Vegetarian or Vegan? How to Eat for Pleasure — and the Planet

Do you have a food philosophy? Mine is not something I’d thumbnailed into a guiding recipe before I sat down to write this column, even though I’ve spent a great deal of time thinking about food, cooking food and eating food. And at one point, every so often depriving myself of food before acknowledging the futility of dieting, giving up on diets — and getting thin.

I have, so far in my life — variously and sequentially and with occasional lapses and overlaps — been an ovo-lacto vegetarian, where I ate eggs and dairy products but declined red meat, seafood and poultry; a pescetarian, where I indulged in the delights of moules-frites, wild salmon and sashimi while eschewing non-fishy critters; a semi-vegetarian, where I vehemently declined red meat but said “yes please” to a variety of fish and fowl; an amateur raw foodist (keep reading to meet professional Cherie Soria and to learn about her school), and a partial vegan. Indeed, for a spell I all but managed the no meat, no fish, no milk, no eggs — anything that can claim a mother. But Oprah, please tell me, how did you survive for 21 days without cream in your coffee when you did your three week vegan stint in 2008? And how did 378 members of your production staff manage the no-cream story for a full week in February this year?

Read all about Oprah’s vegan challenge to her staff and how they survived.

I love being a locavore, by which I mean eating fresh, local, sustainable and seasonal. What is more delightful than heading for the local farmer’s market, wherever you are in the world, and filling a basket with a lucky dip of fruit and veggies dug up or plucked down that very morning? Smelling the smells; eyeballing the colors; savoring the flavors. Or having a regular box of the freshest, picked that very week, delivered by a local farmer via a hot and happening neighborhood CSA program.  Read more about Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) and find a program that’s right for you.

Of course a locavore need not be vegetarian. The right meat (sustainably raised, grass-fed, free-range, etcetera) and the right fish (you know where it came from, caught it, or bought it at the right place) can go on the menu.

Sins of the Flesh

Right now, I confess to being an omnivore, as in part vegetarian, part pescetarian and part carnivore. (Although not in the true sense of personally hunting down my fleshy victims. Unless making a road trip to the butcher counts).

If you do a search online, you will find numerous sources to inform you that factory farms produce more than 99 percent of the animals eaten in the United States and that factory farming has made animal agriculture the number one contributor to global warming (and a top cause of most serious environmental problems). Do yourself a favor — seriously — and read author Jonathan Safran Foer’s New York Times article The Fruits of Family Trees, which both lists these facts and figures and offers a personal account of why someone (the author) has chosen to commit himself and his children — despite an affinity for meat — to giving up on it.

I don’t really like that I eat meat. But I do. I got back into the habit because when I didn’t — and I squirm whenI think about it now — I found myself ungraciously declining the efforts of friends who had spent long hours in the kitchen thinking they were preparing me a treat.

In fact, all my vegetarian and vegan friends tell me they are happy to pick around and find something they can eat from among things they choose not to, when served a meal with meat. But in my experience the host gets embarrassed and uncomfortable. Don’t!

So, Think of This

You’re making an apple cake. You slice your crisp and juicy Gravenstein into a bowl. So what is it you’re slicing? Well, there’s the sun and the rain that helped the apple tree grow; the farmer who tended the tree; the earth with its rich nutrients that supported growth; the harvester who plucked the perfectly ripe apple from its bough; the driver who took it to the marketplace; the various people who picked up the apple and felt it, and maybe sniffed it, before you purchased it to bake and serve, as a cinnamon-infused afternoon treat, to friends whom you hope relish it — and at some point return it in a different form to the earth. This is the short story of interconnectedness. And who wouldn’t want to eat mindfully and from this perspective?

I would like to claim that I am a purist locavore in terms of where all my veggies and fruit — my Gravenstein apples, et al. — come from. And especially my meat and fish when I eat them.

But — sorry all you foodie fundamentalists prescribing unto others. I’m not.

Indeed, I support the farmers and the fishmongers and all the restaurants committed to fresh, local and know thy source. And I’m committed to the principal and ideal of “no anonymous food,” as in knowing exactly where it came from and precisely what’s in it.

But I confess that if I see a street vendor serving up something delicious, be it in an African village, an Asian market, a Paris sidewalk or a New York City pavement, I want to try it. And who in that moment gives a toss about its origins.

And ditto if I go out for a duck in Oakland’s Chinatown or to one of many of the plethora of often sublime restaurants on the planet that doesn’t tell us on the menu where their non-heirloom tomatoes come from.

Back to Raw Food

My biggest Northern California surprise was to find Cherie Soria’s Living Light Culinary Arts Institute in what I had thought of as modest Fort Bragg (north of trendy Mendocino), which turns out to be a foodie mecca. Who would have expected to find a state-of-the-art organic raw food vegan chef school on the main drag? The school attracts students from around the world to take classes ranging from half a day to two years.

Soria’s café — downstairs from the demonstration classroom where you’ll be taught that raw and vegan can be a lot more than a salad, crudités and sprouts you grow on your window ledge (her focus is on gourmet possibilities) if you sign up for a weekender class — is a good place to sample her fare. And if you’re in the Bay Area and want to know more about the raw food vegetarian option, go dine at a Cafe Gratitude (their almond milk milkshakes and nut flour desserts are sublime) or at least visit them online.

Writing this piece, I came up with a personal shorthand food philosophy. A little long-winded, perhaps. Yours can be shorter, if you create your own.

I want to eat for pleasure and for nourishment. I want to eat food that nurtures all the senses; that smells, looks and tastes great. I want to eat food that is seasonal. And without being fanatical, I want to know where it came from. (Read the labels. The ingredients can be scary!) When I eat, I want to taste each mouthful. I don’t want to eat alone if I can have company. Oh, and I want to save the planet. So I think I’ll have to go back to giving up on meat. At least most of the time.

From Oprah’s show and Oprah’s website, see Kathy Freston’s list of vegan alternatives.

And read “Slow Food Recipes for Sensual, Delicious Living and No-Diet Weight Loss.”

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Long-time Cuisine Noir contributor Wanda Hennig is an award-winning food and travel writer, an author, a blogger and a life coach. A native South African, she believes we are what (and how) we eat (and drink). Thus, she says (only a little tongue-in-cheek), the best way to truly understand a country, a city, a culture—and a people—is via your taste buds and your stomach.