The Case for Semitarianism

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Photo by LDCross/Flickr CC

I'm embarrassed to admit it, but my first thought after reading Aglaia Kremezi's vivid account of slaughtering a pig was, Gross. Dedicated vegetarian or not (and I am), the phrase "head cheese" is upsetting the first time you hear it--especially when it comes with photos. But then I read the piece again and something changed. I looked past words like "innards" and "cleaver" and started to see the beautiful Greek traditions Aglaia wrote about, the ancient culture that has celebrated pork the same ceremonious way for centuries. (It also helps that Aglaia is a wonderful writer and one of the sweetest people on the planet.)

I looked at the bright, smiling faces in Aglaia's photo as they held the severed head of the pig and resisted my knee-jerk reaction that meat is "wrong." I thought how silly it would be to tell these people to eat tofu instead, and what a loss to Greek culture, to all culture, it would be if they did. Food is absolutely central to the cultures that make the world so interesting, and that food includes meat, sometimes at its center. Imagine Greek Easter with Morningstar faux lamb, Buenos Aires parrillas serving tofu steak, or Deer Hunter Appalachia giving up rifles for mushroom foraging, and you'll understand why the cost of universal vegetarianism would be perhaps too high.

But meat remains bad for the environment, bad for your health, and really bad for the animals who die to produce it. What to do? In a culinary landscape marked by an increasingly sophisticated love of food (including meat) and by a rising awareness of environmental and dietary concerns surrounding food (especially meat), a compromise is emerging. It looks a lot like vegetarianism without being actual vegetarianism, that controversial ideology that has come to be as much political as dietary. You get all the benefits--be healthier, help animals, save the environment--with none of the sacrifices. You can still have bacon. You can still enjoy Pennsylvania hunting trips and Greek slaughtering celebrations and turkey at Thanksgiving.

I see no problems--ethical, dietary, or culinary--with what I like to call semitarianism: A diet of sometimes vegetarianism, sometimes omnivorism.

This new movement is taking a few different forms, but the constant tenet is to set a schedule for yourself with your dietary life divided into two different categories: times when you eat meat and times when you don't.

Perhaps the most popular manifestation is Mark Bittman's recent edict, "vegetarian before dinnertime": he eats no meat until supper, when all bets are off. It works. Bittman reports eyebrow-raising advances in his health without having to give up the food he's built a life and career around.

There are other schedules, other ways. Paul McCartney recently endorsed "Meat Free Mondays." A lifelong vegetarian friend allows herself meat on holidays and special occasions--and this is a girl who loves locally farmed heirloom beans the way most people love bacon. A food-loving colleague eats meat only on weekends, which "makes tons of sense for my busy single life," he says. "Plus, I feel healthier, and absence makes the heart grow fonder for meat, too."

Whether the right course for you is all-out vegetarianism or merely mitigated meat depends on whether you see meat as an indulgence similar to alcohol: a social norm harmless in careful moderation. Or whether you see meat more like cigarettes--a harmful vice at any level.

For me, the latter view makes sense, though that has a bit to do with my addictive personality (I can either eat three burgers a week or no burgers at all) as well as my moral qualms. But I see no problems--ethical, dietary, or culinary--with what I like to call semitarianism: A diet of sometimes vegetarianism, sometimes omnivorism.

Don't confuse it with so-called "flexitarianism," a reduced-meat diet undertaken for temporary budgetary relief and weight loss. Gourmet explains that the economic downturn has caused a parallel downturn in consumption of pricey meat. If that's flexitarianism, then it's a nice step forward, but it misses the point. Presumably, once adherents hit their target weight or save up enough money, it's back to daily cheeseburgers. That's not vegetarianism (or semitarianism) any more than the South Beach diet. Real commitment of any kind is borne out of philosophical conviction, and that conviction is no less legitimate for food-lovers who abstain from meat one day a week or all seven.

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Photo by Gio_JL/FlickrCC

For the vegetarians and vegans already composing e-mails cursing me for "excusing" meat eating, recall that even the most fervently ethics-based vegetarianism isn't really about an ideological purity of all-or-nothing, us-versus-them purism activist groups foster. It's about reducing animal suffering. Whether one person gives up meat or three people cut out a third, it's all the same to the cow, and it should be the same to us.

If you want to give semitarian eating a taste, try these recipes inspired by the wonderful but meat-heavy cooking of Tyler Florence. You'll find it's easy to make a meaty dish meatless without sacrificing flavor or fun.
Baked Rigatoni with Eggplant and Meatless Sausage
Mushroom French Onion Soup