Uh, what does vegetarian mean?

This post is sort of a follow-up post to my introductory post “Vegetarians Like Good Food“. So, what does vegetarian mean? For me “vegetarian” means a bit more than just meatless. Not too long ago I got a cup of French Onion Soup which was labeled vegetarian at a local restaurant. I was interested in how it’d be with something other than beef broth as the base. It looked & tasted like beef broth. If it wasn’t, then it had to have been something synthetic with artificial beef flavor. Is something made with beef—but the meat is strained out—vegetarian? For me, the answer is no. For other people the answer may be yes. I don’t really care whether your answer is yes or no to the French Onion Soup question, but this is something that people who wish to eat—and cook—vegetarian cuisine need to figure out because when we eat at a restaurant and order something labeled as vegetarian, we have no idea how that restaurant defines “vegetarian”. It sometimes seems like there are as many definitions of “vegetarian” as there are vegetarians.

For some people there’s no distinction between “meatless” and “vegetarian”. The French Onion Soup was meatless, but unless that broth was totally synthetic beef flavor (which is a possibility because it had the over-salted flavor of boullion cubes) I wouldn’t consider it vegetarian (and I’m not alone in this). Of course, you also get into a what-does-that-mean thing even with the term “meatless” because of the centuries-old religious tradition of “meatless” Fridays—which means eating fish. I consider fish to be meat. Basic biology: it’s in the animal kingdom, not the vegetable kingdom. It’s a vertebrate: it has a skeleton just as all other animals do. A lot of people who consider themselves vegetarian still eat fish, even vegetarians who would turn their nose up at the suspicious onion soup.

You can’t always get a firm idea what a vegetarian diet consists of by reading vegetarian cookbooks, either. Some define it so narrowly that the cuisine would almost qualify as vegan. But others…well, one day at a bookstore I was thumbing through a Chinese vegetarian cookbook. It looked pretty good, except for the fish sauce in most of the recipes. Fish sauce is a traditional Chinese ingredient, but I don’t consider it vegetarian. But I was more shocked by the “vegetarian” holiday cookbook which featured—I’m not kidding—a whole section on cooking turkey. Not tofurkey. Turkey. I’ve got no problem with vegetarians eating turkey for Thanksgiving: food is tightly bound to family, tradition and culture, so if you wish to honor that, it’s okay by me—but a cookbook purportedly devoted to holiday meals for vegetarians shouldn’t include turkey. Anybody can cook a turkey: the challenge for vegetarians is non-turkey! 😉 [But that’s another blog post.]

The first vegetarian I ever encountered was at a party many, many years ago. He was making a big deal about what he could and could not eat and generally being obnoxious to people eating the finger food. (A word to the wise: if you want people to embrace vegetarianism, don’t attack them or act like an asshole.) He had this way of talking like everything he said was from the Voice of Authority. From this I got the single most garbled interpretation of vegetarianism I’ve ever heard. For instance: he would eat fish, but not eggs. It was Wrong to eat this or that, though he didn’t explain why, probably because his examples were a list of non-sequiteurs that made no sense. He seemed to pick and choose at random, or probably according to his own preferences.

A lot of self-identified vegetarians make choices not based on some ideal vegetarian cuisine, but according to their own preferences. In principle I don’t have any objections to this: everyone has to find their own way. But sometimes in restaurants I look at food—like the French Onion Soup—and wonder if their definition is the same as mine…And I have to confess inwardly cringing when I talk to a self-identifying vegetarian and after I mention my own reasons for giving up seafood, she says she still eats seafood, and then five minutes later she’s talking about chicken and then finally after a half hour she says that really she just doesn’t eat beef any more! (Last I heard she was into exotic meats.) There are many shades and varieties to vegetarianism, but I really have a hard time thinking of someone as a vegetarian if they’ll eat anything, absolutely anything, except beef. 😆

I’m not a vegetarian, but I eat like one most of the time. I hope from this blog post you have some idea what kind of vegetarian food I eat. The blog posts I write here will not tell you how to cook fish or turkey; the posts will not extoll the virtues of beef broth or fish sauce. They will sometimes have dairy products, like milk, eggs, cheese, as well as honey occasionally. (I know some cheeses are made using rennet derived from animal sources. I buy vegetarian cheeses when possible, but do not limit myself to those so labeled: most cheeses do not specify the source of the enzymes they use.) I hope that most things I’ll write here will be acceptable to most vegetarians and that vegans will be able to adapt any recipes I post to a vegan diet. How you cook depends on what kind of vegetarian cuisine you choose. As I see it, a vegetarian diet is all about choice. (And really good food!) 😀

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