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My MIT seminar on shifting social contexts in lifestyle journalism toward plant-based eating.
While we were on the drive from D.C. to Boston, I revisited Molly O’Neill’s 2003 essay for Columbia Journalism Review titled “Food Porn”:
In general, entertainment, rather than news and consumer education, has been the focus of food stories for nearly a decade. Food porn — prose and recipes so removed from real life that they cannot be used except as vicarious experience — has reigned.
A lot has changed in twenty years, but I’ve also been arguing that food writers and recipe developers have been removed from real life when it comes to encouraging social and cultural context shifts toward ways of eating that would prioritize plant-based eating or other sustainable choices. This includes reporting on the political-economic conditions that keep sustainable food choices “elitist.”
It was good preparation for talking to the MIT Knight Science Journalism fellows about how scientific research and overlaps in lifestyle and science journalism could be used to influence such contextual changes and reporting. And once I got home, I was reminded of an interview with the critic Tobi Haslett from last year at The Point, where he says, of critics who complain about “politics” in art:
The implicit understanding is that if you’re committed, if you’re too overtly political, then you’ve made some Faustian pact with vulgarity. Am I overstating that? I have no idea. But in reviews, novelists actually get bonus points for not having a political perspective. There’s a long history to this that I can’t summarize well here. But even today certain kinds of critics—sometimes very established—are invested in displaying their exhaustion with politically inflected art. And I think: What are you exhausted with? Where did this twee McCarthyism come from? You’re an American. You’ve barely ever consumed any left-wing cultural production. You grew up middle-class in the most philistine capitalist state there has ever been, but you’re acting like you were raised on a diet of socialist realism and state radio broadcasts. Your closest experience to agitprop is Sesame Street. Your fatigue is so unearned, I can’t stand it. The neo-aestheticist boredom with social critique? That’s vulgar.
I find this anti-intellectual impulse to look away from political, economic, and ecological reality when it comes to food exhausting—to just say oh, yummy; to feign overwhelm by the notion that we do have to care where our food comes from or what effect it has on the workers, animals, and planet as a means of being relatable—when caring about this stuff in order to make it less overwhelming to the audience is the job; to pretend food is pure escape. Quite demonstrably, it is not. But its ability to be escape, to be pure pleasure, doesn’t have to be separate from its real material existence and impacts. In fact—and yes, I say it all the time—its pleasurable aspects can incite change, if we adjust what defines pleasure and the context of our desires. Of course, it’s easier said than done.
What follows is the text of my talk, along with the slideshow.
A lot of people don’t believe me when I say that I’m a food writer. Or they misinterpret this to mean that I’ve put out a cookbook. What are people picturing when they hear “food writer,” I always wonder? Just Nigel Slater in London with snowfall over his garden, or Ina Garten asking “how easy is that?” or Michael Pollan and his omnivore’s dilemma? Maybe it’s Elizabeth David, Patience Gray, Ruth Reichl, Frank Bruni, Tejal Rao, Anthony Bourdain, even? Or is it only M.F.K. Fisher, if anyone? A food writer takes so many forms!
Who comes to mind for you when you hear the term “food writer”?
We’re in a time of transition for food writing, because we’re in a time when certain things need a big push in a new direction in order to continue to be relevant. If you’re writing a straight-forward review of a restaurant where you’re served a steak from nowhere in a meal that nonetheless costs $300, you’re going to seem like a relic of another time. If you’re writing, Jonathan Gold or, these days, Vittles style, about every bacon, egg, and cheese from a bodega within a certain radius of Brooklyn streets, perhaps you’re getting closer to what readers want.
People don’t believe me because even though I write about food and I write recipes sometimes, that I’m not actually a food writer because—and this is just a hypothesis—I won’t discuss the succulent skin of a lemon roasted chicken, because I’m a vegetarian, but also because I believe that anyone who does sing the praises of a roasted chicken should also know who slaughtered and processed the chicken, where it happened, how much they were paid, and whether they suffered repetitive motion injuries because of the speed at which they’re expected to slaughter the birds before the carcass is bathed in chlorine.
How many of you are omnivores? Vegetarians? Vegans?
There are terrible working conditions for many agricultural products that don’t involve animal slaughter or byproducts. I acknowledge this while also acknowledging the meat processing industry might be the place we start, as food writers, to introduce necessary change to the dominant ways of eating that have proven so destructive. Yet nearly every new cookbook that gets the influencers interested contains meat, to an unconscionable extent.
Thus, I must not actually be a food writer. A food writer chooses excess, no matter the cost—or so we’ve been led to believe.
Yet, I am a food writer, despite myself. My new book, No Meat Required: The Cultural History and Culinary Future of Plant-Based Eating, is a celebration and critique of the last 50 or so years of veg-based food and the philosophies that have underpinned it. It’s about politics and subcultures, but it’s also about an evolution from The Farm Vegetarian Cookbook’s TVP (textured vegetable protein) to Superiority Burger’s TFT (tofu-fried tofu). It’s about how we went from brown rice and Moosewood casseroles to Impossible Whoppers and Miyoko’s Creamery.
What are the differences between lifestyle and science journalism?
I know that many omnivores will find the idea of reading a book about vegetarians and vegans off-putting, perhaps even antagonistic, and I do wish to talk to omnivores while also decentering and in some chapters totally ignoring meat’s existence and stranglehold on how we conceive of dining. So I’ve researched what stops people from pursuing a plant-based diet or limiting their meat consumption, and I’ve found ways to thread the findings into my writing. I try to meet the objections head-on, without explicitly naming them.
I didn’t want the book to be a list of the statistics on why lifestyle change toward a plant-based diet in affluent nations such as the U.S. is necessary. I also didn’t want to tell omnivores to their face, “This is why you don’t want to stop eating industrially processed meat.” I wanted to simply weave these things into the fabric of the stories I was telling, including my own.
In the United Nations’ IPCC most recent climate change mitigation report, the word “lifestyle” appears 252 times. The authors write, “The acceptability of collective social change over a longer term towards less resource intensive lifestyles, however, depends on the social mandate for change. This mandate can be built through public participation, discussion and debate, to produce recommendations that inform policymaking.”
One needs statistics: These provide a backbone, but they cannot be the whole argument. Eyes glaze over. Food is personal; behavior around food, especially when one is inclined toward reducing meat consumption for animal welfare, sustainability, or labor justice reasons, tends to be a bit more complicated than that. If lifestyle change is required for mitigating the effects of climate change, then how can we use what we know about human behavior and food choices to sway people toward said changes? How do we make them feel easy, even inevitable?
There were three overarching ideas backed up by scientific studies that really influenced how I wrote the book.
Note: An important aspect of my writing on food is that I do not say that everyone must switch to a completely plant-based diet. This is neither feasible nor necessary: moderate meat and fish consumption can be perfectly sustainable and is also culturally significant, as well as important for pleasure and celebration. Significant reduction, though, in the U.S. context is necessary.
“...achieving sustainable eating may require more personalized interventions.”
As this study—“(Not) Eating for the environment: The impact of restaurant menu design on vegetarian food choice”—notes, most people’s behavior around food is automatic, determined more by context and past behavior than by nudging toward “better” choices with regards to the environment. Frequent vegetarian eaters might decide their past “good” behavior will allow them a meat or fish dish; infrequent vegetarian eaters might decide on a “lighter” meal to balance past consumption of animal products.
This is why I use not just my experience but bring in a chorus of different voices in the food space who eat differently or occupy different spaces. To show a plurality of approaches to the concept of “sustainable eating” means it doesn’t need to be performed in only one way, or in the same way every single day. It is a practice, ongoing and imperfect, dependent upon context.
“The results suggest removing vegetarian and vegan labels from menus could help guide US consumers towards reduced consumption of animal products.”
This newer study—“The negative impact of vegetarian and vegan labels: Results from randomized controlled experiments with US consumers”—backs up the former, adding a new twist. It backs up a cultural trend I’d noticed: Omnivores were more likely to be interested in plant-based food if it didn’t shout from the rooftops—in form or advertisement—that it was vegan or vegetarian. The first vegetarian restaurant to make critics take notice was Greens in the Bay Area, opened in 1979 and helmed by Deborah Madison, who would go on to write many best-selling cookbooks. Folks like former Gourmet editor-in-chief Ruth Reichl loved the food here because it was vegetable-focused, unlike the heavier, more “ideological” food of the ’70s. Brown rice casseroles and tofu “pizzas”—that sort of thing.
Greens focused on vegetables, and it’s still in business. I had noticed that in the last two decades, as well, restaurants that called themselves “vegetable-forward” had more luck with omnivores than explicitly vegetarian or vegan restaurants. There’s a whole host of bias that can account for this, and I have criticized the press for being focused on places that eschew explicit vegetarianism, its stereotyping as feminine, and women chefs in plant-based cooking for this usually masculine approach, but it also helps me to know how to appeal broadly: focus on the vegetables and on technique when discussing food; do not belabor the meatlessness, rather hype the flavor and freshness, just as one would with non-plant-based food.
Many people intend to reduce their meat consumption, for a variety of reasons related to health, animal welfare, and the environment, but find it difficult when in certain situations. While, as I mentioned earlier, it’s important for me to frame eating with sustainability in mind as a practice, something ongoing and imperfect, it’s also clear that situationally, many people would be happy to not eat meat if presented with either no meat option or very enticing vegetable options.
Personal intentions or desires only go so far when one is butting up against structural issues that keep meat abundant in everyday situations. Decisions can be made in institutional, work, and social settings to default to plant-based options when feasible. While there are people for whom meat is a necessary nutritional requirement, this type of shift would go a long way toward enabling plant-based choices on a regular basis. By the same token, restaurants can tip the scale toward plant-based options and likely not alienate most customers. It goes against much received wisdom, but behavior around food being contextual gives license to shift the context, which in turn can have a broader effect on cultural expectations and norms.
In No Meat Required, I wanted to discuss what it looks like to change one’s omnivorous habits in personal and subcultural contexts, but never lose sight of how important bigger changes are: political and economic changes, yes, as well as change in the places where we interact with food on a regular basis.
A recent report from the Better Food Foundation showed that in most major recipe outlets, including the New York Times, plant-based recipes account for less than 50% of what has been published. There is so much potential to influence behavior, to de-normalize excessive meat and fish consumption, yet there is also fear of losing the audience. Yet it’s clear that without belaboring the point of plant-based options, by simply making enticing options without meat, outlets like this have the power to push the culture in another direction: to make plant-based food desirable.
It’s understood that cultural norms and social contexts are deeply significant to behavior change toward plant-based eating choices that would be broadly positive in their effect on the environment. Lifestyle journalism can be a useful tool, when it’s informed by research.
This Friday’s From the Kitchen dispatch for paid subscribers will include a recipe for either banana or pumpkin soft chocolate chunk cookies (depending upon which you have or are in the mood for)—a nostalgic (for me) adaptation of a Joy the Baker recipe I made when I was first starting to get into baking. See all recipes available to paid subscribers here.
I built out a From the Desk index for the newsletter, to introduce new readers to myself, the most popular posts, various series, and the Google Maps I’ve shared for various cities. It links, of course, to the bigger Recipe Index. I hope it’s useful!
Ligaya Mishan—every food writer’s favorite food writer—talked to me about escabeche as a wonderful way to prepare plants for The New York Times Magazine. My first bylined recipe at the Grey Lady is garbanzos en escabeche with plantain strips, which feels so fitting. It originated in From the Kitchen this summer.
I was on the FoodPrint podcast “What You’re Eating” to discuss the book.
My small capsule jewelry collection with By Ren, whose designs are handmade to order in Philadelphia, is live through the end of 2023. There are cocktail picks with a pearl on them, which are my favorite thing ever! Perfect gift.
I’ve been working on a talk I’m giving today and starting my new book proposal, so things related to these subjects. The endless book proposal process of life… !
The first thing I made on Monday morning was scrambled eggs with arugula and Calabrian chili, toasted baguette, and fried onion and potatoes. For dinner, potato and black bean tacos. It’s so good to cook, especially before a little trip to Calgary for Terroir Symposium.
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