Reading ‘No Meat Required’ as a Meat Eater

In 2011, the Long Island–born writer Alicia Kennedy went vegan. By the following year, she was running a vegan bakery; four more years, and she was working as a freelance food journalist, covering her beat from an explicitly meatless perspective. Kennedy is no longer vegan—she eats oysters, as well as local dairy and eggs—but she still writes about life without meat. Her newsletter, From the Desk of Alicia Kennedy, was one of Substack’s early hits. It is, essentially, a one-woman magazine that mixes cultural criticism, food writing, and food-world interviews with personal meditations, recommendations, and recipes that Kennedy develops in her home kitchen in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where she moved in 2019. Her catholic, roving approach to writing—wide-ranging interests, vivid sensory descriptions, and a briskly explanatory style—is a manifestation of not just her palpable curiosity but also her focus on how to live a rich, enjoyable, and ethical life.

Kennedy’s first book, No Meat Required: The Cultural History and Culinary Future of Plant-Based Eating, is more streamlined than her newsletter, though still plainly the work of a mind that needs to rove. It is a tour through meatless eating in the United States, starting with Frances Moore Lappé’s 1971 hit, Diet for the Small Planet, which made the case for vegetarianism as a solution to global hunger, and ending with contemporary debates over lab-grown meat and other food technologies as a major new culinary frontier. It’s also a work of climate activism. Industrial meat is a major source of the emissions causing global warming. Eating it regularly, Kennedy argues, is unsustainable. Yet for many in the United States, meat has long represented security and prosperity; in the 1920s, Republicans promised voters “a chicken for every pot.” When Kennedy quit eating animals, she immediately started searching for “new way[s] to create abundance” in the kitchen. Now, she writes, “this has become my life’s purpose: showing people life without meat is still a beautiful life, a filling life, a satisfying life.” No Meat Required achieves that goal.

I should say, by way of disclosing bias, that I eat meat. I try to do so judiciously, but I don’t foresee celebrating any holidays without my grandmother’s matzo-ball soup, which involves broth made from not one but two whole kosher chickens. I’m sure Kennedy would love me to skip the birds, but one of her book’s strengths is that, to some degree, she gets why I don’t. In part, this is what makes her convincing: She is not what she’d call a “single issue” thinker. She recognizes that discussing food means discussing “appetite and nostalgia,” and that major changes to the way Americans eat won’t happen if those pressing for them refuse to take “culture, gastronomy, and taste into consideration.” She also sees that creating ethical food systems requires attention to class: Food-industry laborers need fair pay and safe conditions, and healthy, varied ingredients need to be made available in all communities. Building an American diet without meat, Kennedy argues, is just one part of fixing the American diet, which is in bad need of repair.

But Kennedy is also convincing because she is confident. It’s apparent throughout No Meat Required that she is out to educate rather than convert or attack her readers. Like any good teacher, she has both facts and concepts she wants her audience to consider, then absorb; also like any good teacher, she understands that she will and should meet a wide array of reactions. Writing about the cookbooks Vegan With a Vengeance and How It All Vegan!, Kennedy praises their authors for not including a “manifesto to defend giving up meat, [or] mea culpa about ‘preaching’—there is just normalization and a lack of fear.” She could easily be writing about her own work. It is plain, reading No Meat Required, that Kennedy has settled fully into her ideal of a world in which anyone with the option to do so eats in a way designed not to harm animals, the planet, or the laborers who get food to our plates. She’s not going to be shaken out of it. She’s convincing, in short, because she doesn’t need to convince you.

To say that No Meat Required contains no judgment wouldn’t be quite accurate. Kennedy never blames readers for their present choices, but she has harsh words for big systems: agribusiness, factory farming, the subsidies that hold beef prices down, and the Jones Act provisions that contribute to grocery stores in San Juan that are stocked with expensive imports instead of local products. And although she does not scold her readers, she does want them to see themselves as active participants in improving the way we all eat. In a recent Eater interview, she said that her goal “isn’t converting people to veganism or vegetarianism” but making them aware that addressing climate change—among many other things—“requires the end of industrial animal agriculture,” with its outsize carbon emissions. This awareness prompts another difficult recognition: Early in the book, Kennedy writes that although one person’s consumer choice may currently mean little given the power of the American meat and dairy industries, attending to our eating habits has real value. After all, she argues, if and when food corporations do get forced to emit less, our diets “will change, whether we like it or not. I believe there’s meaning in changing before it gets that bad.”

Many of the book’s chapters spin outward from a person or group of people who, like Kennedy, have found meaning in new ways of eating. In this mode of writing, which is her best, Kennedy skillfully segues from individual story to social phenomenon, gleaning useful information and perspective from each. In one chapter, she explores a kind of crunchy, virtuous vegetarianism—think sprouts, carob brownies, and dense casseroles taking meat’s starring place on the plate—that flourished first in co-ops and on communes in the 1970s. (If you’ve ever eaten a dish from the original version of Mollie Katzen’s 1974 Moosewood Cookbook, you know the deal.) Now that sort of cooking is less culturally prominent—perhaps in part because its originators consciously stood apart from mainstream culture. For Kennedy, its waning is no bad thing. Not many people want to eat food that’s healthy and sustainable but not delicious. It’s axiomatic to Kennedy that no one should.

Kennedy strongly prefers another sort of rebellious, community-oriented cooking: punk veganism, which rejects corporate food systems—no Big Ag!—while espousing a “politics of hospitality” designed to bring any- and everyone through a restaurant’s door. If commune cooking is all about virtue, punk cooking cares equally about ethics and junky goodness. Kennedy holds up scrappy, “pieced-together” restaurants from Buenos Aires to the Bronx as examples; she also discusses the cookbook writer Isa Chandra Moskowitz and the drummer turned chef Brooks Headley, whose restaurant, Superiority Burger, is famous for its croquette-like veggie burgers and “tofu-fried tofu” sandwich, which, Kennedy writes, “satisfies my desire for fried chicken. But if anyone pretended it wasn’t tofu, I wouldn’t want to eat it.”

I’ve made the latter myself from Headley’s 2018 Superiority Burger Cookbook. It’s a long process, and worth every second. It helps that the recipe is not only delicious but also fun to follow. Headley is a friendly companion in the home kitchen, equally good at telling you how to pickle carrots and showing how invested he is in building community through food. In the notes prefacing his recipes, he pays homage to his restaurant’s suppliers and regulars while nudging readers not to buy spices from Amazon. Headley’s anti-corporatism and generosity—and great food—represent the DIY spirit that gives Kennedy hope for the meatless future.

Kennedy sees kinship between Headley’s style of community-oriented cooking and the Black countercultural cuisine of the 1960s and ’70s. At that time, Black leaders including Malcolm X and the comedian Dick Gregory argued for vegetarianism or ethical meat consumption as forms of civil-rights activism. For Malcolm X, Kennedy writes, avoiding meat was a “means of differentiating Black people from whites, specifically the brutal means of slaughter without any ritual or compassion that had come into practice with industrial animal agriculture.” Kennedy links this idea to growing advocacy today for the preservation of traditional foodways. As an example, she mentions a 2019 podcast interview she did with the vegan activist Amy Quichiz, a first-generation Colombian and Peruvian American who brought quinoa to her parents’ home in Queens only to have her father laugh, telling her “that’s what he ate when he was poor.” Now quinoa is a trendy, expensive vegan protein in the U.S., but Quichiz refuses to treat it as one. For her, despite the “new ‘health food’ connotations,” eating it means “going back to her roots.”

The cookbook world has taken a long time to start rewarding writers who demonstrate that vegan and vegetarian eating has deep historical roots in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. It’s also taken a long time for books such as Dick Gregory’s Natural Diet for Folks Who Eat to get proper recognition: First published in 1974, it got a reissue in 2021, after Lappé’s Diet for a Small Planet had enjoyed several splashy rereleases. A key figure in the industry’s shift is the Black vegan chef, author, and activist Bryant Terry, who has written several influential cookbooks, including Grub: Ideas for an Urban Organic Kitchen, co-authored with Lappé’s daughter, Anna. They identify, as Kennedy puts it, “‘six illusions’ that Americans are living with regarding food”: choice, affordability, safety and cleanliness, fairness, efficiency, and progress. The idea of these “six illusions” has much in common with the rebellious attitude that Kennedy treats as foundational to punk veganism: Both are about rejecting the myth pervasive to American society that there’s an ethical way to eat cheap meat all the time.

Kennedy’s opposition to that myth is key to her analysis of lab-grown meat, to which she devotes a chapter of No Meat Required. Here, she has no characters; she doesn’t interview scientists at Beyond Meat or Impossible Foods. Rather, she turns to a broader form of cultural analysis, one geared much less to home cooks and pleasure seekers than the rest of the book. Kennedy sees meat as a symbol of American masculinity; it’s canonically cowboy food, and the idea that it should be at the center of our plates is, to her, a variation on the idea that straight men must be at the head of our households. For this reason, she has little patience for products that mimic meat. Many of them rely on monoculture crops; in addition, Kennedy argues that they perpetuate the idea that there “can be no life without meat,” rather than helping consumers move toward seeing meat as either a luxury or something that they can do wholly without.

Kennedy is a charismatic writer, which makes her more abstract discussions of food as culture fun to ride along with. But these sections lack the concrete crispness of her writing about figures such as Lappé and Terry: Her chapter on nondairy cheese, which does not have the sweeping critique of her chapter on lab meat, is the only part of the book that gets dull or vague. Fundamentally, Kennedy just doesn’t seem to be interested in foods that don’t come from nature—which seems to be true precisely because they don’t come from nature. It’s worth remembering that she chooses to eat local, sustainable dairy, prioritizing the livelihoods of cheese makers in Puerto Rico over a purely vegan diet. Kennedy may feel obligated to write about the meat and dairy substitutes now appearing in more stores and on more menus, but her fundamental investment is in “food that grows from the ground [rather than] products that promise innovation, that continue to hide the planet, to hide the joy of cooking.”

It’s conceivable that Kennedy’s belief in the joy of cooking is even stronger than her belief in eating ethically, though in her book as in her newsletter, the two seem utterly inextricable. She evidently gets both creative and moral satisfaction from cooking and eating well. (Moral satisfaction may sound smug, but No Meat Required, infused as it is with the punk ethos of teaching and sharing, is anything but.) One of the pleasures of reading this book is that it prompts us to think about nature’s variety and abundance, and about how that abundance can show up on our plates. It will reframe the way you think of meat, yes—but it will also make you want to go to the farmers’ market and the vegan Caribbean spot in your city and the dim sum place with the delicious tofu skins. Learning should be exciting, and, in Kennedy’s world, it is.

​When you buy a book using a link on this page, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.

Check Also

"Vegan McDonald's" Mr. Charlie's to Open First Australian Location - vegconomist

“Vegan McDonald’s” Mr. Charlie’s to Open First Australian Location – vegconomist

Mr. Charlie’s, the US fast food chain often referred to as the “vegan McDonald’s”, is …

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *