When friends quiz me on why I'm a vegetarian, I answer honestly: "for every reason." Todd and I decided to give up meat—all animal flesh; not just red meat—13 years ago this month because we read a stealthy Dean Ornish book that pushed vegetarianism to help keep weight off and prevent heart disease. But the truth is that I've always been vegetarian in spirit.
The most basic reason is simple: I don't want to eat animals. Laugh if you will, but I love critters too much—including gentle cows, wacky chickens, even those sloppy mud-loving pigs—to kill and eat them. (I'd always refused to eat wild game on principle, so there was nothing to give up there.)
When we decided to stop eating animals, including seafood, we read a remarkable book called the "Perfectly Contended Meat-Eater's Guide to Vegetarianism" by Mark Warren Reinhardt (Continuum, 1998). This was no cookbook; it was a researched treatise on the problems with eating meat. It explained how the corporate meat industry hurts the environment as well as contributes to world hunger. Health concerns are there. Everything is there. That book, which Todd read aloud to me our first couple of meatless weeks, made it easy to not turn back.
So has the vegetarian life. We always love it when people ask, "What do you eat?" My favorite answer is everything I didn't bother to try when I was a carnivore. We eat and cook many more ethnic foods now, and we order items off menus we wouldn't have tried otherwise. We love to frequent restaurants that take vegetarianism seriously—and not just throw a mushroom on a bun or offer up a bland stir-fry. The hardest part for us former fish and crab lovers is going to the ocean; now we lay in great ingredients and spices and go through our veggie cookbooks to try new dishes at the beach (or in the mountains). Then we bring the good ones home with us and prepare them year-round.
These days, I miss little about eating meat other than sheer nostalgia (such as when I smell fried catfish); but I don't need to consume animals out of sentimentality. I can figure out a way to replace those dishes with delicious meatless options and maintain a balance and peace of mind I never felt as a carnivore. I urge you to try more vegetarian dishes; you don't have to give up animal flesh entirely to learn the power of "eating meat as a garnish," as Todd likes to suggest to skeptical people.
In our household, I tend to find the recipes and shop for the special ingredients (as I excel at researching and shopping). Todd does most of the cooking—from our favorite veggie cookbooks.
• "The Complete Tassajara Cookbook," Edward Espe Brown (Shambhala Publications, 2009, $35)
This one's worth it for his Zen of cooking lessons alone. It's an easy replacement for "Joy of Cooking."
• "Viva Vegan!," Terry Hope Romero (Da Capo Press, 2010, $18.95)
We're not vegan—we indulge in a few organic eggs, non-fat milk in coffee and too much good cheese—but this is my new favorite cookbook. I love Latin food—I dream about plantains and rice cooked in annatto oil—and Romero takes the meat out of old (and new) favorites for me.
• "Real Thai Vegetarian," Nancie McDermott (Chronicle Books, 1997, $13.95)
Thai is one of the best ways to eat meatless when it's done well. And Todd Stauffer loves some pad Thai. So do I.
• "Delicious Jamaica! Vegetarian Cuisine," Yvonne McCalla Sobers (Book Publishing, 1996, $12.95)
I was thrilled to find a cookbook to help us re-introduce Jamaican food into our lives. I missed jerk tragically.
• "The Winter Vegetarian," Darra Goldstein (HarperCollins, 1996, $16)
As the U.S. increasingly goes more meatless, great cookbook authors such as Goldstein are following suit. This is a serious cookbook for the months when we normally want more meat on the bone.
• "Rainbow Cooks," Rainbow Whole Food Cooperative
I picked up this little cookbook soon after moving to Jackson a decade ago. It's filled with meatless recipes by locals, including a crockpot black-eyed peas recipe by former first lady Melanie Musgrove that proves that southern vegetables don't need a hunk of meat or broth to be decadent.
(Note: I didn't include the "Moosewood" cookbooks by Mollie Katzen and crew; they're all wonderful and standards for any meatless kitchen. Visit http://www.molliekatzen.com.)