How Mario Batali was won: the rhetoric behind Meatless Monday

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About a month ago, if you'll recall, I raked my former idol, Mario Batali, over the coals for jumping on the bandwagon of the cute veggie campaign, Meatless Monday. And in the aftermath, as was only fair, I was chastised for my pigheadedness (no pun intended).

But as my comments about animal protein fell on the deaf ears of vegetarian friends, the campaign has continued to pick up steam, signing on more chefs, more writers, and more school districts.

"Things have happened quickly," says Chris Elam, head of Meatless Monday. "And we've got even bigger national names in the pipeline." John Fraser, for instance, chef of the three-star Dovetail in New York City, just started offering a high-end vegetarian tasting menu to prove that meat-free doesn't mean flavor-free. And Elam promises that a really big national chef will begin unveiling meat-free menu items on Mondays any day now. We're guessing it's Emeril Lagasse, Wolfgang Puck or Tom Colicchio.

As much as I want to ignore the pendulum swing away from pork and into produce, you know when a rapidly growing movement amasses a following that includes both almost-carnivores, like Batali, and long-time vegans, like Sir Paul McCartney, it's hitting on a sweet-spot of eating independent of personal tastes that can't be brushed under the rug.

And though I took issue with Batali simply plastering mediocre menu offerings with the campaign's logo, I'm impressed with what the organization has been able to accomplish in bridging the gap between eaters on both sides of the meat consumption spectrum.

"We don't use the V word around here," says Elam, who calls himself a curious carnivore and indulges in animal flesh on a fairly regular basis. "We're not vegetarians, and that's not what this is about. This is about asking restaurants and school districts to provide vegetarian options and raising awareness around the environmental and health impacts of the source of food. We're not suggesting that anyone take meat off a menu entirely."

That's the real genius of the Meatless Monday message--it's adaptable, packaged for ownership by anyone who cares about any side of the issue. The idea behind the campaign stemmed from a goal set forth by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health to reduce saturated fat consumption in America by 15 percent. And as followers like Michael Pollan have jumped on board, the rhetoric has expanded to incorporate the carbon footprint.

Supporters, then, run the gamut, and include environmental activists, health nuts and trend-followers who want to capitalize on diners' changing tastes. They're everywhere, in every part of the country. And close to home, a Boulder organization, the Elephant Journal, uses Meatless Monday as a rallying cry for vegetarianism, turning out meat-free recipes once a week with a diatribe on why the veggie way is the right way.

Despite the high-profile success in signing on big chefs across the country, Meatless Monday is currently more concerned with school districts than restaurants, trying to get lunchrooms to extol the virtues of vegetables to fresh-faced youth. And in the fall, supporter Kim O'Donnel, a former Washington Post staffer and omnivore, will release The Meat Lover's Meatless Cookbook to help curious parties work out the angles of enjoying dinner without focusing on big hunks of beef and chicken.

"Ultimately, this is something an individual can do to make an impact," says Elam. "We hear about the terrible environmental and health problems and feel helpless. This is a way to take action."

Sounds harmless, and that's what's giving Meatless Monday its strength.

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