‘No Meat Required’ Finds Optimism and Abundance in Meat-Free Cooking

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What surprises me the most about No Meat Required, the debut book from prolific food writer Alicia Kennedy, is its optimism. Optimism is not, I imagine, what most of us feel when reminded of the environmental and ethical tolls of eating meat. And yet, Kennedy manages to find it in No Meat Required, out from Beacon tomorrow. Where some might see vegetarianism and veganism through only the lens of loss — “cutting out” or “giving up” meat — Kennedy argues a different case: that meat is unnecessary for understanding abundance or pleasurable culinary experiences.

But how we eat is “not just a personal choice, it’s a collective choice,” Kennedy says. “There’s so much possibility in thinking through how we eat and how it relates to other things in the world.” To that end, No Meat Required positions itself as a descendant of Frances Moore Lappé’s Diet for a Small Planet, the influential 1971 book that exposed the shortcomings of the modern food system — and meat in particular — in providing healthy, sustainable food. Like Lappé, who described herself as a “possible-ist,” Kennedy ardently believes that through dietary and agricultural shifts, we can make a better world for animals, for humans, and for the planet, and that this should matter to everyone, whether we eat meat or not.

I spoke to Kennedy about No Meat Required and what we can discover when we shift our diets away from meat and toward plants.

Eater: I’m really interested in how the book changed between what you had in mind when you sold it and what you’re releasing now. The Publisher’s Weekly deal report describes it as a “critique of the contemporary vegan movement” that makes “an argument for radical veganism,” whereas the final book feels more optimistic and doesn’t argue for “radical veganism” so much as intentional consumption. How did your perspective and goals for the book change as you wrote it?

Alicia Kennedy: The original proposal that I wanted to do was this cultural history and examination of subcultures and political reasons for, specifically, people going vegan. But when you focus solely on veganism, I think you miss a lot, leaving out vegetarianism. I have become a vegetarian over time; when this book sold in 2020, I was more vegetarian, but when I was writing the proposal, I was much more vegan. When we sold the book, it did need to have this very strong positioning: What did veganism mean then? What does it mean to say “plant-based,” and is “plant-based” kind of a cop-out? As I dug more into the history of the phrase, I realized it’s not a cop-out really.

We sold the book in June of 2020. It was becoming more clear that the pandemic was a crisis that had repercussions, especially for industrial agriculture and the meat processing industry and labor in that industry. I had a phone call with my editor, and I was like, “I don’t want to write the book that I sold,” basically. I wanted to write a book about why it’s just an imperative, ecologically speaking, to eat less meat, and to make a case for how that can be something we all do and it doesn’t have to have this grand overarching meaning. Ultimately, the end goal for me isn’t converting people to veganism or vegetarianism, but to make people aware that there is another way of eating that does center plants and that the way forward requires the end of industrial animal agriculture.

You write about the “conscientious omnivore,” who you identify as “our best ally in destroying industrial animal farming.” You’re accepting of that concept, if perhaps a bit skeptical. How has your relationship to the “conscientious omnivore” changed, and did that happen in the course of writing this?

It did happen in the course of writing it. I think I’ve just become a lot softer over time. I’ve learned more, I’ve been on farms more, I’ve talked to more people, I’ve traveled. For sure, I have softened to the reality that there are going to be people who continue to eat meat — and so, what is the best possible way for that to happen?

It’s an interesting question to navigate because I personally don’t eat meat; I personally really bristle at the idea that there is such a thing as humane slaughter. At the same time, I understand that it’s just a fact of life, and so, I don’t want to exclude those people from my perspective. I do 100 percent believe that vegans and vegetarians need to align more with folks who are understanding of the role that animals and livestock play in agriculture and with those folks who do want to eat meat but eat it in a more responsible manner.

At the end of the day, we have to name a real culprit for why the food system is responsible for 34 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, and we have to name the culprit as industrial animal agriculture, where 83 percent of land is used to produce only 18 percent of calories. That’s been true since Diet for a Small Planet in 1971. We’ve known that this is a problem: that we’re misusing resources, that it’s leading to hunger, that it’s now leading to ecological catastrophe, but we continue to support this industry. For me, naming the problem as factory farming — as industrial animal agriculture — is the most crucial thing we can do to change people’s perspectives on eating.

This makes me think of the phrase “there’s no ethical consumption under capitalism” and specifically how people have come to accept it as meaning that they’re absolved of individual responsibility since it’s corporations that are doing the worst thing. How did you approach that challenge of making individuals feel that what they do matters, even if you identify the culprit as something bigger?

I really bristle at the phrase “no ethical consumption under capitalism.” I think that it’s so important for us to recognize our collective — not responsibility, necessarily — but our collective power to make these grand shifts. Someone was recently saying to me, “Politicians don’t decide what happens, they follow the tides of what’s happening.” There is so much collective power to be harnessed in making decisions that do not support industrial meat processing. I definitely wanted to toe the line and not say that you, as an individual, are responsible — because I don’t believe that, that’s not true — but we, as individuals in a collective, do have the power and the capacity to push forward for a different way of doing things.

I think it’s been really difficult to get people outside the mindset of “there’s no such thing as ethical consumption under capitalism.” It makes us all feel very good to say that and to believe it and to just go on with consumption in the way that we do. But I also think that there’s so much power that we are giving up if we don’t say, “Hey, actually, maybe my individual decisions can only do so much — but if I’m doing this and I’m bringing some other folks with me, and we’re bringing this collective energy toward it, that actually does have an effect.”

I remember this happening where I grew up on Long Island, where people started to bring bags to the grocery store. It started to be fashionable to not use plastic bags, and then all of a sudden it was legislation. I think that people are forgetting that if we make these small changes for a different world, we can be the nudge toward bigger change.

Is there an equivalent with plant-based eating that you can imagine — that would make you think, This shows that we can actually do something?

It would be people buying less meat. It would be people buying beans and tofu more than they’re buying meat at the grocery store. It would become fashionable and the norm to find yourself in the bean aisle more than it would be to find yourself by the butcher’s counter. In 2020, we did see that small surge in tofu sales.

I’m always saying that recipe developers have so much more power than they probably think they do in terms of influencing people to eat a certain way. If folks who have a huge following were to take a lot of the meat out of it — maybe not all of it — that’s also something that would drive that behavioral change to make beans desirable, to make tofu desirable; seitan, tempeh, etc. That’s the kind of thing that makes the cultural change happen, and the cultural change drives that political change.

But to be clear: To you, ideally, the metric of success is tempeh and bean sales going up, not necessarily Impossible Burger sales going up.

Yes, of course. Because Impossible Burgers are made with genetically modified soy, I think it’s still a problem of how we use land and how we use resources.

The future of food that you want to see is not tech companies, and what you cover in the book is subculture in a historical sense — restaurants like the long-standing Bloodroot or the now-closed Foodswings. Where do you see the most promising development when it comes to counterculture and plant-based eating right now?

I’m not sure how much I explicitly see counterculture in plant-based eating right now. There’s Lagusta Yearwood at Lagusta’s Luscious in the Hudson Valley. Superiority Burger is still a place where what they’re doing is extremely rooted in a very clear ethos of hospitality that is very specific to vegetarian food. Donnet in Buenos Aires, Argentina, is cooking mushrooms and vegan food out of trying to make an ecological statement more so than out of a desire to be vegetarian or vegan. There’s Los Loosers in Mexico City. Pietramala in Philadelphia is doing the most ambitious vegan food I’ve ever seen in my entire life.

We’re seeing this moment that’s really interesting where vegan food is becoming this elevated fine dining. I think these folks tend to come from subculture — usually the punk or hardcore scene — but it’s interesting to see it have this expression now, which is so associated with fine dining.

Yeah, we’re at a point where it’s just good, interesting food now, not just vegetarian food. Do you think that’s a good thing?

I think that’s the goal — that’s it. If anything, I think that good food is what gets people in the door and changes people’s minds about what plant-based food is, and changing people’s minds about what plant-based food is changes, hopefully, the way they eat on a regular basis.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

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