Three percent of Americans call themselves vegetarian, with an additional 1 percent deeming themselves vegan (no dairy, eggs, and for some, honey and yeast). These numbers come from a 2009 survey conducted by the Vegetarian Resource Group, a Baltimore, Md. based nonprofit.
That leaves 96 percent of us who still enjoy eating meat down to the bones to the tune of about 200 pounds per person per year.
The numbers may lead you to presume there are the meat folks & there are the veg folks — two separate camps that don’t (or won’t) talk to each other. Just five years ago, you would have been right. I remember in the early days of my monthly vegetarian chats on washingtonpost.com (which got started in 2001) a certain “us versus them” mind set, not to mention a fair amount of name calling. But crumb by crumb, the terms we use to define what we eat for dinner have blurred — and changed — and we’re changing our tune at the table. Although coined in the ‘90s, the word “flexitarian” (i.e. part-time vegetarian) was deemed by The American Dialect Society as the most useful word in 2003, less than 10 years ago.
Last fall, while traveling with my book, The Meat Lover’s Meatless Cookbook, I got to see yet another piece of the meat conversation — the growing phenomenon that I like to call the “mixed-diet relationship.”
Gone is the Thanksgiving feast with the one lone outcast who opts out of the turkey; now we’re truly eating in mixed company — and at the same time, trying to figure out how to make it work. I can’t tell you how many stories I heard along the following theme: Valerie the Vegetarian falls in love with Mister I-Can’t-Live-Without-My-Sausages, and together they must figure out what to do at the dinner table. I also heard from Mom & Pop Omnivore, whose teenaged son woke up one day and decided to trade in his favorite barbecued ribs for a grilled portabella burger. These scenarios are increasingly becoming the new normal.
The mixed diet is in keeping with some recent market research about the public health campaign Meatless Monday, which Sodexo is now offering in its hospital cafes, as well as at Toyota Motor Sales Inc. and the Department of the Interior. Meatless Monday first got its start in 2003 to help Americans reduce their saturated fat intake by 15 percent.
In 2007, Meatless Monday was virtually unknown. Today, it has become a global phenomenon, from school cafeterias in Baltimore to government offices in Belgium, from Aspen to Tel Aviv, from Oprah to Sodexo.
Just six months ago, market research conducted by FGI Research showed that 30 percent of Americans are aware of Meatless Monday. The latest data is in — and that awareness has spiked to 50 percent.
Meat, whether or not you eat it, has become one of the big conversations we’re having today. And we’re coming to the conversation from a multitude of vantage points including health, environment, animal welfare, food safety, agriculture, personal finance, ethics, politics, and religion. If you’re among the four percent of Americans that doesn’t eat meat, there’s a darn good chance someone you love does. We are truly a nation in transition at the table, where the divide over meat is shrinking and more of us are making room for plants on the plate.
Kim O’Donnel is a chef, longtime journalist and author of The Meat Lover’s Meatless Cookbook. Her latest project is Family Kitchen, a twice-monthly column that appears in USA Today. You can find more information on Kim and her writing at http://kimodonnel.com