Why Must We Label How We Eat?

I love Terry Walters‘ books Clean Food and Clean Start.  They’re both fabulous cookbooks (designed by my friends  at Mackenzie Brown Design in Chicago), full of amazing recipes and beautiful photographs. Perhaps you remember me writing about Terry earlier The Art of Eating Clean.  Here’s her Deep Dish Greens with Millet Amaranth Crust, reprinted with permission from Clean Start © by Terry Walters, Sterling Epicure, an imprint of Sterling Publishing Co., Inc. Photography by Gentl & Hyers, design by MacKenzie Brown Design. This gives you an idea of her creative cooking.

Deep Dish Greens with Millet Amaranth Crust_p144-2

They’re great cookbooks and Terry is a talented chef.  But actually, I didn’t even realize these were vegan cookbooks until I heard Terry speak on a panel at BlogHer Food 2012 with Bryant Terry, who is quite an amazing chef himself. Click here to find the live blogging recap of the session.  Terry and Bryant are both vegan chefs (as I learned), yet they told their publishers that they didn’t want their cookbooks marketed as vegan.  They fought with their publishers so they wouldn’t be pigeon-holed — wouldn’t be put in one category and stuck with a specific label to define their food. I loved what Terry said on the panel:

I think vegan, paleo and gluten-free are trends. I think these diets are like trying on a dress. The danger is saying this is the only dress that will fit me and that’s not true. I try not to put anything out there that says this food is a diet. Everyone needs more help bringing in the foods we all need more of. There was a fight with my publisher because the growing market is vegan and that’s where they want to put me, but I won the fight. I told them you can sell my book however you want but you can’t put a label on me. Labels don’t help us. There’s no way a label can listen to your body more than we can listen to our bodies. We have different needs and abilities.

Good points.  But that took me my surprise. I knew I liked Terry’s cookbooks, full of innovative recipes featuring vegetables, fruits, beans, and whole grains.  I just didn’t think of them as vegan.  I’m not sure why it didn’t occur to me. I just knew that I appreciated her approach and she created the types of recipes that I like to make.

I had a similar experience more recently when I read The Kitchn‘s article:  Eating Vegetarian? 7 Cooking Blogs to Check Out Right Now.  Among the seven blogs featured were four of my all-time favorite blogs.   Once again, I didn’t even realize these were vegetarian blogs. I didn’t categorize them in my mind.  I just knew that I loved them. I mean, I really love them.  When I want ideas for new salads, different pasta dishes or innovative ways to use farro, quinoa, bulgur or other whole grains — these are the blogs I turn to.  When I’m looking for vegetable-studded stews or stir-fries, egg-based dishes for brunch, or simply inspiration for new vegetable sides, I click on these links.  These are truly some of the most incredible food blogs in the blogosphere.  Trust me. Check them out.

Naturally Ella
My New Roots
Cookie + Kate

French Lentils w Roasted Roots_p148

French Lentils with Roasted Roots, Caramelized Onions and Thyme, courtesy of Terry Walters, Clean Start

Maybe it’s good thing that I don’t categorize these books and blogs.  And maybe it’s good that Terry and Bryant won their battle so their books weren’t labeled as vegan.  Too many people would simply dismiss these recipes — saying, “That’s not for me, I’m not a vegan.” Not everyone is going to follow a vegetarian diet.  In my opinion, they don’t need to feel like they have to.  But  more people should find ways to cook vegetable-centric meals. If we could only get people excited about celebrating the plant portion of the meal — and that doesn’t mean giving up meat.

We’re seeing this trend of plant-based cuisine being pushed forward and winning over die-hard carnivores.  It’s a “push & pull” situation, says The Hartman Group, in its report Ideas in Food 2013.

A vegetable-inflected future.  To be clear, there has not been a mass conversation of carnivores to vegetarians as of late, nor do we anticipate such behavior  Instead, we are hearing of consumers “pulling” more plant-based foods to the center of the plate and “pushing” animal products to its edges.  It’s not about eliminating meat, but letting plant-based products take center stage.

I like that approach.  You can eat more vegetarian meals without being a vegetarian.  You can enjoy vegan dishes without converting to veganism.  Bryant Terry said at BlogHer Food 2012 that he’s a vegan, but he’s not advocating a vegan diet for everyone.

There’s a growing market of vegan consumers. I think it’s exciting that more people are looking to eat plant-based food. I don’t personally believe a vegan diet is best for everyone. I don’t think any one diet is the best. We need to have a complex approach to diet. Given the health crisis that we are dealing with, I do think plant-based diets are a powerful tool for healing us. In general people need more vegetables. A big hunk of meat shouldn’t be the center of your plate. A lot of my work is about normalizing and destigmatizing plant-based foods.

cauliflower steaks

Cauliflower steaks, couscous and puree by Vegetarian Cookery School on flickr

There’s a lot to love about vegetables.  But maybe the best ways to coax people into pulling vegetables to the center of the plate is to entice them with mouthwatering, craveable options — rather than touting a recipe as  “vegetarian” or “vegan.” [Cauliflower  appears to be the latest vegetable to win center-of-the-plate stardom.] Let’s don’t make people feel guilty for eating meat, but help show them ways they can push it to the side of the plate — and not eliminate it entirely. Maybe Mark Bittman is on to something with his new book that promotes being Vegan Before 6 to encourage people to eat more plant-based foods during the day and limit meat to their evening meal. It shows how you don’t have to give up meat.  You can be a part-time vegan. Or maybe the day-time shouldn’t be labeled as “vegan” at all, and just give people more enticing ideas to focus on  fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains and other plant-based foods.

Must we use these labels?   Let’s have healthy foods speak for themselves.  Let’s focus on all the wondrous foods to enjoy, instead of a rigid list of what you can’t eat.  If we want a “vegan” recipe to appeal to more than vegans, then maybe we take off the labels.

I’m a carnivore for sure, but I love vegetable-centric meals too.  I think we need to help people realize that  you can enjoy both.  All too often people go to extremes.  You can enjoy meat, and not go Paleo.  You can enjoy vegetables, and not be vegan.  The magic is in the middle.

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