Career Suicide Or Lifesaver? Why A Professional Foodie Went Vegetarian

Mar 9, 2013
Originally published on March 9, 2013 4:53 pm

It takes an adventurous palate to be a food journalist, who must sample and judge from a wide world of cuisines. So it's understandable why some chefs and foodies might be suspicious of a food editor who decides to cut himself off from a broad swath of eating possibilities by becoming vegetarian.

Indeed, vegetarianism has drawn ire from celebrity chefs like Anthony Bourdain, who called it "a persistent irritant to any chef worth a damn" and "the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit." So why did Washington Post food editor Joe Yonan risk such wrath by coming out as a vegetarian this week?

"It's been a gradual process over the last few years, actually," Yonan tells Weekend Edition host Scott Simon.

He was eating so many meat-centric meals on the job, he says, that he found himself increasingly abstaining at home.

"It was partly health — probably initially health-driven — and then certainly a sense of environmentalism a bit, too," Yonan says. "But I really didn't set out to tell other people what they should or shouldn't do."

Yonan's not the only food journalist turning more toward vegetables.

A few years ago, New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman started restricting himself to a vegan diet before 6 p.m. The move was prompted by his doctor's warning that he should lose weight and get his cholesterol and blood sugar levels in check "or face dire health consequences." Bittman has since turned that philosophy into a cookbook, VB6, due out next month.

You could see how high cholesterol might be a job hazard for these folks. "The meals that we food people get into can sometimes be way over-the-top of the kinds of things that normal people eat," Yonan says.

But it's not just foodies who are cutting back on meat. In a poll conducted last year with Truven Health Analytics, NPR found that 39 percent of adults surveyed said they eat less meat than they did three years ago. The main reason they cited for the change? Health concerns.

Yonan says that so far, the response to his "coming out" has been positive — except for the vegans who think he hasn't quite gone far enough. He assures readers he's no less prepared to be a food editor because his choice of featured foods won't be affected by his own diet.

Still, we were curious. If you knew that a food editor didn't eat meat, would that alter your assessment of his coverage?

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Anthony Bourdain, the celebrity chef, has described vegetarians as, quote, "a persistent irritant to any chef worth a damn" and "the enemy of everything good and decent to the human spirit." So, why would a food editor of a major daily newspaper risk the wrath of chefs and foodies by outing himself as a vegetarian? Joe Yonan of the Washington Post did exactly that this week. He joins us in our studios. Thanks very much for being with us.

JOE YONAN: Thanks for having me, Scott.

SIMON: And you're a brave man, 'cause as we find out you grew up in west Texas.

YONAN: I did. Yes, that's right. I grew up eating steak and barbeque and all sorts of meaty goodness.

SIMON: So, what drew you to what you describe as your second coming-out?

YONAN: It's been a gradual process over the last few years really. I actually think it started subconsciously. I was noticing all the meat that was building up in my freezer that I wasn't cooking at home. And I think that was because I was trying to make up health-wise for all the meat eating that I was doing when I go out. In the circles that I travel in and eat in...

SIMON: It's your job arguably.

YONAN: It's my job, yeah, to experience a lot of different kinds of food. And certainly the meals that we food people get into can sometimes be way over the top of the kinds of things that normal people eat. So, I think at home I was just trying to be really, really healthy, and that's how it started. And then it sort of kept increasing, my pull toward vegetables and my somewhat lack of interest in eating meat.

SIMON: Is it just out a lack of interest? Is it a moral disapproval? Disapproval sounds like a harsh word. But is it moral? Is it dietary? Is it parts of all that?

YONAN: It's parts of some of that. I wouldn't call it moral as much as it's very personal, for one thing, I think, what you decide to eat. And the one thing that I said in the piece was, which I feel very strongly about, was eat and let eat. You know, another way I could have put it was to each his own dinner, right? But I think for myself, I think it was initially health-driven and then certainly a sense of environmentalism a bit too. You know, the feeling that I wanted to eat less meat, that meat certainly is responsible for, you know, a huge proportion of greenhouse gases and that kind of thing. But I really didn't set out to tell other people what they should or shouldn't do it. But that was certainly part of it for me.

SIMON: Yeah. Do you think you're any less prepared to be a food editor?

YONAN: No, no, not at all. For one thing, thankfully, I'm not a one-man shop at the Post. I think if I were food editor, food critic, page one food writer all wrapped in one - which does exist in some smaller markets - then I think that the obligation to be omnivorous would be greater. But, thankfully, I have a staff and I work with a lot of great freelancers. And I also am not put off by meat at all. So, you know, when making decisions about the kinds of things that I think readers might want to read about, it doesn't turn my stomach to think about a big, beautiful piece of raw steak to be featured in the food section.

SIMON: What kind of email reaction have you gotten?

YONAN: It's, first of all, the amount of reaction has been very surprising to me - people thanking me for writing about it, and not only from vegetarians - mostly from vegetarians - but also from some omnivores who say they're thinking about eating less meat or that they just thought it was interesting, that they're trying to find more vegetable dishes in restaurants, and some vegans who think I haven't quite gone far enough, of course.

SIMON: Yes, of course, because you still make room for eggs and cheese and...

YONAN: Yeah, yeah. I really...

SIMON: Boy, the way you said yeah.

YONAN: I love eggs. I love eggs so much. They're just one of my favorite things. And then love cheese and yogurt and dairy, and so, you know, it's hard for me to imagine that ever changing. But as I also said in the piece, that's what I used to say about meat. So, who knows?

SIMON: Yeah. Joe Yonan, food and travel editor at the Washington Post. Thanks very much. And bon apetit or whatever I'm supposed to say.

YONAN: Thanks, Scott. This is fun.


SIMON: Can a food critic really do his job if he can't enjoy a cheeseburger anymore? You can join the conversation on Facebook at NPR Weekend. And you can stay in touch on Twitter too: @NPRWeekend. You can reach me directly on Twitter: @NPRScottSimon - all one word. Our director, Claudina Bade(ph), is leaving us to work for a show down the called All Thing Something or Other. She's a joy, a wit and can silence me just by lifting a finger and saying what she is now: close his mike. Boy, we'll miss her. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.