To be a vegetarian is to be an eater in transition. The first step may have come as an ovo-lacto adherent who eschews meat, fish and chicken but eats eggs and dairy. The next step was strict vegan, dabbling at times with macrobiotic and raw food, but eating (and wearing) no animal products at all. What may follow that is a return to cooked vegetarian fare. That's just one scenario on the path of a plant-based diet.
To be a vegetarian is to be an eater on a mission for improved health, often in concert with a quest for a more wholesome planet and better treatment of animals. Sometimes it's to be an eater on the defensive, or to follow religious convictions. To be a vegetarian is to be a lot of things, and sometimes it's a pick-and-choose lifestyle.
Certainly, to be a vegetarian in America — if not in the strictest sense then occasionally — is to be part of a growing population, especially if you're a teenager or young adult. About 8 million U.S. adults and 1.5 million youths ages 8 to 18 identify as vegetarian, according to the Vegetarian Resource Group in Baltimore. Three million others in that age group don't eat meat but include fish or poultry in their diets.
While strict vegetarians account for only 3 percent of the population, they have mightily influenced others, including food manufacturers. A stroll through any supermarket results in an array of veggie products that weren't available there a decade ago.
Then there are the "Meatless Monday" folks who go without meat at least one day out of seven. The national campaign, supported by Johns Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health, is an effort to get us to think about regularly satisfying our protein needs with plants, which tax the environment less than animals. Chef Mario Batali, a seemingly unlikely proponent, has gotten on board, as have thousands of other people. Rather than vegetarian, you might call these people "conscientious eaters."
Debby DeGraaff of Lutz, who has taught vegetarian cooking classes in the Tampa Bay area for 25 years, has noticed the growth in interest. She tracks it by the number of people in her free classes, held at area natural-food stores. What was once a cozy group of 15, she says, has routinely become a crowd of 40.
Organics and bulk foods (less packaging) are more popular, and so is home cooking, DeGraaff says. The interest in home cooking is up in all types of food preparation, thanks to the lousy economy and job losses.
"There is this ill-conceived conception that (vegetarian) food is boring," she says. But it's actually the cook's shortcomings that prevent anything prepared with tofu or eggplant from being tasty, she says.
DeGraaff says that most people come to vegetarianism for health reasons and stay because they feel so much better. In fact, she says, "they didn't know how bad they felt until they cleaned up their diets."
Denise Rispoli Becknell, owner of Leafy Greens Café, a 3-year-old raw-food restaurant in St. Petersburg, agrees that health issues often drive people to a plant-based diet, but concerns about the environment and treatment of animals soon follow. "There are a lot of moral and ethical issues" surrounding food.
Still, Becknell says, it's not always easy to be a vegetarian, especially in a contemporary culture that likes to dine out. If you want to stay strict, you have to ask a lot of questions at restaurants. For instance, Indian restaurants offer many vegetarian dishes, which makes sense because Hindus often follow a veg diet. However, there are many Indians who are Muslim and they eat meat, so a vegan diner shouldn't expect everything in every Indian restaurant to be meatless, she says.
"It's not always convenient, and there are a lot of social pressures on vegetarians," Becknell says. She notes that 75 percent of vegetarians return to eating meat, a number backed up by a 2005 CBS News poll. The study showed that some people return to eating meat because of the "toll on their social life," though nearly all who add meat back have become changed eaters in some ways.
Still, Chris Sand of Land O'Lakes has made the transition. A former girlfriend got him to go vegan three years ago. She's out of the picture, and so is his "little bit of a beer belly." He says he has more energy, and now the student at Pasco-Hernando Community College is teaching a vegetarian cooking series at the Land O'Lakes Recreation Complex (see box for information on Sand's class and others).
He gets a little sly with meat-eating friends, sneaking vegetarian entrees onto their plates. Most in their mid 20s and early 30s — he's 27 — are happy to have a friend who cooks. They are often surprised how yummy dishes such as his Marinara Sauce with Raw Zucchini and Summer Squash "Pasta" are.
"Veganism has been good to open people up to new ideas and new food preparations," he says. "When most people think burger, they think Angus and Kobe. When I hear burger, I think carrots and walnuts."