Excuse the rant, but someone needs to take a stand for celeriac and co. And yes, I realise I might be biased, being besotted to the point of evangelical about vegetables, but hear me out:
Isn’t it time we stopped talking about ‘meat-free’ eating and starting calling it ‘veg-filled’ eating instead?
There’s been such a lot in the papers this week about ‘meat-free’ eating (including a cracking piece in The Economist) for the benefit of both our own health as well as the planet’s. And that’s all to the good – clearly we can’t sustain either on the current buffet of intensively reared meat and dairy.
For a start, the sustainability of meat is enormously complicated and it’s a terrible over simplification to say that all meat should be avoided because it is disastrous for us and for the planet. Livelihoods are at stake and we owe it to farmers and the countryside as a whole to acknowledge the nuances of the meat issue.
But, even worse to my veg-loving eyes, the whole debate sets plants up as a poor substitute for meat. Implicit within the current debate is the assumption that we’d all rather chow down on a juicy beef burger, but since that’s been proven to be ‘bad’ we’ll try and swallow a mushroom and lentil burger instead which is the next best thing.
It’s like saying, “yes darling, I will marry you because you are available and quite nice but really you’re a substitute for George Clooney who I would prefer but who I know would, ultimately, prove to be an unsustainable husband.” Rude.
And anyway, I don’t think veg is the next best thing.
I think veg is worth celebrating and eating more of simply because it’s completely delicious. Vegetables just taste amazing. They are vibrant, interesting and beautiful and they deserve the same care and attention as meat. For me, their deliciousness is reason enough to make veg the centre of our meals rather than meat.
The difference between ‘meat-free’ and ‘veg-filled’ might seem like semantics, but I think there’s a critical difference: you get a very different plate of food depending on which approach you take.
It’s the difference between asking, “how do I cook without meat?” and “dear god broccoli, you are astounding, teach me how to worship you.”
The former creates food that a) tries to put something meat-like in the steak-sized gap and b) comes with a set of moralistic rules and restrictions. This is the sort of cooking that invents vegan scotch eggs and avocado chocolate mousse. It is food that concentrates more on solving the ‘problem’ of cooking without meat/dairy than on making food delicious (which, let me tell you, vegan scotch eggs are not).
In contrast, come from a place of revelling in the wonder of vegetables and you can feel the excitement and inventiveness in the food. You cook kale and mushroom lasagne, charred broccoli with soy and sesame, whole roast cauliflower with tahini and pomegranates. Make it your job to celebrate vegetables and you end up with vibrant, interesting, satisfying food. That it is largely meat free is a almost accidental.
I think we’ve been looking at it all wrong.
Rather than add to the already endless list of things we shouldn’t be eating, couldn’t we instead focus on the incredible array of plants out there? Because putting vegetables at the centre of your plate makes for really scrumptious food. Food we’re much more likely to eat regularly.
Ok, ‘Veg-filled’ might not be the most catchy term for it. But, whatever we call it, let’s ditch the admonishing diktats and meat substitutes and instead make food that celebrates the glory of these mouth-watering, luxurious, delicious things, plants. Cook like this and we might just save the world without even realising it.