"He's dead to me."
That was a good friend's immediate response to the news that Mario Batali, patron saint of cured meat, is supporting Meatless Monday, a non-profit that's trying to convince Americans to go vegetarian one day a week in order to reduce the country's intake of animal protein by 15 percent.
I agreed: He's dead to me as well, and my friend and I exchanged a few snarky e-mails, calling Batali "Benedict Arnold" and vowing to gnaw our way through pounds and pounds of pork products in protest.
Until that announcement, Batali had been an idol of ours, a chef we revered so much that we'd spent a glorious, carnivorous week engrossed in a marathon eating session through his Manhattan restaurants, sampling cured beef tongue and razor clams and various cuts of acorn-fed Berkshire pig in all of its fat-laced glory and -- dare I say it -- every foie gras preparation the man had to offer. While the rest of gastronomy's upper crust fussed with vegetarian tasting menus and entrees that switched out beef cheeks and bacon for peas and morels, we knew we could count on Batali to forge ahead with our favorite food group, meat, occasionally delightfully wrapped in more meat.
But apparently not.
Suddenly, the redhaired Italian is singing an unfamiliar tune of moderation, serving up vegetarian entrees marked by the Meatless Monday logo.
Maybe Batali was tricked, though. These evangelizing vegetarians are getting smarter, after all. Gone are the days of shock-and-awe photos of dying, mutated animals. Now the produce-pushers are using adorable little gimmicks like the PB&J campaign, which encourages consumers to eat more peanut butter and jelly so as to cut down on meat, and one-day meat-outs, like the one in Michigan in March, when the governor encouraged the state's residents to go vegetarian for a day. Wisely, the creators of these movements are asking for less from their target audience -- just a few brief hours of forgoing the spring lamb for the spring radish, not a signed commitment to a lifetime of veganism.
That's all fine and well, and I applaud their ingenuity, especially since the campaigns call attention to many issues surrounding food sourcing, like the carbon footprint and the health implications of what we consume. Like any girl obsessed with the quality of my food, if only because I selfishly prefer the way the good stuff tastes, I've been spouting quotes from people like Michael Pollan since I first read "Power Steer," the account of the bovine Pollan followed from birth to slaughter, in a 2002 New York Times Magazine, and I'm for any movement that gives us a reason to stop and think about what we're eating for dinner before we put it in our mouths.
But that's not exactly what's going on here. I don't begrudge Batali his vegetables, but I have a hard time with boiling down a complex conversation around what to eat into a single prescription, carried out by PR-hungry restaurateurs even when it represents a complete divergence from the brand they've built. As a logo on a menu, Meatless Monday is just another clever slogan, another thing for consumers to blindly do, which is exactly what the campaign is fighting against in the first place.
Still, I give Batali a lot of credit. Ultimately, I respect him because he's a chef who thinks about the source of his ingredients and what that means for the dishes those ingredients will ultimately become. If he wants to serve vegetarian choices, he should, but he doesn't need a trendy cause to do so. And if he wants to raise awareness about where food comes from, he'd make more of an impact through tableside conversations rather than plastering his list of edible offerings with tokens of a 2010 bandwagon.
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