When Gael, Jay, Kelly, and I learned about the vegan challenge on this week’s episode, the polarization in our group instantly became apparent. Kelly and I blurted out a collective, enthusiastic “Great!”
Gael and Jay groaned. Loudly.
Quite a bit of vegetarian bashing goes on in the food world, and frankly I’m more than a bit tired of it.
Case in point: When I first got the job of editor of Saveur, an item in one of the New York media gossip columns reported the rumor that I was—horror of horrors!—a vegetarian. How could the editor of an esteemed epicurean magazine abstain from the gastronomic joys of eating meat? The rumors about me were just that, as it happens. But the implication was clear: today, when bacon is the new black and the trendiest foods are all grass-fed and dry-aged, vegetarian is a dirty word.
Yes, I’ve logged—proudly—a few years as a vegetarian. When I was growing up in California in the 1960s and 1970s, vegetarianism was not an anomaly as it was elsewhere in America. At an early age, I understood that vegetarianism could also be a pleasurable and endlessly interesting way to eat. Later, when I started traveling the world, I came into contact with the great global traditions of vegetarian eating: from the vegetarian-by-default simple country fare of El Salvador, where I’ve traveled four times and where meals often consist of stewed beans and hand-patted tortillas with hunks of salty, gamy cheese, to the grand and evolved meatless cuisines of India, such as that of Gujarat, where vegetarian cooking is a refined art.
I also spent a year living in a village in South India, where I ate no animal flesh at all. I wasn’t vegan—milk products, including yogurt, were a big part of my diet there—but after the first few weeks of quietly lusting for just a little bit of meat (or at least a fried egg!), I stopped missing it and came to appreciate the astonishing flavor combinations that came into focus without the overwhelming presence of flesh.
Trust me, there is life after bacon.
For those reasons, I’ve never felt the need to pass judgment on vegetarianism or veganism. Me, I’ll eat anything, and I do: from live queen ants in northeastern Thailand to milk-fed venison to street-stand hot dogs to pink cupcakes (which might just be a greater crime against nature than even the worst processed meat). That said, I definitely have my preferences, and for the most part, they tend not to be meat-centric.
Why? First of all, a meat-free meal makes me feel good. The amazing array of food that we ate for Zooey Deschanel’s lunch made for the only time during the run of Top Chef Masters when, for hours afterward, I didn’t feel like an overstuffed cushion. During the periods in my life when I have been vegetarian, I have slept better, I’ve come down with fewer colds, my skin has cleared up, I’ve lost weight, and, I like to think, my mind has functioned a little more clearly. I can’t back up any of this with scientific evidence, but it’s what I’ve experienced.