A new book considers a world where meat isn't at the center of the plate

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Food journalist Alicia Kennedy considers how the world would look if meat returned to its status as a luxury item. Photo by Israel Meléndez Ayala.

When we remove meat from the center of our plates, what do we find? How would our world look if meat returned to its former status as a luxury good? Why do so many Americans think that eating meat is a birthright? Food writer Alicia Kennedy began asking herself these questions and ended up writing a book, No Meat Required: The Cultural History and Culinary Future of Plant-Based Eating.

Evan Kleiman: You flat-out say in the book, "I don't care about meat." When did you give it up? And how do you remember it being part of your meals growing up?

Alicia Kennedy: I gave meat up in 2011, which was a bit later in life than I think people would expect. I was 25, 26 when I gave it up. When I was growing up, it was a huge part of my life. My grandmother passed when I was quite young, around five years old. The memories I have of her are about lamb chops. They're about lobster. They're about just eating, eating, eating. 

Growing up, my mother made chicken cutlets all the time, she made London Broil all the time. It was a huge part of everything for me. So when I gave it up, it was really a rupture in terms of my relationships with people in my life. They really had to get accustomed to that. When they found out it wasn't temporary, it was very traumatic, in some ways, for everyone around me. But it was something that I had been sort of always drawn to. 

It was a way of life that I had been interested in throughout my teenage years but could never really commit to because I wasn't in control of the food that I had. I couldn't really cook. Once I was out of that zone and was a full adult with a full-time job in an apartment and was able to cook my own meals, I was like, let me give this a try. And I did love it as much as I always thought I would

You write, "Given the reality of food apartheid, which keeps mainly black, brown and indigenous communities from having access to fresh fruits and vegetables, making overtures about going to the farmers market is wildly out of touch with reality." Where do we begin to tackle food justice and the panoply of issues surrounding meat consumption when availability of good, fresh produce is kept out of the hands of many?

I think we start by reversing the amount of money we're allowing large, industrial meat companies and agribusiness to obtain and put that into fresh produce, into food access, into programs that support food justice in various communities. There's an idea that meat is the cheap and accessible thing to eat. But this is a manufactured idea through these subsidies, through various programs that allow these companies to keep the cost of meat artificially low and wildly available and scaled up to a rate that is ecologically destructive. 

So when we say, "People might not be able to access fresh produce or beans or legumes," these are all by design. It's not necessarily a natural condition. That's why folks in food justice stopped saying "food desert" and started to say "food apartheid" — because a desert is naturally occurring. We're putting $38 billion per year in subsidies back into industrial animal agriculture. If we took some of that and used it for various regional food justice programs, I think there could be a very different story to be told.

Can you talk about why beef is such a hot button issue for Republicans and people who are, politically, more to the right? It seems to intertwine with so much symbolism as well as notions of virility and affluence.

Yes, and that's true throughout history. To have meat is to have money, to have the status and luxury to obtain meat. The thing that happened in the United States is that beef was made cheap and accessible and plentiful. So that gave a lot of people a sense that this is what the American dream was built on. It's built on a lot of things but one of those things is cheap beef. So a lot of people have a very strong attachment to it as representative of the possibilities and the potential of America to make people gain status and wealth.

Now, we see that there are studies that a strong attachment to meat-eating, to beef specifically, represents an attachment to dominance ideologies and an unwillingness to accept cultural change. So this leans a bit more reactionary, a bit more conservative. The folks that are very attached to beef are going to be very attached to the idea that a cowboy and cattle and a very well-stocked meat section at the supermarket represents something intrinsic about being American and being strong and having a lot of power. 

This is why when President Trump, at the beginning of the pandemic, invoked the Defense Production Act to keep meat production happening at the scale at which people were accustomed to, it was very telling. Even though there were so many folks suffering in meat processing — even before the pandemic, people were getting sick at a very high rate in meat processing facilities, they were not being provided with the proper precautions and testing — it was maintained that beef was so essential that it had to keep going, it had to keep being created. That's a very recent example of how attached to beef, and attached to meat and ample meat, the American ideology is.

Do you think that this is one reason it is so difficult for Congress to dial back subsidies on beef and the corn that's grown for feed?

Absolutely. It's a really deep, deep cultural significance, this role that meat plays in the American psyche and the role that ample meat plays in the American psyche. Folks used to write home to their family in Europe and say, "I eat meat every day." It was something to quite literally write home about. So when you take that away, folks feel like this is the first brick to fall in terms of the nation's strength. 

I think anytime a politician mentions anything about climate change and food, there's a hysteria over the removal of beef from people's plates, the removal of hamburgers from people's hands. It's very, very cultural. That's why I think it's so significant to discuss what it would mean for the culture to shift. Because if the culture shifts, then perhaps the political and economic tide can come behind that.

Speaking about cultural shifts, when vegetables like kale or Brussels sprouts go mainstream, so many people become puzzled. Why do you think that is?

I think we're accustomed to commercials like, "Beef, it's what's for dinner" and "Pork, the other white meat" but we're not accustomed to anyone making vegetables cool. It's only happened a couple of times, so it's very perplexing. These things don't have that deep-rooted sense of cachet. These are supposed to be side dishes, these are supposed to be afterthoughts to a lot of folks. When they become the main attraction, as has happened with Brussels sprouts… and that was a really interesting story because it was a new type of Brussels sprout that was grown and prepared in a new way. Maybe if we multiplied that Brussels sprouts story or if the kale lobby that doesn't really exist did exist or if the excitement that happens every summer around heirloom tomatoes and beautiful tomato sandwiches, if we saw that kind of foment around lots of different vegetables and lots of different fruits and grains and legumes, that is part of what a cultural shift would look like. It's that excitement being sustained over time and over a diversity of ingredients.

I think we forget as eaters that we are, in fact, our own lobbyists. Can you speak to the bifurcated nature of embracing plant-based foods? On one hand, it's a celebration of the earth, of soil, of a groundedness of humans to our place. Then there are, as you say, "Products that promise innovation, that continue to hide the planet, to hide the joy of cooking." This tension has always made me uncomfortable, this brave new world touted as the future of food.

It's always been very, very troubling to me because it complicates what the idea of plant-based eating would be for most folks. I think it's been a big turn off to a lot of people, a lot of omnivores, to hear about plant-based food only in the context of products you buy at the store or the availability of products or bio-reactors to make cell based meat. I think it's done a huge detriment. It's made it part of the conversation in a more broad way to talk about Impossible Burgers, Beyond Meat, and lab meat. But at the same time, it's made it more alien and more foreign to folks who probably wouldn't mind eating a veggie burger every once in a while, whether it's an Impossible Burger or something made with carrots and quinoa.

If you position the "future of food" as strange little products or proteins made in a vat, that makes people very uncomfortable. It makes people wary of the idea of plant-based eating because it doesn't seem like something they would have control over. It seems like something a company would own and, perhaps, be opaque about and not have to tell you about any sort of nutritional issues or whether there was contamination. It makes it a lot more complicated and a lot more off-putting when you don't talk about plant-based food as most of the food that's available to humans on this planet, and you talk about it as products from corporations that you have to buy in the store. I think we've seen a lot of folks be turned off by that.

There are studies that show that if you put plant based foods on a menu and do not mark them as vegan or vegetarian, people are more likely to order those items. Whereas if you mark them vegan or vegetarian, it comes with a lot of baggage and a lot of weirdness around it. People are less likely to order those things. I think we're seeing that play out as well with the plant-based food industry and food tech industry. Folks think of these things as products and technologies rather than food. I think that has done a big detriment.

Your book is called No Meat Required. If you were going to wave a magic wand to create a world in which no meat is required, what would it look like?

It's too difficult to say "no meat required for the whole world." I would commit only to the United States and I would say that we get rid of industrial animal agriculture, we get rid of factory farming, and folks are consuming a diversity of plants, legumes, and grains that come from their regional ecosystems.

I'll raise a glass to that. 

"No Meat Required" chronicles the history of plant-based eating in the U.S. Photo courtesy of Beacon Press.