat (breakfast excluded). Introducing fish selections to the weekly menu was already a tremendous concession; going the full Del Monte, even for a day, was a Promethean challenge.

The nonprofit group Healthy Monday and Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health launched the Meatless Monday campaign in 2003 as an awareness program designed to reduce the amount of saturated fat in our diets. Material on its Web site makes the link, albeit in a ham-handed way (pardon the expression), between meat consumption and: Heart disease! Strokes! Diabetes! Cancer! Obesity! Not to mention depletion of the water supply (the 2,500 gallons of water it takes to produce a pound of meat, as opposed to 220 gallons for a pound of soy), fossil fuel dependence (to manufacture, transport and store the meat) and global warming (ruminant livestock is responsible for 28 percent of global methane emissions, according to the EPA).

Look, I get it. I read "In Defense of Food," in which Michael Pollan lays out the succinct imperative (stretched into a lengthy diatribe) to: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." I've had my share of health problems and struggled to bring my cholesterol into the "excellent" range, lose weight and keep it off, and modify bad eating habits. (Including, by the way, opting for lean meats over ones high in saturated fats. They do exist.)

Still, it is taking me a while to cozy up to the idea of doing without meat one day a week, even if John Tesh, Yoko Ono and Gwyneth Paltrow are telling me to do so at MeatlessMonday.com.

As a dinner-party theme, the idea troubles me a little. It is one thing to invite vegetarians, but quite another to foist the idea on guests as some kind of statement. One evening, after a friend served a vegetarian meal, I was politely effusive about how delicious everything was but yearned to stop off for a burger on the way home. (I didn't.)

When the rumor circulated that Chelsea Clinton would offer only vegan fare at her wedding (she didn't), I felt sorry for the guests. To me, the most compelling reasons to attend events like that are pigs-in-blankets, humongous iced shrimp and steamship rounds of beef.

But I'm as susceptible to peer pressure as the next person. More and more of my friends are going meatless on Mondays, and it is nearly impossible to pick up a magazine, turn on the TV or go online without hearing about the movement.

So vegetarian it will be for Labor Day, and for Mondays thereafter. Dinner guests will be forewarned.

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