Lester Karplus, co-founder of DelectablePlanet.com, has eaten veggie for almost forty years; he'll be offering up cooking demonstrations at VegFest tomorrow, which runs from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. at the Jefferson County Fairgrounds. We talked to Karplus about his shift toward vegetarianism, the mission behind DelectablePlanet, and what he thinks about certain people who say vegetarianism and veganism is a First-World luxury. (We're looking at you, Anthony Bourdain!)
Westword: How long have you been vegetarian?
Lester Karplus: For 39 years, and I'm 58, so since I was nineteen.
What made you start eating vegetarian?
It's a complicated question, but I'll tell you the story. I was in college, and I was working as a waiter in a sorority, and one night, we had to serve eighty steaks to 130 girls, and if we somehow weren't able to do that, the cook was going to get fired. And we already knew that the house mother had stolen the steaks. So we sat down and decided we weren't going to eat our steaks -- which is what we did, traded food for waiting. We decided to go veggie that day, and figured out all the girls on diets, served them their steaks first and slowly started serving the rest of the people. Then we picked up the steaks from the girls on diets, seared the ends and put them back out. And we got into this discussion of food as status, and how meat was a status symbol, and that kind of got us thinking. A friend and I were also training for a bike race, we'd go out at 5 in the morning, it was the spring, calves were being born. We made this connection between these animals and the food we were eating, and we were going, "Holy shit, do we really want to do this?" And Frances Moore Laplace book came out, Diet for a Small Planet. That book really brought home the idea that America grows enough protein to feed the whole world but we eat it all in the form of beef. All those three things came together.
And how did you get the idea to start DelectablePlanet.com?
So I took off to travel around the world in 2003 and spent several years traveling around the world, and one of the things that came to our mindfulness of eating was that everybody was trying to eat like North Americans, everybody wanted their piece of the beef. It was so appalling that everybody now is trying to be like North Americans, becoming obese and having the same diseases. And having read the United Nations report, "Livestock's Long Shadow," I thought, "This is not sustainable. We need eight planet earths to sustain everybody eating like North Americans." People have lost traditional ways of understanding how to prepare food, everybody wants to go to the restaurant and order steak. What we kept coming up is, people need to learn how to do this, there's a bazillion cookbooks but that's not changing things. The new generation is all about sound bytes and videos, multimedia-oriented. And I thought, "Okay, so we've gotta make this multimedia, people have to see how easy it is, do it like a cooking show but see it short-order. DelectablePlanet offers three-to-five-minute videos that cut to the chase. We did this as an experiment between trips, we did about 25 videos and put them up. And when we came back from our trip, there were 30,000 viewings, and that was just organic, there was no promotion. We felt this was an important role to fill. We dropped our travels at that point, we've been doing it for about two years now, we've had about 1.5 million video viewings. It's been received well.
Given your world travels, how do you respond to the argument -- Anthony Bourdain comes to mind -- that vegetarianism and veganism are elitist First-World lifestyles?
It's an attitude of complete ignorance. Except for maybe certain extremely northern climates where you can't grow food at all - but then, why do we live in those climates in the first place? It's not sustainable. If you have too many people, you're going to kill off all the animals anyhow. Quite the contrary, you cannot feed an animal-based diet to the world. The vast majority of people in the world eat a plant-based diet. If it's salad at every meal, he's correct, that's a bit elitist, but can food be grown everywhere you're going to farm an animal? Absolutely. It is a matter of taking care, of being mindful. For example, when we were in Syria, we saw the shift already to overgrazing land that had been in agricultural production and is now for grazing animals, and now they're importing food. And there was a study out of Europe that said if you use all arable land for meat production, how much can you up the meat production? You'd end up with the current population having two hamburgers a week, and that's it.
What will you be doing at VegFest?
DelectablePlanet is organizing the cooking demonstrations, so we have seven arranged for the day. We start at 9, and we have a whole variety of foods that we're doing for the day, from simple things like smoothies to one-pot pressure-cooking meals to breakfast and raw pizza and sweet treats -- and some surprises yet to be announced.
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Is there anything else you'd like to add?
The exciting thing about VegFest is the message that you can live a healthy, sustainable lifestyle with a plant-based diet, and it's easy to do, and people should stop by and see all the options.
VegFest runs from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. tomorrow, July 2; visit http://vegetariansocietyofcolorado.org/2011_VegFest_Colorado.html to learn more.