Nettie Cronish has the sort of kitchen you’d expect of a bona fide vegetarian: lentils, grains, nuts and flakes in repurposed glass jars line the shelves of the open-style, window-lined pantry. Cronish is a more polished version of the stereotypical old-school vegetarian: her face free of makeup, her unruly hair left to its own devices, attired in crocheted earth-tones and a crystalline necklace handmade by a local artisan. The only unexpected part of this narrative is that Cronish, who has spent decades as a leading Canadian authority on vegetarian cuisine, is going to be cooking meat.
Cronish, along with co-author Pat Crocker, is also about to publish the pair’s second book on flexitarian cuisine. Curious about the way a vegetarian might handle a “flexible” approach to meat-eating, I offered to help Cronish prepare Sunday supper. Cronish is not the authority on sourcing, buying and cooking meat in this cookbook—that’s Crocker’s role—but she does cook meat at home though she won’t eat it.
As a former vegetarian, I know how distasteful it can be to prepare animal flesh for others. As a parent, I know how many families are a hard-to-feed compilation of varying tastes, ethics and food allergies. I was curious—and somewhat hopeful—about Cronish and Crocker’s flexitarian approach and its promised collection of one-pot, crowd-pleasing meals. But first I had to understand just what a flexitarian is. It’s an idea that can be hard to pin down, but the simplest definition is someone whose diet is mostly vegetarian, but may cook and even eat meat on certain occasions.
The term “flexitarian” was popularized in the late 2000’s by books such as The Flexitarian Table by chef Peter Berley and The Flexitarian Diet: The Mostly Vegetarian Way to Lose Weight, Be Healthier, Prevent Disease, and Add Years to Your Life by registered dietitian Dawn Jackson Blatner. Like vegetarians, flexitarians advocate a diet replete with nuts, beans and whole grains. Recognizing that an all-or-nothing attitude doesn’t work for most people, a flex approach suggests reducing rather than eliminating meat. Flexitarians claim this practice holds the same benefits as vegetarianism: weight-loss, disease prevention, and improved overall nutrition. And the term flexitarian is helpful because it shifts the focus from whether or not to eat meat to a conversation about responsible consumption.
Flexitarianism has been endorsed on such respectable online forums as Web MD and the Mayo Clinic. The United Nations and the Environmental Protection Agency both recommend what they call a “plant-based diet” (mainly but not exclusively vegetables, legumes and whole grains) as a more environmentally sustainable way to feed the world’s population. Even such ethically motivated plant-eaters as the Toronto Vegetarian Association and Earthsave Canada welcome the trend, since it encourages vegetarian cuisine as a regular part of the average diet.
But for a true vegetarian, even a little bit of meat can be every bit as dismaying as a big slab of it. In the introduction to Flex Appeal, Cronish describes her early dedication to vegetarianism as “evangelical”, and so it was—until she had children. Cronish had previously published three books on vegetarian cuisine, including The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Being Vegetarian in Canada. So it wasn’t easy for her to accept that her family might want to eat meat despite her determination to keep a vegetarian kitchen at home. However birthday parties, dinner at friends’ houses, and even work-related culinary events offered meat, and she wanted her three children to feel free to make their own choices. And of course they did, falling in love with pork cracklings at a food-industry pig roast and lobster at fellow foodie Joanne Kate’s dinner table.
Not wanting to cook customized meals every night, Cronish developed what she calls a flexitarian approach to cooking. In 2011, Cronish and Pat Crocker (described in Flex Appeal’s introduction as “The Enlightened Vegetarian” and the “Enlightened Meat-Eater”, respectively) published Everyday Flexitarian to help other families with mixed food preferences eat together in harmony. Following up on its popularity, their new cookbook, Flex Appeal, offers more than 100 recipes that deliver flexitarian meals in 40 minutes or less. The style of cooking, according to Cronish, does not mean that vegetarians must accept some meat in their rice and beans. Instead, she defines it as “one meal made two ways.”
She puts the question to me: “Do you have time to cook two meals every night?” I assured her that I had tried and found it exhausting. “So you want to do your prep once and add meat at the end for those who want it. Our book will allow you to prepare recipes with lots of choice in a minimum of time.”
Flexitarianism may be a matter of convenience for many busy parents, but it is much more than that for Cronish and Crocker. Both authors refer to “mindful-eating,” calling on meat-eaters to reduce their consumption and to make ethical choices. In the introduction to Flex Appeal, Crocker encourages consumers to buy meat directly from local farmers. While more expensive and less plentiful than factory-farmed supermarket fare, local and organic farmers raise animals in a more natural setting that is both more humane and better for human health. She also quotes Slow Food International, which claims that we eat far more animal protein than is required for good nutrition. According to their pamphlet Too Much Steak, the recommended daily 100 grams or 3½ ounces is only the size of a clementine.
Indeed Cronish and Crocker encourage their readers to use meat as a condiment. “Thinking of meat and dairy as one small addition to a dish or a meal helps you to reduce the amount used,” she advises. “Artisanal cheese, shaved or slivered chicken or beef, pulled pork, bacon, chopped ham, pancetta and nitrite-free sausage all add big flavour in small amounts to the main event: vegetable-based dishes.”
Flex Appeal lists dishes like Sweet and Sour Tempeh and Rice Noodle Stir-Fry with detailed instructions on when and how to incorporate optional scallops for those who eat them. Similarly, Artichoke Zucchini Chowder provides for the discretionary addition of cooked ground lamb at the end.
As Cronish and I discuss the larger questions around flexitarianism, I put the lessons into play. With one hand on the pan that is toasting pine nuts and sunflowers seeds, Cronish direct me on the correct technique for dicing cucumber and radish into tiny slivers. All are going into her quinoa salad, along with red pepper and tomatoes. I give it a taste test, along with Nettie’s famed tofu meatballs, as her husband comes in and sits across from me. He makes himself a sandwich of leftover steak with mayo on white bread. Our two lunches couldn’t be more dissimilar, but the atmosphere couldn’t be more welcoming. For Cronish, who is big on family mealtime, this is more important than convenience or even health considerations.
“Your table should be harmonious. It shouldn’t be a place of disagreement and people shouldn’t be bullied about their food choices. It’s really important to eat together and ask about each other’s day. You have to become a good listener: that’s part of mindful eating.”