Risotto, Not Rhetoric (or Red Meat)

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If there were a hall of fame for most unpleasant dining companions, my picture would hang in the main gallery, commemorating the first months after my conversion to vegetarianism.

"Go ahead, try it, it's good," I'd tell dinner guests, jabbing a forkful of utterly unappetizing tofu stir-fry or veggie burger casserole I'd made into a friend's, or sometimes even a stranger's, frowning face. "You don't have to murder any animals to eat it. And have I told you about the tool they use to kill pigs?"

Looking back, I'm struck not only by the uncreative sloppiness of my cooking--really, tofu stir-fry?--but by the foolhardy fervor of my beliefs. It comes as no surprise, my friends continued to eat meat, though they also continued to be my friends, which, given my behavior, is a bit surprising. Of course, we're wrong when we try to shame others into adopting our own lifestyle. Behavioral research has shown time and time again that negative reinforcement doesn't work.

Preached vegetarianism isn't effective: it fosters a hostile, even adversarial, relationship towards food. This is not how food should be--people love to eat, and sacrificing the joy of food is simply too much to ask. Besides, it's hypocritical. I've always found it amusing that vegetarians can be so concerned about the well-being of animals and yet quite ready to shame their own parents.

My writing professor was fond of the mandate, "Show, don't tell." It's an approach I learned to adopt in the kitchen.

The only real way to promote vegetarianism--or at least move meat from the center of the plate to the side, where it should be, and thus reduce unnecessary animal suffering and environmental damage--is by changing attitudes towards vegetarianism and those who practice it. We vegetarians should spread the joys of our lifestyle, not the shame or harm of others'.

As a writing student, my favorite professor was fond of the mandate, "Show, don't tell." It's an approach I learned to adopt in the kitchen. I never bring up the V-word with dinner guests, letting them discover on their own, usually well into the second course, that their meal is meat-free but not flavor-free. (The absence of meat allows me to cheat a bit: Recipes can be stuffed with extra butter, cream, or olive oil and still remain healthier.)

I first tried this strategy on that same professor, a steak-devouring, cigar-chomping author of historical epics who looks and talks like the hard-bitten general from every military thriller you've ever seen. My vegetarianism was a source of good-natured but limitless ribbing in the classroom ("Your story's like your plate--not enough meat!") as well as at the frequent dinners he held with students (I was "salad boy"). When I hosted a dinner for our class, I presented several meatless courses without introduction: homemade hummus, gorgonzola porcini polenta, and savory-sweet Muscat risotto. The next week he walked into class and announced he was giving up red meat. He did, as evidenced by the prodigious amounts of chicken he ate at our regular dinners and by his weekly class-time announcements about how much weight he was losing.

My musings on veganism helped me see the moral cracks in my own vegetarianism--but they also made me understand, given how obnoxious I found all the angry mail from vegans, that similarly heated rhetoric from vegetarians can only damage our cause.

fisher june9 prettyshroom post small.jpg

Photo by dontcallmeikke/FlickrCC

If you're a vegetarian who wants to spread the joy, ban words like "debeaking," "methanogenesis," and "killing cage" from your vocabulary, clear all PETA pamphlets from your table, and get cooking. When your friends see what a good time you're having eating vegetarian--not to mention how healthy and thin you look doing it--they'll be far more inclined to join you.

To aid the vegevangelist and, more importantly, please any eater, here are the recipes I served to bring my skeptical professor around:
Savory-Sweet Muscat Risotto
Gorgonzola Porcini Polenta

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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