When I decided to eat less flesh from animals, birds and fish, I can't say it was something I came to overnight. No carne asada one day and only tofu the next. After all, I'd been raised in the meat-eating '50s and '60s, when a good steak was practically considered the birthright of the American middle class. If it was Sunday, it must be a roast—pork loin in the fall, lamb in the spring, prime rib in the winter. (Fish often showed up in the summer, and on Fridays, even though we weren't Catholic.) Every now and then my Southern-born mother would convince my Yankee father that there was no shame in having a nice roast chicken for Sunday dinner—something he considered poor peoples' meat alternative ("Chicken ain't nuthin but a bird," he'd sniff, before deigning to carve it.) But for the most part, it was meat.
By the early '70s, when I was in college (and when Earth Day began), meatless meals were mostly the province of the religious—Seventh Day Adventists, for instance, and certain Hindu sects—patients whose doctors didn't give them any choice, and a growing population of hippie types. And frankly, the fare didn't look all that appetizing. Deborah Madison was out there all by her lonesome, trying to convince us that vegetarian fare could be tasty and good for you.
So by the time I was a young adult, I became a really good cook, a really inventive cook, the kind of cook people angle to invite them to dinner: Dinners where meat, if not the centerpiece, was at least an important part of the meal.
It stopped being that way gradually. A couple decades ago, I married someone who doesn't eat red meat, and to save time and avoid cooking two meals, I just ate as he did—fish and fowl—and didn't feel deprived. On the occasion I did, I'd have a burger for lunch, or grill a small steak I'd marinated the night before and use slices of it in a salad or to flavor a bowl of noodles. And I was satisfied.
Better and more vegetarian cookbooks began popping up at about the same time the farmer's market movement began to take hold. Markets started to carry a gratifying variety of vegetables and fruits that made a meal without meat (or fish or chicken) a much more interesting proposition.
And chefs and food writers and bloggers began to write about the impact of consuming animal flesh on several levels—economically, societally and on our overall health. In his best-seller Food Matters, New York Times writer Mark Bittman points out that if we feel deprived by not eating meat, we won't be doing it for very long. His goal for himself was to eat less animal protein, let plant foods move to the forefront, and cook them in ways that are easy and delicious. Bryant Terry has made meatless meals a pretty sexy proposition for a whole year on The Root by sharing recipes from his book, Vegan Soul Kitchen, which translated the vegan philosophy into dishes that spoke to our cultural heritage. People began re-reading the late, iconic Edna Lewis, whose common-sense approach to eating seasonally and locally is older than many of her readers. (Yes, there's meat in The Taste of Country Cooking, but the vegetable dishes are sublime.)
Knowing how much energy it takes to raise and produce animals for human consumption, knowing that we've gotten nowhere near where we should be in terms of raising and killing those animals humanely before they're brought to market hasn't made me a complete vegetarian. But it's made me way pickier about what kind of animal protein I buy, where I buy it, and how much of it I eat and how often.
I don't know that I'll ever get to the point where I won't want a fried chicken wing when one is offered to me, or several thin slices of steak, medium-rare, swimming in garlicky, soy-flavored sauce, or a lobster roll on a summer afternoon. I'm probably eating 25-30 percent less meat than I was two years ago. There's so much else out there that I don't much miss it.
It's not perfect, but I'd like to think that even that small bit is a step toward helping the environment and my health. And as Lao Tzu said, "a journey of 1,000 miles begins with one step."
Karen Grigsby Bates is a Los Angeles based correspondent for NPR News. Her latest book is A Century And Some Change: My Life Before The President Called My Name, with Ann Nixon Cooper.
is a Los Angeles-based correspondent for NPR News and co-author, with Karen Elyse Hudson, of The New Basic Black: Home Training For Modern Times (Doubleday).