Can carnivores, herbivores, break bread together?
Seattle Times staff reporter
Thekla Astrup marks each of her prepackaged frozen dinners with a fluorescent yellow garage-sale sticker. 50 cents. 10 cents. A dollar.
The prices are irrelevant — they just happened to be the brightest stickers Astrup could find — but they serve an important role in her strictly vegetarian household: They brand anything that contains meat, so her vegan fiancé doesn't accidentally eat it.
That makes sense. But hang on: Did she say her vegan fiancé?
She relishes a cheeseburger. He doesn't even eat cheese. How are they ever going to get along?
Histrionics aside, Astrup and David Richter personify the delicate culinary dance that many of us mince out, with varying degrees of grace, on a daily basis.
Why? Because we don't have a choice. While there haven't been polls indicating a statistically significant increase in the number of Americans "going vegetarian," other telltales speak volumes. Like the booming soy-food industry. And the record number of attendees at VegFest at Seattle Center last month. And the fact that you can't go to a Whole Foods without overhearing an omnivore and a vegan square off over the ethicality of a scallop. Gone are the days of steak-and-potatoes.
So, hey you, meat-eaters (heartless fatties wielding pork rub): You're losing the war. And you, vegetarians (insufferable ascetics, whining over tofu paste): You haven't won yet.
Polish that silverware and loosen your belts: If we're going to have to share summertime barbecues, dinner parties and even wedding receptions, no one's going down without a fight. The battle of the dinner table is upon us.
"Vegetarians, and their Hezbollah-like splinter faction, the vegans ... are the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit," ranted television chef Anthony Bourdain in his book "Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly."
Not to be outdone, Carol J. Adams, a vegan feminist, calls omnivores insincere, obtuse and unenlightened in her book "How to Live Among Meat Eaters: The Vegetarian's Survival Handbook." In a recent interview, she calls eggs "chicken ova" and meat "the carcasses of innocent animals." Not exactly bridge-building rhetoric.
While both Bourdain and Adams have received flack for their extremism, neither is alone in their sentiments.
"I would never date a meat eater," says Chelsea Chorpenning, 22, shuddering at the idea of kissing someone who'd just polished off a chicken sandwich. "Being a vegetarian is a whole outlook on life. You're saying: I don't agree with killing animals. I don't agree with killing the Earth. How could I date someone who doesn't agree with those things?"
"Oh God, I wouldn't date a vegan," says a 27-year-old omnivorous waiter in Queen Anne, who prefers anonymity. "I love food. I love barbecues. I'm not going to date someone who's going to sit there sipping water and complaining about the ingredients in the salad dressing."
Others, like Astrup and Richter, who have fallen into interdietary relationships, are destined for awkward culinary encounters.
Jonathan Mahler, 27, a vegan, has learned to go for a walk around the block when his girlfriend cooks meat in their home. Chuck Bourg, 25, lived in a house where all meat — even freeze-dried bags of chicken-flavored Top Ramen — had to be kept in Ziploc bags on the porch.
So what does all this mean? Are we destined for a culinary apartheid?
Maybe, says Emiko Badillo, 32, who co-owns a vegan grocery store in Portland with her vegan husband. They don't have any omnivorous friends.
"If you meet someone who eats meat, it's kind of a loss of respect. I guess that makes us snobs, but it's hard not to feel that way," she says.
Josh Hooten, the editor and publisher of "Herbivore Magazine," says it's not snobbiness that enforces the dietary segregation; it's the everyday logistics, like having to watch someone eat a rack of ribs ("pretty disgusting"), or constantly defending his dietary decisions to his carnivorous friends and family ("a total pain").
Adams, who has written extensively on veganism, says the enduring animosity between the groups stems from guilt.
"Meat eaters will become really defensive — they have an impulse to attack vegetarians because they're guilty about eating meat. They realize that what they're doing is cruel, and they don't like to be reminded of that," she says.
That's not the case, says Maryam Nowakhtar, 24, a pharmacology student and a meat eater. "We evolved to eat meat. We're part of the food chain. Our bodies digest meat better than they digest plants," she says. "I don't feel bad about eating meat. That's silly."
Tofurkeys and nondogs
Dreena Burton, the author of "Vive Le Vegan!," a vegan cookbook, is raising her two daughters vegan. She says the onus falls on vegans to provide food for themselves wherever they go. "That way, we don't have to be a burden on our friends and can show people we eat more than just vegetables, too," she says.
"Satya Magazine," an online publication for vegetarians, is less charitable. It says that in mixed dietary company, the menu should always be vegetarian. A "meat-contaminated mealtime" is as offensive to a vegetarian as a roomful of smoke to a nonsmoker, it says.
But it's not that simple. Some meat eaters say a meatless feast is just plain out of the question, especially when it comes to traditional menus, like cooking a Christmas goose, or hosting a Memorial Day barbeque.
To Nowakhtar, "Tofurkeys" (a tofu turkey) and nondogs (meatless hot dogs) just don't cut it.
"I don't really think it's a meal without meat," she says. "It's the thing that the meal centers around, and if I don't have it, I get hungry afterward."
"If I'm having people over for dinner, I'm not going to completely change what I had planned just because some vegetarian showed up," she says. "It's OK to say, 'Fend for yourself' sometimes. You don't like what I cooked? Fine. There are plain noodles in the sink."
But, she concedes, there is some middle ground. She would make a vegetarian dish for a friend if she were given warning — and similar treatment in return. "If I'm going to go out of my way and make something nonmeat for a friend, why wouldn't they make something meat for me?" she says.
Hold your fire, says Stewart Rose, the vice president of the Vegetarians of Washington.
"The world is not in black and white. If it's going to break your mother's heart if you don't have some of her Thanksgiving turkey, then put it on your plate. Or at least think about where you draw the line and ask why," he says. "I'm not saying you shouldn't act according to your beliefs. I'm just saying that there are shades of gray, and that's OK."
Hard-line organizations like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), which compared animal-rights violations to the Jewish Holocaust, aren't helping the vegetarian cause, Rose says. Neither are you — meat eaters and vegetarians alike — if you're unwilling to make a concession or two for friends, family and the people you love.
Negotiating a solution
Astrup and Richter, the garage-sale-sticker-wielding couple, will marry in July. They plan to move into a new home this fall or winter, at which point they will "renegotiate" the balance in the kitchen.
Right now, Astrup goes over to a friend's house to cook and eat meat when she feels like it, but in her new home, she'd like to be able to prepare "small amounts" of meat. She says "going vegetarian" is not an option.
Richter, who has been vegetarian since he was 17, is very uncomfortable with the idea of meat in the kitchen. He says eating meat again is not an option.
Happily, both are willing to sit down at the negotiating table. One potential solution is building two kitchens (one meatless, one meat-friendly). Another is buying a whole live animal from a small local farm to ensure the animal did not suffer in life or death, and then buying a meat freezer large enough to store it. ("But that's a stretch," says Richter.)
"I'm not sure how, but we'll make it work," says Astrup.
In the meantime, they've got love, vegan-friendly restaurants and a whole sheet of fluorescent yellow garage-sale stickers.
Haley Edwards: 206-464-2745 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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