From omnivore to vegetarian: 'No gray area'

Willie Grace | 1/7/2015, 12:53 p.m. | Updated on 1/7/2015, 12:53 p.m.
Vegetable cookery was familiar terrain to Hopkins, a James Beard award-winning Southern chef. Despite the region's reputation for BBQ and ...
Living in New York with access to a wide array of ethnic cuisine made it easier to evolve away from French and Italian-inspired meals toward plant-based Asian and African fare. They discovered they were addicted to "flavor profiles," like the crispiness of bacon or the smokiness of beef, not the actual meat itself.

"That's when I realized something was going on."

After spending a year on leave from the Post to learn about homesteading in Maine, he had a completely new view of food that pushed him to be a full-time vegetarian. He said he hesitated at first, wary of the label vegetarians have as picky eaters. He also knew some people would question the appropriateness of the editor of a mainstream newspaper food section not being an omnivore.

He considered all the angles and baked them into a 2013 column, "A former omnivore comes out as vegetarian."

Most of the response was positive, he said. As for the skeptics, he assured them his 30 years as a meat-eater would inform his editorial judgment. They could also count on balanced coverage from the rest of the Post staff, which includes a BBQ columnist.

"I don't find the idea of meat to be personally off-putting, I just don't want to eat it," he said. "If there's a meat-centered story I don't consider it any differently than a story about a community garden or making tofu."

If anything, being a vegetarian has made him receptive to a broader range of ideas in agriculture and food policy.

"I think the section is probably more well-rounded than before," he said. "I think people who call themselves omnivores are not as attuned to vegetarian topics as the other way around. I was a meat-eater for long time, I'm familiar with those ingredients and I think now I'm familiar with a new set of ingredients and new trends in a way that I wasn't before."

It's been good for his career, too. He published a cookbook and gets frequent requests for speaking engagements. Most often, the topic of discussion is his shift in perspective, and not being a vegetarian writer.

Focusing on the rest of the plate

"The Flavor Bible" creators Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg also turned their journey from omnivores to vegetarians into a cookbook. But it started on a mournful note.

From 2000 to 2009, the couple lost all their parents to cancer. After a "hedonistic" three decades chasing food trends, they decided they could no longer ignore the headlines "linking nutrition and wellness," and started paying attention to what they were eating when they weren't "eating professionally," Page said.

They started experimenting in 2012 but they didn't do it overnight, she said. Cheese and eggs were the hardest to give up, and they started out with a lot of quiche and vegetarian lasagna.

Living in New York with access to a wide array of ethnic cuisine made it easier to evolve away from French and Italian-inspired meals toward plant-based Asian and African fare. They discovered they were addicted to "flavor profiles," like the crispiness of bacon or the smokiness of beef, not the actual meat itself.

They've been eating "99% vegetarian" ever since. They eat vegan at home and prefer it in restaurants, but if nothing is available they go for the closest vegetarian option.

Their experiment turned into a lifestyle and the inspiration for their latest cookbook, "The Vegetarian Flavor Bible."

"The truth is once we stopped eating meat all the other ingredients on the plate take on so much more excitement," Page said.

"My dining experience is so enhanced I don't feel like I'm giving up anything."

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