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The occasional carnivore: Flexitarian eaters finding they really can have it both ways

Identifying yourself as an eater used to be simple. You either ate meat, or you didn’t.

Now? Maybe you eat meat, but only certain kinds or only on certain days ― or even certain hours. Or you don’t eat meat ― except when you do.

If you’re not vegetarian or carnivore, what are you? The term “flexitarian” is catching on, although author Mark Bittman likes “smartly thought-out omnivore.”

His most recent books, “Food Matters” and “The Food Matters Cookbook,” came about because of his own vegan-by-day/carnivore-by-night lifestyle.

“If it’s an anything-movement, it’s a common-sense movement,” says Bittman. “I do think the worm has turned and people are understanding that the diet that is the most prevalent and easiest is not the diet that’s best.”

Whether you’re cutting out meat during the day to save calories or cutting back on it during the week to save money or wear-and-tear on the planet, eating styles aren’t one-size-fits-all any longer.

Flexitarian isn’t a new concept. The magazine Vegetarian Times has estimated that as many as 70 percent of its readers are vegetarians who occasionally eat meat, and the American Dialect Society voted “flexitarian” the year’s most useful word back in 2003, defining it as “a vegetarian who occasionally eats meat.”

What’s getting attention now are people who are going the other direction: Meat-eaters who skip the flesh at least some of the time.

Oprah Winfrey declared a one-week vegan challenge on her talk show Feb. 1, taking 378 staff members with her (300 made it). She’s also added a Meatless Monday at her company, Chicago-based Harpo Productions.

Celebrity chef Mario Batali’s 14 restaurants now offer two vegetarian options every Monday, too, joining the Web-based campaign www.meatlessmonday.com.

Even former president and junk-food junkie Bill Clinton got named 2010 Person of the Year by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals when he went mostly vegan, although he still eats fish, to lose weight before daughter Chelsea’s wedding. And he’s reportedly sticking with it.

Food blogger Matt Lardie of Durham, N.C., says he and fiance Leland Garrett made the decision to limit meat for monetary and ethical reasons. Lardie was a vegetarian in college who started eating meat again out of necessity when he was on a five-month trip to Ecuador.

When they moved to the Raleigh-Durham area, they discovered a thriving culture around local and humanely raised meat. It met their desire for better food ― but it cost more. So they started finding ways to eat it less.

“Our flexitarianism came about from that perfect storm of lack of money and moral obligation,” says Lardie, who manages the Hillsborough Cheese Co.

“The last time we bought and cooked steaks was on Christmas. We save it for special occasions. I buy a whole chicken and I roast it, I use the leftovers to make chicken salad, I use the bones to make stock. I try to stretch every last dollar from it.”

Sometimes, he sees a great meat deal at the Food Lion near his house and he’ll find himself standing there, debating the choice of dollars over values. Finally, he’ll tell himself, “‘If I’m having this much moral trouble just purchasing it, it’s not worth it.’”

Part of the interest in less meat is the recognition of the environmental and health costs of all-meat, all-the-time, says Bittman.

Several years ago, in response to his own health issues, he started eating a vegan diet during the day and eating meat, in smaller amounts, after 6 p.m. That led to his two “Food Matters” books, where meat takes a smaller role.

It isn’t choosing one diet over the other, it’s allowing more flexibility to make responsible choices that work for you ― and still allow enjoyment, he says.

True vegans and vegetarians may bristle at the idea of identifying yourself as a nonmeat eater if you eat meat. But Bittman says he hasn’t encountered much resistance to the idea of a more flexible eating style.

“I have vegan supporters, I have vegan allies,” he says. “We have friendly arguments. Ten years ago or even five years ago, vegans were passionate and could tend to be hostile to people who were not. And now I think many vegans have recognized what I have recognized, which is that there is a wide range of diets.”
Desiree Kane of Charlotte, North Carolina, is mostly vegetarian, but does eat some protein foods like shrimp.  (Charlotte Observer/MCT)
Desiree Kane of Charlotte, North Carolina, is mostly vegetarian, but does eat some protein foods like shrimp.  (Charlotte Observer/MCT)

Focusing less on meat in cooking means people will naturally focus more on plants and whole grains to fill the gap, and that pushes things back into perspective, he says.

An example is his recipe in “The Food Matters Cookbook” for traditional French cassoulet, Cassoulet With Lots of Vegetables. With only a pound of meat for four to eight servings, the dish moves back to its origin as a bean-based stew.

“How would you make cassoulet if you were a real peasant? You wouldn’t start with duck confit and sausage and pork. Meat was precious. It was a dish of beans with whatever scrap of meat you could find. It flips things around and puts things the way they used to be.

”If we were eating that way the majority of the time, we’d be better off. Meat has an acceptable but fine role. We’ve just done too much of it.“

What does it mean?

Vegetarian: A diet based on plants, grains and nuts that also includes dairy products, such as milk, butter and eggs.

Pescatarian: A plant- and grain-based diet that includes fish and shellfish.

Vegan: A diet that includes no animal products, including butter, milk, eggs or honey, and no use of animal products such as leather.

Flexitarian: A vegetarian diet that includes some meat, usually chicken and fish, or a meat-eater who sometimes skips meat for vegetarian or vegan meals.

By Kathleen Purvis

(McClatchy Newspapers)

(McClatchy-Tribune Information Services)

French vegetable stew

From Jenn Grabenstetter, Charlotte. She likes this dish for entertaining, since it has plenty of flavors and will satisfying both meat-eaters and vegetarians.

2 teaspoons olive oil

21/2 cups chopped leeks (make sure to rinse well)

4 large garlic cloves, minced

2 teaspoons ground fennel (she uses a coffee grinder to grind fennel seed)

4 medium Yukon gold potatoes, cubed

1 (28-ounce) can diced tomatoes, undrained

About } cup white wine, divided

2 cups peeled carrot chunks

1 (15-ounce) can Great Northern northern or other white beans, drained and rinsed

2 tablespoons tarragon

11/2 cups frozen peas

Pinch or two of kosher salt

Warm the olive oil in a soup pot. Add the leeks, garlic, fennel and a pinch of salt. Cover and cook for 10 minutes on medium-low heat, stirring occasionally. During that time, the liquid will start to caramelize, so use a splash of white wine to deglaze the pan.

Add the potatoes and tomatoes, stir, and cover. Bring to the boil, then reduce heat and simmer 10 minutes. Add carrots, cover, and gently simmer until the vegetables are tender. (The cooking time will vary depending on how small you cut the vegetables).

Add the beans, peas, tarragon, and 1/2 cup of wine, and stir gently for 2-3 minutes until the stew is thoroughly hot and beans and peas have softened.
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