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Meat me halfway

With individual and global health in mind, the food world seeks balance in the carnivorous life

An ''Almost Meatless'' sandwich from the cookbook by Joy Manning and Tara Mataraza Desmond. An ''Almost Meatless'' sandwich from the cookbook by Joy Manning and Tara Mataraza Desmond. (LEO GONG)
By Devra First
Globe Staff / April 8, 2009

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Meat has been the central object of worship among food religionists for some time. Their bible, Fergus Henderson's "The Whole Beast," got chefs hot for nose-to-tail eating. Anthony Bourdain consumed all manner of animal bits and bobs on TV, and dissed those who didn't want to do the same. "Vegetarians are the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit, an affront to all I stand for, the pure enjoyment of food," he wrote in "Kitchen Confidential." (He has been photographed naked but for a giant, strategically placed bone - meat equated with manhood, accompanied by a defiant gaze. You want to make something of it?) David Chang built temples to the pig with his Momofuku restaurants in New York, and the press and adherents flocked. Head cheese, sweetbreads, marrow, and cockscombs became foodie darlings, and a certain machismo prevailed: It was wussy to not eat these treats, the funkier, the richer, the more indulgent the better.

But lately the food world has seen a slight retreat from this meaty fervor - a step back, a measured gaze, and a thought bubbling up: Perhaps less is, after all, more.

This isn't polar opposition to the carnivorous lifestyle. People still love their meat. They are simply moving toward balance. In his recent book "Food Matters," Mark Bittman argues for eating a vegan diet during the day and whatever you want at night. Philadelphia magazine restaurant critic Joy Manning and Tara Mataraza Desmond have a new cookbook out called"Almost Meatless," filled with recipes that use only a small amount of meat in each dish, a flavorful accent rather than the star of the show. ("My husband . . . likes his lentil burgers a lot better with bacon on them, and I admit: so do I," writes Manning in the intro.) During a talk at Tufts last month, author Michael Pollan shared with the audience his complicated formula for a healthy diet: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." (By "food," he means the nonprocessed stuff, not what he calls "edible foodlike substances.")

"A lot of people all at once are taking a look at eating meat," Manning says. "People I know and also in the national media are eating meat with the caveat that it will be a smaller amount and better meat - local, organic. There's not a lot of information about how to cook that way, which is why there's a need for a book of recipes. I think a lot of people are interested in making that change."

In small part, the shift is a sign of the times. Meat is costly, and we're buying less of it and less-expensive cuts. Then, even for those who can afford them, displays of richness are falling out of fashion (though richness itself, of course, is eternally in). The fat is being pared from our lifestyles, and we're undergoing a corresponding adjustment in mind-set. Call it aesthetic Stockholm syndrome. Required to be frugal, we find something pleasing in relative austerity. Staycations, home cooking, Michelle Obama's wardrobe over Sarah Palin's (perhaps with the exception of her gardening togs: those patent leather boots!) - these things appeal. Blowout meals of foie gras and steaks can seem a bit gauche.

"It feels like people are, I don't know if shy is the right word, but people don't want to appear ostentatious, even if they have the dough," says restaurateur Chris Douglass, who observes dining habits at his restaurants Icarus, Ashmont Grill, and Tavolo.

But the shift is not so shallow as Keeping Up Appearances 2.0. It's about personal and environmental health. We're faced with an obesity epidemic and global warming; we've seen E. coli and mad cow scares, reports of cruel and potentially unhealthy slaughterhouse practices. (When did the phrase "downer cow" enter common parlance?) "Lose Weight, Heal the Planet," says the cover of Bittman's book. "Recipes That Are Better for Your Health and the Planet," says the cover of Manning and Desmond's. "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants," says the cover of Pollan's "In Defense of Food." He's been saying that a lot.

Two documents encapsulate why. In 2006, the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization published "Livestock's Long Shadow," a report that states animal agriculture is a major contributor to climate change, pollution, reduction of biodiversity, and land and water degradation. Among its assertions: Livestock generate more greenhouse gas emissions than transport does. Then, last month, the results of a 10-year study of more than 500,000 subjects ages 50 to 71 came out in the Archives of Internal Medicine. It showed that eating red and processed meat increases the chance of dying prematurely, particularly from heart disease or cancer. (Meat industry groups dispute the findings of both.)

Bittman arrived at his vegan-before-6-p.m. diet after a doctor suggested he become a vegan altogether: He needed to lose weight and get his cholesterol and blood sugar counts down. Cutting out meat and other animal products wasn't possible for the food writer, so he did the next best thing.

"I kept saying things, but I didn't really put them together," he says. "I'd say, 'It's really hard to get good pork.' I didn't used to say it or suddenly become a snob. It got worse. Farm-raised fish is perceptibly worse; beef has not been very good in the supermarket for years and years. . . . Then there was the UN report, and my bad numbers. I said this is silly, I should put it all together. If I were principled I'd probably become a vegan, but I'm not that principled. I needed a compromise."

Bittman argues that if Americans simply reduce their meat consumption, it can make a dent in our ills and the environment's. "If people ate 10 percent less meat, it might not be perceptible for a while, but that's a lot less meat - probably a billion less animals a year."

Indeed. In a much-cited statistic from the 2006 report "Diet, Energy, and Global Warming," geophysicist Gidon Eshel and University of Chicago assistant professor of geophysics Pamela Martin conclude that reducing our intake of animal products by 20 percent would save the same amount of energy as if we all switched from driving a Camry to a Prius. Half that ain't bad.

And produce is gaining new cachet: Look at the excitement over the White House garden. "Let's hear it for vegetables!" our First Lady cheers to a group of fifth graders. "Let's hear it for fruits!" This consciousness is trickling down to restaurant menus, with vegetables playing a more prominent role.

"I see a big trend in more vegetable as the center of the plate, and a lot of fish," says Toro chef Jamie Bissonnette, a former vegan who is well known for his charcuterie and offal dishes. "I think it's great for the health of Americans. Maybe some of us will lose weight and the French won't make fun of us anymore."

At the moment, he says, this change seems to be happening more in New York than Boston. (Which is not to say we don't have restaurants that celebrate the vegetable, among them Craigie on Main, Grezzo, Oleana, and Ten Tables.) It's prompted as much by taste as by ideology. In the East Village, for example, the tiny vegetarian restaurant Dirt Candy has received big attention for chef-driven dishes such as carrot risotto - uniformlyorange, but with a wealth of flavors and textures all derived from the usually humble root - and crispy tofu with green ragout in a kaffir lime beurre blanc. Chef-owner Amanda Cohen writes on the website, "I don't care about your health. And I don't care about your politics either. But I do care about cooking vegetables."

At critically lauded TriBeCa restaurant Corton, one of the biggest sellers is a dish called From the Garden, a composition of more than a dozen vegetables. It's a descendant of French chef Michel Bras's dish gargouillou, which is enjoying a bit of a moment right now. The New York Times recently ran a piece about its influence on some of today's most interesting chefs, who are creating their own versions.

In Boston, meanwhile, "local" and "seasonal" have become buzzwords on menus; this becomes particularly clear when they're used to describe, say, berries or zucchini in the dead of winter, as happens with surprising frequency. It's funny, but it demonstrates what's in fashion, the culinary version of a knockoff handbag.

Whether this increased vegetable consciousness reflects a real change in diet remains to be seen. Perhaps we're just having an Alice Waters moment and it will pass. Perhaps not.

"I'd like to think that in five years, 50 million people would consider themselves part-time vegans," Bittman says. "Maybe it will go faster than that if we have one mad cow crisis or one more people-get-sick-from-eating-hamburger crisis. Things can change very quickly. I think we are seeing a trend toward people eating less meat, but the key is to watch what happens on 'Oprah,' on the 'Today' show, if McDonald's makes some kind of change that's perceptible."

Last year Oprah Winfrey went vegan, for 21 days at least. And "Today" - on which Bittman himself frequently appears - recently featured firefighter Rip Esselstyn talking about his plant-based "Engine 2 Diet," which has become a mini-phenomenon. McDonald's has plenty of meatless options on its menu - in India, at least. Now all we're waiting for is the McAloo Tikki to arrive.

Devra First can be reached at dfirst@globe.com.