Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Help, help! The omnivore's trying to feed people vegetables!

I just read this New York Times article on Yotam Ottolenghi, an omnivore famous for his vegetarian dishes.  He writes a column, formerly known as The New Vegetarian for the Guardian, and he is part owner/creator of the Ottolenghi chain, a modern deli with vegetables as the focus.  He's a fan of appreciating those neglected or unloved vegetables like kohlrabi, and some of his techniques are close to raw foodists (though for taste, not some belief about enzymes).  There's been some debate over whether or not his recipes are suitable for inclusion in vegetarian magazines (ultimately, they were included), and he's generally a relatively controversial figure in the vegetarian community.

Ottolenghi's vegetarian cookbook.
I suppose an omnivore vegetarian chef is something like a male gynaecologist.*  It's possible, it's even possible to be good at it, but you do always suspect that they're missing something, that they can't quite understand.  Take this passage from the article linked;

In an interview with a London reporter last month, Mr. Ottolenghi was quoted as saying, “You can be vegetarian and eat fish.” No, you can’t, the faithful raged. He later recanted via Twitter. (“To all, fish eaters are NOT vegetarians!”)

Firstly; the 'faithful', really?  It's not a religion, it's a way of eating.  So, yes, whether fish is included is an important distinction; I don't want to see something labelled as 'vegetarian' or 'vegan', and get a mouthful of fish.  I'm especially suspicious of any restaurant - or, I guess, any chef - who lists fish amongst the vegetarian options.  It makes me suspicious of whether they're going to be able to accurately tell me whether an item is vegan or not.  I don't mean that I think they'll lie, I just mean I think they might go "yes, it's vegan!  Butter's vegan, right?".  Or honey, or some other ingredient.  If you're going to tell me this food is vegan, I want to be confident you know what a vegan eats.  And I don't mean that 'vegan' I used to know who used whey powder and ate dairy ice-cream because "my cravings don't always match up to my desires".  You're a vegetarian, stop confusing people.

I don't think this definition failure makes Yotam a bad person, especially as he graciously took the correction.  It just sets off my "this food might not be veg*n" sensors, which means I really don't want to eat it.

The inclusion of his recipes in magazines is a totally different issue.  I suppose some of it is, should we give our support to a non-vegetarian chef?  Personally, I veganise a lot of recipes I find on omni blogs, or those I see made by omni chefs like Gizzi Erskine or Nigella Lawson, so I don't think that's so very different.  As to the actual vegetarian-ness of his recipes, that should be apparent by reading them, so presumably they'd be checked before inclusion.  I don't see a problem there.

Try it yourself - here's a recipe for Ottolenghi's Chard Cakes with Sorrel Sauce. Picture taken by Evan Sung for the NYT.

I also think that his view of omnivorousness - to summarise, he likes meat, but thinks it's important to enjoy all the other kinds of food out there - is refreshing, and a nice gateway to opening people up to enjoying more vegan or vegetarian meals.  It can be very difficult for someone to say "I'm never going to eat meat again", especially if they have that dreadfully common mindset of "OMG, HOW CAN YOU HAVE A MEAL WITHOUT MEAT?!" (that can be so tiresome, especially when you get those people who are belligerent about it).   If there's somewhere nice you can go with an omni, and get a veggie meal, and it doesn't have to be unusual, or a special option, or weird, if it can just be totally mainstream for omnivores to go somewhere with a vegetable focus...well, that's a pretty good start, in my opinion.

What do the other vegetarians, vegans, and omnivores think?  Agree, disagree, see another point I haven't considered?  Don't be shy!

* Incidentally, my mirena was fitted by a male gynaecologist.  It wasn't as awkward as I expected.  I don't recommend googling 'mirena' unless you have some idea of what it is.  Don't say I didn't warn you.

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