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What's a flexitarian?

(article, Carrie Floyd)

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If aliens were to touch down in my office and survey the contents of my bookcase — assuming, of course, that aliens read comprehensively — they might think I am a vegetarian. Should the same aliens wander into the kitchen for a snack, they would find plenty of beans, grains, fruits, and vegetables, but not a whole lot of meat (cats aside). 

The thought of me as a vegetarian would strike many of my own people as funny. In particular, I’m thinking of those I’ve fought for the last piece of bacon, friends who've seen me gnaw on ribs and barter shamelessly for crab, and family members who've heard me say, “I’m feeling carnivorous today,” which translates as “Let’s share a Reuben.” 

Luckily, we live in a time of neologisms, which means I can have my cake and chicken, too, and even coin a name for myself if I so choose. Not too long ago a vegetarian was someone who didn’t eat meat — so old school! In the new age of vegetarianism, we have special words and phrases to clarify which animal products one eats or avoids: a lacto-ovo vegetarian eats milk and eggs, a pescatarian eats fish, and a pollotarian eats chicken (not to be confused with a proletarian, who eats free bread).

Out of all of these phrases, the one I’m partial to is “flexitarian,” which fuses “flexible” with “vegetarian.” As a word, I like the expansiveness it suggests, the idea of being receptive rather than dogmatic. And as a way of eating, it’s what makes the most sense to me: To eat a primarily plant-based diet, with a little meat thrown in. Though long-term research on the relationship of diet and health is still in the making, what data exists suggests that the optimum human diet lies in whole foods: minimally processed grains, legumes, fruits, vegetables, and meat (in small portions). 

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For those looking for guidance in preparing plant-centric meals, there's a wide range of cookbooks available. Those classics of the 1970s (paperbacks jam-packed with tiny type, folksy editions on recycled brown paper with hand-lettered recipes) are a far cry from what’s currently being published: glossy hard-bound tomes replete with color photographs.

This is good, of course, and not because there isn’t still a place for The Vegetarian Epicure or Moosewood Cookbook within the stew of vegetarian cuisine and literature. It’s good because it means that vegetarianism is going mainstream, and the trend of eating more vegetables is one we can all benefit from.  

Peter Berley, author of The Modern Vegetarian Kitchen, Fresh Food Fast, and most recently The Flexitarian Table, is no newcomer to this field. Though his professional experience, as a chef and teacher, is firmly rooted in vegetarian (and vegan) cooking, he cooks and eats meat as well. In the introduction to The Flexitarian Table, Berley writes that for him, this style of cooking is an outgrowth of feeding a family that includes a strict vegetarian and an affirmed meat-eater. His desire to make wholesome meals for the entire family inspired improvisation and deconstruction; the result, as demonstrated in The Flexitarian Table, is recipes that convert easily between vegetarian and meat versions. 

It’s a noble undertaking, as many have thrown their hands up at the thought of pleasing both those who eat and eschew meat at the same table. My own mother was flummoxed when it came to entertaining vegetarians, relying for years on the big-salad-and-lots-of-bread strategy. Berley, though, makes it look like duck soup — or Pan-Seared Rosemary Duck, a feature of this winter menu: 

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For this meal, the duck and tofu are marinated with the same seasoning mixture, cooked separately, then served with the same side dishes. It’s a cooking style that relies on planning, parsing, and being flexible, as Berley is when he recommends substituting duck fat for the sesame oil if opting to make only the meat version of this dish. I can imagine some vegetarians blanching at the suggestion, like the old acquaintance of mine who refused to kiss meat-eaters.

For those of us less easily offended, there’s something hilarious about seeing recipes like these: Charmoula Lamb/Tempeh Kebabs, Portobello Mushrooms/Steak with Bread Crumb Salsa, and Stuffed Dumpling Squash/Poussin with Quinoa, Dried Fruit, and Pumpkin Seeds. Amusing, I suppose, because it almost seems taboo. We’re used to segregation: vegetarian or meat cookbooks, not vegetarian/meat. 

“Inclusion,” Berley writes, is what his book is all about: “including people who eat in different ways, including different ingredients, and including great taste and good nutrition in every meal.” This kind of cooking/thinking is one I can happily dip my fork into.  

As for those aliens in my office, once they learn I’m a flexitarian they might want to high-tail it out of there; I’ve never eaten an alien, but not because I’m opposed to it. With a pinch of salt and a dry white wine, I’ll bet they’re pretty darn good. I just hope they don’t taste like chicken.

p(bio). Carrie Floyd is Culinate's food editor.

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