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Columns

Beyond Bourdain: Disassembling the Meat-Eater’s Anti-Vegan Bias

The Things We Consume

Harvard University Dining Services serves both meat and no-meat substitutes.
Harvard University Dining Services serves both meat and no-meat substitutes. By Truong L. Nguyen
By Matthew E. Nekritz, Crimson Opinion Writer
Matthew E. Nekritz ’25, a Crimson Editorial Editor, is a Social Studies Concentrator in Cabot House. His column, “The Things We Consume,” runs tri-weekly on Wednesdays.

This summer, I read Anthony Bourdain’s lauded “Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly,” a holy scripture for foodies and food-service workers alike. I soaked in his wild and witty restaurant stories as he unabashedly offered opinion after opinion on our relationships with food.

I hold nothing but reverence and respect for Bourdain, the late, great, world-explorer. He built bridges through flavor and connected cultures over the humble dining table, showing all of us that food can be a medium through which we throw our biases aside and learn about the individual across from us. Late-night episodes of “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown” shaped my love for the culinary world today, and he will forever be an inspiration.

Bourdain, however, held one bias, shared by many Americans, that he seemingly could not shake: He despised vegans. In “Kitchen Confidential,” he quipped that vegetarians and vegans “are a persistent irritant to any chef worth a damn.”

“To me, life without veal stock, pork fat, sausage, organ meat, demi-glace, or even stinky cheese is a life not worth living,” Bourdain wrote. “Vegetarians are the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit, and an affront to all I stand for, the pure enjoyment of food.”

Really!? Bourdain, as much as I adore him and his affable writing style, was wrong. His anti-vegan views were reductionist and represented a broader sentiment of disgust toward veganism that seems to be all too common among many, especially American men.

Anthony Bourdain won a Peabody Award for "Parts Unknown" in 2014.
Anthony Bourdain won a Peabody Award for "Parts Unknown" in 2014. By Courtesy of Peabody Awards

As a lover of all tasty food, which I consider Bourdain to be as well, I struggle to understand when peers denounce a scrumptious looking plant-based dish before even tasting it. I cannot comprehend the energy dedicated toward hating vegans.

Let me make one thing clear: I am not a vegan or vegetarian. I love to eat meat.

Also… nobody asked for my opinion.

Naturally, as seems to often be the case when it comes to this topic, I’m giving it anyway.

Now, I’m not going to engage in questions of morality or crown a champion of the animal consumption debate — I’ll leave that for the joint biology-philosophy concentrators and the PETA proselytizers.

These are just my thoughts — as a meat eater, as a food lover, as someone who cares deeply about my consumption and my environmental footprint and wants to live a sustainable, delectable, lifestyle.

That being said, I think we all need to think more about our relationship with meat.

***

The jury is out, and the stakes couldn't be higher: Factory farming, the heart of the 21st century American meat industry, is destroying our environment. We cannot ignore its central role in climate change today. Study after study has shown that the modern meat industry is contributing en masse to greenhouse gas emissions and deforestation, among other damaging effects. Reducing meat consumption is perhaps the most impactful way to reduce our individual environmental footprint.

These days, the preferred solution seems to be to innovate our way out of eating meat. Food innovation has promising potential, but I don’t think million dollar efforts to chemically synthesize new meatless meats and cheeseless cheeses are going to save us. Pea protein won’t take down the immense influence of the few multinationals that control the beef industry, lobby against climate legislation, and act for the expansion of their pockets over the health of the planet. And no amount of venture capital funding is going to create a meat replacement that will tear down the psychological wall that leads so many to turn their nose against a meal that lacks an animal based protein, regardless of its nutritional sameness.

The root of the problem, I believe, lies in our (meat eaters and Americans) aversion to the word “vegan,” our numbness to the endlessness of the grocery store, and our expectation of unlimited animal meat, without an evaluation of how those six boneless, skinless chicken thighs ended up in a sterilized package on a refrigerator shelf for (wow!) such an affordable price.

When we buy, cook, and eat meat, we must, at the very least, engage thoughtfully on where it came from and acknowledge the overwhelming environmental impact of a factory-farmed diet. And when it comes to eating less meat, the food innovation that we truly need lies in our home kitchens and our recipe books.

There are countless recipes and methods of preparation that make good, hearty, mouth-watering food —which just so happen to fit the label “vegan.”

Vegetables, legumes, grains, and plant-based proteins such as tofu, tempeh, and seitan deserve the same amount of culinary care and appreciation as a rack of lamb, if not more.

In our House dining halls, despite recent improvement efforts, there is still vast room for growth in the quality of meatless offerings to satiate vegans, vegetarians, and meat eaters alike.

I wouldn’t want to eat a boiled ribeye steak, so why should unseasoned and flavorless steamed vegetables be a go-to preparation presented right next to diverse meat options? When meatless options are devoid of flavor, excitement, and effort, it’s no surprise that people reach for the chicken tenders and identify with Bourdain’s disdain.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Good food that happens to be devoid of meat is no novel idea.

Cultures around the world have thrived off of plant-based and plant-heavy diets throughout history (without chemically processed fake cheeses!). India, with over 400 million vegetarians, collectively laughs out loud at Bourdain’s claims while enjoying one of the most vibrant food cultures in the world. And I don’t think the celebrity chef would have challenged the deliciousness of a plate of Ethiopian injera bread topped with vegetables and wot (stews) of diverse colors, textures, and flavors, even if they all lacked animal protein.

We can also learn from the groundbreaking chefs who are transforming our culinary world and changing our food focuses to be more vegetable-forward, like Amanda Cohen of NYC’s Dirt Candy. The Michelin Star chef is paving the way for a truly imaginative future of food that rejects any idea of vegetables as a “side.” As her website explains, they aren’t “saying ‘no’ to meat, but saying ‘yes’ to vegetables.”

Vegan and vegetarian food absolutely can be, should be, and often is incredibly tasty when given the same attention and care as meat dishes. We should all be saying “yes” to more meatless options, more often, and saying no to the built in meat-eater bias that rejects a food just because it’s labeled with a “V.”

***

Disagreeing with your heroes isn’t easy. I admire so much of Bourdain’s outlook on food, life, and learning. A poster of him remains on my wall, and I will always turn to “Parts Unknown” for late-night binge watching. When it came to vegans, vegetarians, and “the pure enjoyment of food,” however, he simply had a bad take.

If we could have sat across the table and shared a (meatless) meal, I can only hope he’d have been swayed by mine.

Matthew E. Nekritz ’25, a Crimson Editorial Editor, is a Social Studies Concentrator in Cabot House. His column, “The Things We Consume,” runs tri-weekly on Wednesdays.

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