What food history would look like if we ignored animal products

Published by Beacon Press in 2023, Alicia Kennedy‘s No Meat Required: The Cultural History and Culinary Future of Plant-Based Eating, is exactly what its subtitle describes.

Kennedy was a vegetarian food writer in her 20s and the podcast host of Meatless. She was vegan for a time and previously also ran a vegan bakery, but now identifies as vegetarian.

Her introduction describes the book accurately: “This is a book about claiming biodiversity and cultural imperialism. . . . biodiversity and rebelling the food system in a way that supports cultural tradition and gastronomy. . . . about what it means to remove meat from the center of our plates: if we do that, what do we find?

Many people can’t fathom what they would eat if they removed meat, dairy, seafood, and eggs, even though they’re already eating plant-based food around it. Here are the highlights I learned from No Meat Required:

  • Frances Moore Lappe’s Diet for a Small Planet is one book that touted eating whole foods and talked about the relationship between ecology and food, and food access.
  • Vegetarianism intersected with the American civil rights movement and Black, Brown, and Indigenous people contributed to the vegan movement, even though today they go unrecognized. These movements drove up the price of products like quinoa and caused shortages.
  • The influence of people in the West earning higher incomes drove up meat consumption in Asia.
  • While it makes sense to eat as local as possible, there are pros and cons to doing so.
  • Kennedy likened the ignorance of colonizing Indigenous Peoples in North America to that of the meat processing plant workers during COVID.
  • PR firm founder Oberon Sinclair created a fake “American Kale Association” as a publicity stunt in 2015 (I love this idea, but it’d be hard to do for every vegetable out there, let alone all plant-based foods!).
  • While beef consumption is down, chicken consumption has gone way up.
  • Kennedy talks about the alternative protein sector, which is also at risk of greenwashing.
  • Chapter 3 is dedicated to soy. She talks about how tempeh is made, and William Shurtleff & Akiki Aoyagi’s The Book of Tofu, The Book of Miso, and The Book of Tempeh, along with their subsequent cookbooks and American restaurants.
  • She talks at length about the 1960s and 70s counterculture era that rejected industrial agriculture. This spawned the cult-like commune called “The Farm” which became a coop in 1983 and still exists.
  • There was a vegetarian feminist movement called Bloodroot Collective, which is now a restaurant, bookstore, and festival.
  • Although there are more plant-based products, it unfortunately hasn’t increased the number of vegetarians or vegans or reduced the impact of animal agriculture.
  • Chapter 5 is dedicated to the vegan punk food movement, in which punk ‘zines like 1990’s Soy, Not Oil! and acts of non-violent protest became popular.
  • Kennedy mentions important women in the vegan movement: Sarah Kramer and Tanya Barnard who published How It All Vegan!, Isa Chandra Moskowitz, and Lagusta Yearwood (co-author of The Best of Bloodroot cookbooks), and lauren Ornelas of Food Empowerment Project, which has amazing multilingual sites with vegan recipes.
  • Kennedy also covers eco fascism (in which white people in the Global North are turning away people migrating because of climate change), food justice, race bias in cookbooks, and cooking as a political act.
  • She discusses the health-washing of plant-based diets after 9/11 through books like Skinny Bitch, the raw vegan food movement, and Hippocrates Wellness‘s famed Ann Wigmore (which claims that raw food cures disease. Interestingly, it’s rebranded from “Hippocrates Health Institute.”)
  • Kennedy reviews documentation of the origin of plant-based milk in the 13th century. Li Yu-ying made the first soy-based dairy in 1908. Then she talks about Miyoko Schinner’s journey and Perfect Day’s flora-based whey protein.
  • The book ends with the future of food, including lab-grown meat (which Plant Based Food Association Founder Michele Simon likens to Theranos). Kennedy talks about the challenges ahead, but there’s also a sense of hope.

While No Meat Required isn’t authored by a vegan nor aims to convert people to veganism, it’s a thorough recap of the history of plant-based cuisine, a tribute to vegans who were a part of ushering in the vegan food movement, and a glimmer of hope that the gastronomy and culinary upper echelon (along the likes of Eleven Madison Park) might someday normalize plant-based eating and the vegan lifestyle.

 

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