Meatless Abundance: The Joy of Plant-Based Eating
Alicia Kennedy’s new book invites readers to see the ecological and culinary possibilities of removing meat from the center of their plates.
My love for bacon used to be the most American thing about me. As a child of Caribbean immigrants, jerked and curried meats were central to my diet. But it wasn’t until I moved out and encountered bacon-based breakfast dishes in dining halls and restaurants that I truly knew love. Considering the greenhouse gas emissions of animal agriculture, I’ve tried to go vegetarian multiple times, but bacon always brings me back. There simply is no good plant-based substitute for the stuff, so I’ve always viewed a meatless life as one of deprivation.
But where I saw sacrifice, Alicia Kennedy sees abundance. In her debut book, No Meat Required: The Cultural History and Culinary Future of Plant-Based Eating, Kennedy explores the complex “diversity of thought in the refusal of meat,” and the forces that shape this choice. “The intention of this book is to change how you think of meat,” she writes, “whether you eat it or do not.” Kennedy invites us to see the ecological and culinary possibilities of removing meat from the center of our plates: “If we do that, what do we find?”
I was struck by Kennedy’s empathy for omnivores like me. I care about the environment, but meat consumption remains my toughest dilemma and biggest source of shame. What we choose to eat is personal and emotional, which Kennedy understands firsthand. She was a strict vegan for five years, but stopped after her brother died, when she “realized there was no substitute for certain foods and the feelings they invoke,” she explains to me.
When people decide to go vegan or vegetarian, society too often responds by equating any trace of meat consumption with moral failure. In contrast, Kennedy considers the conscious omnivore, who eats a small amount of meat and commits to ethical sourcing, as an ally in the fight to end industrial animal agriculture. Ethical eating isn’t, as Kennedy writes, “a set of rules that must be followed to the letter at all times.” Rather, it’s a practice—one that may feel easy one day and difficult the next.
Once I acknowledged that meat will always be a part of my life, it was easy to commit to eating less and being curious about where mine comes from. This cracked open my Massachusetts culinary world, and brought me to pop-up farmers markets outside Boston, ethnic grocery stores in Roxbury, and premium butcher shops in Somerville.
Reading Kennedy’s book also got me thinking about the people who influenced how I eat. My mother views food as medicine, and instilled in me a love for cold-pressed juices to jump-start my immune system. Eugenia Manwelyan founded a desk-free school for arts and ecology in New York City, and taught me, as a college student, what it means to eat in a way that supports local ecology. Eating vegan ital stews made by chefs Elisha Hazel and Qulen Wright in New Haven, Connecticut, reconnected me with my Jamaican roots as a postgrad learning to cook for myself. My partner, having worked on small farms, introduced me to the magic of well-roasted cauliflower and the perfect summertime heirloom tomato.
Kennedy pays her own homage to the culinary geniuses and eccentric entrepreneurs that made plant-based eating what it is today. She pays particular attention to the under-celebrated contributions made by people of color “who are pushing back on the notions of the pedantic, preachy white vegan that has dominated the mainstream discourse.” Kennedy spotlights Bryant Terry, a Black plant-based chef credited with highlighting the diversity of vegan foodways in the African diaspora, and A. Breeze Harper, who makes the link between racist practices and inequitable food systems. Kennedy emphasizes their intersectional approach to plant-based eating, integrating conversations around identity, tradition, and food justice.
The book also resists the whitewashing of vegan food by reclaiming plant-based foodways inherent to Latin America, the Caribbean, and throughout Africa. Kennedy dug through archives and spoke with experts to make clear that vegan food was never white to begin with. Take the staples from which most vegans derive their protein: Tofu originated in China around 965 CE, tempeh has roots in 17th-century Indonesia, and seitan was developed nearly 1,500 years ago by Chinese Buddhist monks. Almond milk dates back to a 13th-century Afghan cookbook, and soy milk was first mentioned in a Chinese text from 1365.
Perhaps more perplexing than the history of plant-based eating is its future. On this front, Kennedy minces no words. “I have been distracted from the food that grows from the ground by products that promise innovation, that continue to hide the planet, to hide the joy of cooking,” she writes.
Food-tech giants like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat tout meat replacements as the sustainable alternative, but as Kennedy writes, “the amount of money poured into the development of these products is akin to the subsidies that make industrial meat so excessively abundant.” Plus, these apparent solutions aim to change the way we eat without addressing the root causes of the problems in our food system: the decline in biodiversity and soil health from monocultures, unsafe labor practices, and the pollution of air and water from conventional agriculture.
“In all of this, the missing piece is a conversation with people who do this work,” Kennedy says. The real question to ask before deploying a purported solution should be: “How can technological know-how and capital be used to make life better for the marginalized folks who farm and do climate work?”
I often take for granted just how prevalent plant-based options are today, and Kennedy’s work shows that the journey here was a long one. When I was growing up in Atlanta, fast-food veggie burgers were a nonstarter; now Burger King proudly serves a plant-based Impossible Whopper. Still, if the restaurant fails to pay its employees a fair wage or provide breaks, has any progress really been made? We’re at a critical moment in our planet’s history, and while conversations about justice, food, and the environment have moved mainstream, the proportion of Americans identifying as vegan or vegetarian has remained stagnant over the past decade at just 5%.
Still, Kennedy does not despair: “I believe in a world where people realize they don’t need meat at every meal, and it’s a world where our basic needs are met. It’s a world where we have space to reimagine what we consider abundance.” How will we know if we’re on track to make that vision a reality? Here, Kennedy left me yearning for more. But following her advice, I take comfort in savoring the social change embodied by my latest vegan obsession: a local Black-owned bakery called Cupcake Therapy. After delighting in their dairy-free strawberry frosting, I believe anything is possible.