I wrote the following two essays for the introductory section of my cookbook "Vegetarian Ideas." The complete book, featuring over 60 vegetarian recipes, is available for purchase through my webstore.

Denial, Acceptance, or Change

The results of Project Drawdown, the landmark climate change research project, suggest that the top three most important actions we can take in an effort to combat climate change, in order of impact, may be (1) minimize our food waste, (2) don’t have children, and (3) become vegetarian. It’s mainly #3 that is germane to our current conversation. In all honesty, I’m actually not a strict vegetarian anymore, but I was for seven years, and that experience fundamentally altered how I consume food. I now eat a meal that contains meat, usually a small amount, once a week on average, and that seems to be what makes my lizard-brain the happiest (thus, while all the recipes in this book are fully vegetarian in their main incarnation, they do very occasionally make mention of animal products as possible additional or substitute ingredients). Apparently, my behavior may have an evolutionary basis: though there is some disagreement, the majority of anthropologists who study the diet of our early ancestors believe that Paleolithic humans subsisted mostly on plant matter, but every once in awhile, those early humans would catch an animal to eat, sharing with each other – then it was back to berries. The frequent cartoon portrayal of the caveman as a bearded goon gnawing on a chicken drumstick is a blatant fiction, and the “Paleo diet” moniker is an obvious misnomer.

There do still exist unrepentant carnivores to whom meat-eating is the natural order of things and to whom plant-based main courses are a perversion, who glower at the vegetarian as though the vegetarian is somehow the one threatening the carnivore’s way of life. “We can never go to the barbecue restaurant with that guy,” these carnivores lament. “It’s such a pain.” Such carnivores tend to assume that vegetarians are antagonizing and moralistic by nature, but my experience has shown quite the opposite: it seems to me that the collective fear of being judged by vegetarians far outweighs the volume of judgments that vegetarians actually make, and beliefs to the contrary are probably fueled by selection bias (i.e. only the very loudest vegetarians are terribly judgmental, but they’re the only vegetarian voices that some people ever hear, because they’re so loud). The majority of vegetarians really don’t talk about their diet much except when asked directly or when they need to make sure there will be food available to them, and even then they can be hesitant because they know all too well the social cost that comes with being perceived as preachy. It’s a dynamic that doesn’t make much sense to me. Vegetarians are deserving not of suspicion or ridicule, but of accommodation and gratitude. If you, like me, are even occasionally a meat-eater, then you should probably accept that given the current state of animal husbandry, we are the problem here, and the vegetarian unquestionably does have the ethical high ground, even if they’ve been conditioned not to say so.

We can all agree that it is possible to live a fulfilling life without eating animals: roughly 10% of the world does it right now. It’s not a question of finances either: a diet featuring a lot of low-quality meat is generally still more expensive than one featuring a lot of high-quality fruits, vegetables, and grains. Let’s also agree that eating plants is (a) better for animals in a very direct sense, because animals would prefer, consciously or subconsciously, that we not kill them and (b) better for the environment in which both we and the animals live; to give just one of a litany of examples, a half-pound cut of sirloin at your local supermarket takes 1,200 gallons of water to produce (including the water needed to grow the cow’s feed, etc., and for perspective, 1,200 gallons is about 3 months of showers), but a half a pound of wheat takes only 1% of that, about 12 gallons. And though I can appreciate meat-eating traditions throughout the world, there is also room for traditions to change with the times; I have not eaten turkey at Thanksgiving dinner for about ten years, and I can honestly say it has improved the quality of the meal – last year I made stuffed pumpkins as the centerpiece and they got devoured. When we eat animals, it has nothing to do with our survival versus theirs; when we eat animals, we’re implicitly taking the ignominious position that in weighing the welfare of the animal and the damage we’re causing to the only planet we have against our preference for one type of food over another readily available type, it is our preference that somehow weighs more heavily. From this ignominy may spring denial, acceptance, or change. To those of you that aspire to the latter: I hope these recipes will help.

Where's the Tofu?

Most vegetarian cookbooks contain a chapter devoted to soy-based and gluten-based high-protein foods such as tofu, tempeh, seitan, and textured vegetable protein. This cookbook does not. I doubt that such an exclusion will disappoint too many people, but I still feel compelled to explain the choice because I hope the explanation can inform your cooking.

For one thing, I just don’t like tofu that much. It has a milquetoast flavor and an unremarkable texture, whether silken or firm. That said, tofu does have its use cases, one chief among them: tofu is an essential component of miso soup. Dashi, the base of miso soup, is delicate and ethereal, and the miso contributes enough salt and funk that any other loud ingredient would overwhelm the combination. Tofu is the perfect addition: it adds necessary body and absorbs the flavorful liquid that is the real highlight of the dish. Perhaps therein lies the appeal of tofu, and its kin, to some cookbook authors; these ingredients’ willingness to submit to whatever is around them makes it seem like they are contributing rather than leeching. A classic example of this phenomenon is the BBQ tempeh sandwich, piled high with slaw on a King’s Hawaiian roll. It’s delicious, of course, but that’s mainly because barbecue sauce is delicious. It would be more delicious with BBQ mushrooms. Or BBQ chickpeas. Or any of about 1,000 other BBQ things. Another example: Thai noodles with fried tofu are fantastic, and tofu has such a well-established history in Thai cuisine that cooks have figured out over centuries how to build flavorful dishes around it. Still, I enjoy that dish more for the noodles than for the tofu, and quite honestly, the fried tofu component tastes great in no small part because fried things almost always taste great.

I highly suspect, then, that the real reason most Western vegetarian cookbooks include a soy ingredient chapter is the persistent and obnoxious myth that vegetarians need protein from these ingredients specifically, lest they wither and disappear. In reality, the average vegetarian (a) eats almost twice their recommended daily allowance of protein and (b) eats almost exactly as much protein as the average carnivore. And don’t get me started on the erroneous bro-science about the protein needs of high-performance athletes necessitating meat or soy meat consumption. First, you’re almost assuredly not that high-performance of an athlete, and even if you are, please remember that literally all plants are built out of protein, enough to easily satisfy your body’s needs; Chris Paul started playing the best basketball of his career after he became a vegan. Second, the idea that meat protein is a “complete protein” and therefore superior is only relevant if your idea of a vegetarian diet is to subsist only on lentils for weeks at a time. The truth is that if you’re eating even the most minimally varied vegetarian diet, you’ll still get all the essential amino acids that your body requires, without any need to track them.

I’m sure you now see where I’m going with this; outside of regions of the world where they are staple foods, tofu et alia are unremarkable limited-use ingredients and thus undeserving of their own chapter. Once freed from the idea that vegetarians “need” to eat in a particular way, we can think of vegetarian meals the same way we think about meals for everyone else, as we should. I’m not particularly concerned with how much protein my food contains. I’m mainly concerned with how delicious it tastes.

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