The occasional carnivore: Flexitarian eaters finding they really can have it both ways

Posted March 18, 2011, at 5:23 a.m.

Identifying yourself as an eater used to be simple. You either ate meat, or you didn’t.

Now? Maybe you eat meat, but only certain kinds or only on certain days — or even certain hours. Or you don’t eat meat — except when you do.

If you’re not vegetarian or carnivore, what are you? The term “flexitarian” is catching on, although author Mark Bittman likes “smartly thought-out omnivore.”

His most recent books, “Food Matters” and “The Food Matters Cookbook,” came about because of his own vegan-by-day/carnivore-by-night lifestyle.

“If it’s an anything-movement, it’s a common-sense movement,” says Bittman. “I do think the worm has turned and people are understanding that the diet that is the most prevalent and easiest is not the diet that’s best.”

Whether you’re cutting out meat during the day to save calories or cutting back on it during the week to save money or wear-and-tear on the planet, eating styles aren’t one-size-fits-all any longer.

Flexitarian isn’t a new concept. The magazine Vegetarian Times has estimated that as many as 70 percent of its readers are vegetarians who occasionally eat meat, and the American Dialect Society voted “flexitarian” the year’s most useful word back in 2003, defining it as “a vegetarian who occasionally eats meat.”

What’s getting attention now are people who are going the other direction: Meat-eaters who skip the flesh at least some of the time.

Oprah Winfrey declared a one-week vegan challenge on her talk show Feb. 1, taking 378 staff members with her (300 made it). She’s also added a Meatless Monday at her company, Chicago-based Harpo Productions.

Celebrity chef Mario Batali’s 14 restaurants now offer two vegetarian options every Monday, too, joining the Web-based campaign www.meatlessmonday.com.

Even former president and junk-food junkie Bill Clinton got named 2010 Person of the Year by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals when he went mostly vegan, although he still eats fish, to lose weight before daughter Chelsea’s wedding. And he’s reportedly sticking with it.

Food blogger Matt Lardie of Durham, N.C., says he and fiance Leland Garrett made the decision to limit meat for monetary and ethical reasons. Lardie was a vegetarian in college who started eating meat again out of necessity when he was on a five-month trip to Ecuador.

When they moved to the Raleigh-Durham area, they discovered a thriving culture around local and humanely raised meat. It met their desire for better food — but it cost more. So they started finding ways to eat it less.

“Our flexitarianism came about from that perfect storm of lack of money and moral obligation,” says Lardie, who manages the Hillsborough Cheese Co.

“The last time we bought and cooked steaks was on Christmas. We save it for special occasions. I buy a whole chicken and I roast it, I use the leftovers to make chicken salad, I use the bones to make stock. I try to stretch every last dollar from it.”

Sometimes, he sees a great meat deal at the Food Lion near his house and he’ll find himself standing there, debating the choice of dollars over values. Finally, he’ll tell himself, “‘If I’m having this much moral trouble just purchasing it, it’s not worth it.’”

Part of the interest in less meat is the recognition of the environmental and health costs of all-meat, all-the-time, says Bittman.

Several years ago, in response to his own health issues, he started eating a vegan diet during the day and eating meat, in smaller amounts, after 6 p.m. That led to his two “Food Matters” books, where meat takes a smaller role.

It isn’t choosing one diet over the other, it’s allowing more flexibility to make responsible choices that work for you — and still allow enjoyment, he says.

Jenn Grabenstetter of Charlotte, the editor of Where Charlotte Magazine and a blogger for Charlotte Magazine, eats meat, while husband Joe, a teacher at Providence Day School, is a vegetarian. When they met, she was just coming out of the “pretend-vegetarian” style she started in college. She returned to eating meat, but he didn’t.

Today, they often cook together, one making a vegetarian dish while the other makes something with meat. Or she’ll make a dish two ways, with a meat substitute for his portion.

“Mostly, I eat everything except red meat,” she says. “A lot of our cooking has evolved around the idea of chicken and chicken substitutes.” But she also goes vegetarian part of the time, too. She likes the vegetarian versions of dishes such as chili. “I actually really like vegetarian chicken nuggets.”

At the end of the day, who makes the better choice?

“I give him grief,” she says. “He’s not the best vegetarian. There’s a lot of vegetables he doesn’t like. Even if I went full-vegetarian, there are still things he wouldn’t eat. So it wouldn’t simplify life for me.”

Charlottean Desiree Kane calls herself “mostly vegetarian.” What she eats depends on how she feels, she says.

“I don’t know a lot about nutrition, but if I start feeling tired or like I don’t have energy, I start eating primarily vegetarian.” On the other hand, “If I’m feeling low on iron, I eat some meat.”

At 29, she defines her job as “a social media person,” who blogs and does marketing using social media such as Facebook. She cooks at home about half the time, focusing on local or organic products, and spends the rest of the time eating at places such as Luna Living Kitchen in SouthEnd, Savor Cafe on Morehead or Zoe’s Vegan Kitchen in University City. Even Pinky’s, the burger place near her house in Wesley Heights, has falafel burgers.

She still eats chicken and shrimp when she wants. “I will venture into turkey, but it makes me tired.” She can tell a difference when she eats meat, particularly beef.

“Even the next day, I can feel it. I feel sluggish, I can tell my body has worked so hard to digest this meat that it’s tired.”

True vegans and vegetarians may bristle at the idea of identifying yourself as a nonmeat eater if you eat meat. But Bittman says he hasn’t encountered much resistance to the idea of a more flexible eating style.

“I have vegan supporters, I have vegan allies,” he says. “We have friendly arguments. Ten years ago or even five years ago, vegans were passionate and could tend to be hostile to people who were not. And now I think many vegans have recognized what I have recognized, which is that there is a wide range of diets.”

Focusing less on meat in cooking means people will naturally focus more on plants and whole grains to fill the gap, and that pushes things back into perspective, he says.

An example is his recipe in “The Food Matters Cookbook” for traditional French cassoulet, Cassoulet With Lots of Vegetables. With only a pound of meat for four to eight servings, the dish moves back to its origin as a bean-based stew.

“How would you make cassoulet if you were a real peasant? You wouldn’t start with duck confit and sausage and pork. Meat was precious. It was a dish of beans with whatever scrap of meat you could find. It flips things around and puts things the way they used to be.

“If we were eating that way the majority of the time, we’d be better off. Meat has an acceptable but fine role. We’ve just done too much of it.”

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WHAT DOES IT MEAN?

Vegetarian: A diet based on plants, grains and nuts that also includes dairy products, such as milk, butter and eggs.

Pescatarian: A plant- and grain-based diet that includes fish and shellfish.

Vegan: A diet that includes no animal products, including butter, milk, eggs or honey, and no use of animal products such as leather.

Flexitarian: A vegetarian diet that includes some meat, usually chicken and fish, or a meat-eater who sometimes skips meat for vegetarian or vegan meals.

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FRENCH VEGETABLE STEW

From Jenn Grabenstetter, Charlotte. She likes this dish for entertaining, since it has plenty of flavors and will satisfy both meat-eaters and vegetarians.

  • 2 teaspoons olive oil
  • 2 ½ cups chopped leeks (make sure to rinse well)
  • 4 large garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 teaspoons ground fennel (she uses a coffee grinder to grind fennel seed)
  • 4 medium Yukon gold potatoes, cubed
  • 1 (28-ounce) can diced tomatoes, undrained
  • About ¾ cup white wine, divided
  • 2 cups peeled carrot chunks
  • 1 (15-ounce) can Great Northern northern or other white beans, drained and rinsed
  • 2 tablespoons tarragon
  • 1 ½ cups frozen peas
  • Pinch or two of kosher salt

WARM the olive oil in a soup pot. Add the leeks, garlic, fennel and a pinch of salt. Cover and cook for 10 minutes on medium-low heat, stirring occasionally. During that time, the liquid will start to caramelize, so use a splash of white wine to deglaze the pan.

Add the potatoes and tomatoes, stir, and cover. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer 10 minutes. Add carrots, cover, and gently simmer until the vegetables are tender. (The cooking time will vary depending on how small you cut the vegetables).

Add the beans, peas, tarragon, and ½ cup of wine, and stir gently for 2-3 minutes until the stew is thoroughly hot and beans and peas have softened.

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CREAMY CAULIFLOWER MAC

From “The Food Matters Cookbook,” by Mark Bittman (Simon & Schuster, 2010).

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for baking dish
  • Salt
  • 2 ½ cups vegetable or chicken stock or water
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 cauliflower, cored and separated into large pieces
  • 8 ounces elbow, shell, ziti or other cut pasta, preferably whole wheat
  • ½ cup grated cheese, such as sharp cheddar, Gruyere, Emmental or a combination
  • 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard, or to taste
  • 1/8 teaspoon nutmeg, or to taste
  • Black pepper
  • ¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • ½ cup or more bread crumbs, preferably whole grain and homemade; optional

Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Grease a 9-inch-square baking dish with a little oil. Bring a large pot of water to boil and salt it. Put the stock with the bay leaves in a small saucepan over medium-low heat. When small bubbles appear along the sides, about 5 minutes later, turn off the heat and let stand.

Cook the cauliflower in the boiling water until very tender, 20 to 25 minutes. Scoop the cauliflower out of the water with a slotted spoon and transfer it to a blender or food processor. Add the pasta to the boiling water and cook until still somewhat chalky inside and not yet edible, about 5 minutes. Drain it, rinse quickly to stop the cooking and put in the prepared baking dish.

Remove the bay leaves from the stock. Carefully process the cauliflower with 2 cups stock, 2 tablespoons oil, cheese, mustard, nutmeg and a sprinkling of salt and pepper. (You may have to work in batches.) If the sauce seems too thick, add the remaining ½ cup stock. Taste and adjust seasoning. Pour over the pasta, toss, and spread the mixture evenly in the dish. (Can be made to this point, covered and refrigerated up to 1 day. Bring to room temperature before proceeding.)

Sprinkle the top with the Parmesan and bread crumbs if you’re using them. Bake until the pasta is bubbling and the crumbs turn brown, 15 to 20 minutes. Serve hot.

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CASSOULET WITH LOTS OF VEGETABLES

From “The Food Matters Cookbook,” by Mark Bittman.

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 pound Italian sausages in casings, bone-in pork chops, confit duck legs or fresh duck breasts, or a combination
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic
  • 2 leeks, trimmed, well rinsed and sliced, or 2 onions, sliced
  • 2 carrots, cut into 1-inch lengths
  • 3 celery stalks, cut into ½-inch pieces
  • 2 zucchini or 1 small head green cabbage, cut into ½-inch pieces
  • Salt and black pepper
  • 4 cups chopped tomatoes (canned are fine; include their juice)
  • ¼ cup chopped fresh parsley
  • 1 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme, or 1 teaspoon dried
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 4 cups cooked or canned white beans, drained, liquid reserved
  • 2 cups stock, dry red wine, bean-cooking liquid or water; more as needed
  • Pinch of cayenne, or to taste

PUT the oil in a large pot over medium-high heat. A minute later, add the meat and cook, turning as needed, until the pieces are deeply browned on all sides, 10 to 15 minutes. Remove from the pan and drain off all but 2 tablespoons of the fat.

Reduce the heat to medium and add the garlic, leeks, carrots, celery and zucchini; sprinkle with salt and pepper. Cook until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes with their liquid, the reserved meat and the herbs and bring to a boil. Add the beans and bring to a boil again, stirring occasionally.

Reduce the heat so the mixture bubbles gently but continuously. Cook about 20 minutes, adding the stock when the mixture gets thick and the vegetables are melting away, about halfway through.

Fish out the meat, remove the bones and skin as needed, and discard the bay leaves. Chop the meat into chunks and return to the pot along with the cayenne. Cook a minute or two to warm though, then taste and adjust the seasoning. Serve.

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