Friday, January 13, 2012

On "Meatless in the Midwest," vegetarians have an issue with perception as much as meat

Posted By on Fri, Jan 13, 2012 at 11:15 AM

This story wont stop showing up on my desktop.
  • NY Times
  • This story won't stop showing up on my desktop.
This is, in some ways, a post addressed to A.G. Sulzberger. But it is, in many ways, a post that has very little to do with him. His essay this week in The New York Times, "Meatless in the Midwest: A Tale of Survival," has sparked no shortage of responses in the two days since it ran. In it, Sulzberger relates his disappointment in the vegetarian and vegan scene in various Midwest communities, chief among them Omaha and Kansas City, Missouri.

Today, in this space, I'd like to suggest that Sulzberger's piece is not a result of geographic bias or any actual issue with the establishments of the Midwest; instead, it's an issue that plagues too many vegetarians — the perception that there's just not anything for them to eat.

Nearly five years ago, I was in the same place as Sulzberger. I had moved to Kansas City from Brooklyn, trading my East Coast roots for life in the Midwest. There was one large difference: I did, and still do, eat meat. However, I can tell you that I eat significantly less meat than I did. A major factor is that I dine out less, courtesy of my two children under the age of 3, and I cook more. But the dominant factor is that I have greater access to fresh produce and artisanal bread in Kansas City than I have ever had in my life. My diet is a result of adapting to the environment in which I now live, which I'm not certain that Sulzberger has been willing to do.

Still, I understand the need to vent. I've lamented the lack of food trucks, affordable ethnic food, and delivery drivers (ironically, vegan is one of my three delivery choices, the others being pizza and Chinese) in Kansas City. The first was resolved by the market, the second was a question of adjusting my expectations (there's great ethnic food, but it's just not priced like fast food), and the third allows me to feel like a hunter-gatherer for a few brief minutes. For me, the most telling portion of Sulzberger's essay is his amusing story about the beans in a small Kansas town:

During a recent visit to the Ranchito Tex-Mex Cafe in Hugoton, Kan., a small community encircled by feedlots packed with cattle and the plants that process them, I inquired if the beans at the restaurant were prepared with meat.

“There’s no meat,” the waitress replied helpfully. “It’s just pinto beans smashed up with lard.” Lard, of course, is rendered pork fat.

Even if I appreciate the dark humor, it's his dismissal of her ignorance that I can't shake. Vegetarians are vegetarians for various reasons — health, morality, rebellion — but the reality is that it is a self-imposed choice. And with that choice comes an added responsibility of finding options and knowing that lard is pork fat. The responsibility isn't on everyone around you.

Many years from now, the world may very well wake up and discover that meat is unsustainable (those of you who just stopped chewing your egg and bacon sandwich out of concern can't rest easy because, by then, we'll likely have meat or meatlike tissue from a petri dish), thus rendering us all de facto vegetarians. But until then, you'll just have to deal with the fact that your eating habits will require more effort for you to feel sated. Sulzberger suggests that vegetarians won't be satisfied with a salad. Nor should they be. But either suffer in silence or find another dish that you do like because otherwise you're exactly what this world doesn't need — another amateur critic.

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