Category — Features
No Meat Required: The Cultural History and Culinary Future of Plant-Based Eating
Alicia Kennedy is one of the most interesting voices to have recently emerged in food media. Of New York origin and currently based in San Juan, Puerto Rico, she is an incisive, funny and fearless essayist traversing the intersections of food politics, gender, labor, economics, race, coloniastion, climate and more. Multiple Stone Soup contributors have pointed to her newsletter over the last few years, as Alicia’s writing and attitude share the punk ethos and DIY spirit that motivated the birth of Stone Soup.
Although Alicia writes predominantly about the American food system, given US cultural hegemony and our shared histories as settler colonies, her analysis often maps neatly over our own issues, with a critical analysis not abundant in our own discourse.
She has just launched her first book, No Meat Required: The Cultural History and Culinary Future of Plant-Based Eating, from which we publish an excerpt below, in the hope it’ll inspire you to find yourself a full copy, in pursuit of ‘abundant potential’.
I don’t care about meat. That should be said sooner rather than later. Eating meat is the default in Western cultures. What is compelling about making the default decision? Nothing, at least not to me. Jacques Derrida called the conditions for being understood as a full subject in the West “carno-phallogocentrism”: being a meat-eater, being a man, and being an authoritative, speaking self. I’m only one of these, but I can be authoritative, and I can be loud.
I’m concerned with the alternative choices, the abstentions and refusals. Sometimes the alternative choices are rooted in ethical or spiritual foundations. Other times, political. These political foundations could be anarchist or fascist or anything in between.
Basically, there is more diversity of thought in the refusal of meat than in meat-eating by default, both as a way of thinking and in the diet itself. The diversity of thought and of diet are complementary; they feed off each other, support each other—the good and the bad. The delicious and the disgusting.
I believe there is in the recent history of meat refusal a way forward in our rapidly warming world. But it’s all complicated, a history populated by a range of characters, a range of ideologies. Here, in this book, I will attempt to make sense of them.
When disaster strikes, attention goes to life’s essential forces—what grows and what flows—and the climate crisis is a disaster of the highest order. Food and drink are our most basic needs, and that never becomes more clear than when there is a crisis. After the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, an SOS written in chalked letters on concrete, large enough to be seen from a plane overhead, read, “Necesitamos Agua/Comida!!” (We Need Water/Food!!). We need to survive, this means. Nothing more and nothing less.
Despite food being the means for survival, in day-to-day life, it’s regarded rather flippantly. Food is considered feminine when outside the masculine environs of a restaurant kitchen. Cooking is a chore for many who spend all day laboring, and the idea of taking eating seriously is regarded as bourgeois affectation: something nice for people with money and time, but everyone else has to just stuff something in their mouths and get on with their lives. Being concerned with the provenance of one’s food, too, is seen as classist, and discussing nutrition leads almost directly to fatphobia. Given the reality of food apartheid, which keeps mainly Black, brown, and Indigenous communities from having access to fresh fruits and vegetables, making overtures about going to the farmers’ market is wildly out of touch with reality. I understand why many would prefer to keep their ears closed to the exploitation endemic to the global food system rather than concern themselves with the myriad ways in which we could be resisting and acting against its horrors. But the reality is that these horrors affect us all.
There is a lot to learn from crises and disasters that have already happened. When war broke out in Syria in 2011, the price of meat climbed 650 percent. In its place, many cultivated mushrooms. Traditional Hawaiian foodways were nearly wiped out with the arrival of Europeans, and now they are using the Polynesian breadfruit to restore cultural traditions, the ecosystem, and local health. During the war in the early 1990s, a Bosnian brewery became the sole source of water for many residents of Sarajevo. A lifeline, where once there was only beer, which many see as a vice.
Examples of resilience in the face of large-scale catastrophe are necessarily small. The only way to have large-scale responses that serve local ecologies, economies, and traditions would be to radically transform the global economy away from fossil fuels and capitalism toward a much more collectively oriented political system that does not solely prioritize growth and profit but sees the value in culture and keeping the planet alive. Food could be at the heart of this transformation.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, which affected the citizens of nations rich and poor alike, we saw how significant food can be. President Donald Trump declared the meat-processing industry an essential business in the spring of 2020. Mutual aid groups sprung up all over the United States and other countries to ensure communities had access to fresh food and hot meals. Community fridges emerged on streets. Nonetheless, food insecurity in the US hit record numbers. Imagine if these types of efforts were supported by state infrastructure. Imagine if communities were empowered to create food justice in their areas through collective funding and organization.
In the meantime, as we work for the kinds of systemic changes that would ensure all of the food we eat is as good for the planet and workers as it is for us, there are ways to respond to the powerful lobbies that don’t want to see agricultural or meat-processing workers paid a fair wage or ensure that farmland is used for a diversity of ingredients rather than just corn and soy. In the United States, the average person consumes 220 pounds of meat per year, and the meat and dairy industries receive subsidies from the government totaling $38 billion per year. There is a rich history of resistance to industrial agriculture and its horrors, and if there is much more work to be done, this history shows us that change is possible.
For me, all stories about food are stories about appetite and nostalgia—even when we’re talking about global warming, and even when we’re talking about the ways in which the state enables systemic oppression of humans, animals, and land. Talking about what we eat cannot just be rooted in the political; by its very nature, eating is personal. This is why a delicate balance must be struck when we discuss ideas of ethical consumption in an unethical global food system that interacts with other systems of oppression, from white supremacy to patriarchy to capitalism. I have to start with myself, with my place in the world as a human being and a political subject, to make any sense. And my own eating life begins, as so many other eating lives do, with my maternal grandmother.
Grandma fed me lamb chops whenever I asked for them. We watched Julia Child and The Frugal Gourmet on PBS from bed. She thought it was funny how quickly a tiny three-year-old body could devour a whole lobster, its flesh dipped in hot melted butter, using her grubby baby hands. Like most, I was born an omnivore, trained to be open to all the food the world had to offer, whether it was the flesh of a baby animal or a crustacean that had to be boiled alive. And I wanted to take up that torch my grandmother gave me and eat the world. I wanted to be a gourmand. But then one day in my twenties, I looked upon a piece of meat and no longer saw food.
At that moment I saw flesh and stopped eating meat. I put down the torch and thought myself doomed to a life of tofu scrambles colored with turmeric to trick the eye into believing these were eggs, and gyros filled with stomach-bombing spiced seitan. Those were the foods I saw the vegetarians and vegans around me eating, and to me, they were poor imitations that misused centuries-old ingredients with origins in distinct cuisines. I had never been shown a way of not eating meat that foregrounded good ingredients and big flavor, despite the rich variety of vegetarian dishes in the cuisines of nations like India and China. To me, eating well had always been synonymous with eating anything and everything, from land and sea. Making this change in my life required not just new restrictions but finding a new way to create abundance.
There were a few false starts and more than a few bad meals, yet I found a new way to be that gourmand whose diet is based in plants, and this has become my life’s purpose: showing people life without meat is still a beautiful life, a filling life, a satisfying life. One can find the bounty that is locally available and create magic. It’s been more than a decade now of this decision that some call a lifestyle, others an ideology. I remember but do not long for the taste of meat. I can’t imagine ever looking down at my plate again and seeing a piece a flesh. My consciousness has changed, and with it, my life. For me, not eating meat is part of my lifestyle, sure, as well as an ideology. Being a food writer who tackles this niche has also granted me an audience, a community. Not eating meat, though, is also so much more than this. The concerns I have, the concerns that keep me from throwing a steak into my cast-iron rather than tempeh, are manifold: ethical, spiritual, environmental, economic, political.
Vegetarianism and veganism, as practices, have roots in all those matters. To stop eating meat for ethical reasons means that one does not want to kill animals for their flesh. In the spiritual realm, giving up meat is often an aspect of living simply and cheaply; in cookbooks by religious people, whether Catholic or Buddhist, there are many easy recipes that encourage the eater to meditate on how the food made it to their plate. Environmental concerns are perhaps the most popular these days, as livestock production accounts for a good chunk of the food system’s estimated 30 percent of anthropogenic, or human-caused, greenhouse gas emissions. The political is a bit more complex, but for ecofeminists and anarchists, not eating meat has been a means of resisting and rejecting industrial agriculture, capitalism, and patriarchy.
My own rejection of meat finds roots in each of these concerns, and each will be rigorously explained and interrogated in this book. The intention of this book is to change how you think of meat, whether you eat it or do not. For those who wish to continue eating meat, I want to ask them to stop eating the industrially produced, factory-farmed kind. The amount of meat and the type of meat that is broadly consumed in the United States was created to fulfill the desires of capital, not our bodies, and we are coming to a crucial moment in the life of the planet. Change must happen, now.
Excerpted from No Meat Required: The Cultural History and Culinary Future of Plant-Based Eating by Alicia Kennedy (Beacon Press, 2023). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.