Since 2008, New York City chef Amanda Cohen has been the loudest, and most talented, supporter of a vegetable-based (restaurant) diet — preparing exceptionally flavorful dishes like smoked cauliflower with waffles and kimchi donuts at her tiny space in the East Village. Dirt Candy is a vegetarian restaurant, sure. But it’s more of a vegetable restaurant, avoiding meat-proxy cookery like veggie burgers and wheat balls. With Healthy Living Week upon us, a week where we’re spending some time talking about fad diets and the crazy world of juicing, we wanted to send Cohen some myths about the vegan and vegetarian diet to see what she said to say. We admit, some of these are as dumb and slightly offensive. But so are vegetarian haters. Take it away, Amanda!
1. Eating too much soy is bad for you (and can give guys man boobs)
This has been pretty fully debunked, but just for the record: No. Animal research that shows otherwise is statistically insignificant, and the American Academy of Pediatricians sees no danger in infants consuming soy-based formula. Like any food, eating too much (which is defined by most nutritionists as over three servings per day) can have negative consequences, but you will not grow DDDs and have to buy a bra if you are a man and you eat some tofu.
2. Meat proxies like Chik Patties and fake sausage are good for you
I love fake meat. It’s vegetarian junk food. The only problem is that, like junk food, it’s a processed food that isn’t great for you, often containing preservatives and stabilizers, chemicals for color and texture — and not much nutritional value.
3. If you work out a lot, it's not good to be vegetarian because you can't gain muscle mass
There’s inconclusive evidence that eating meat is related to increased muscle mass, but the studies that support this hypothesis are filled with words like “limited evidence,” “may” and “could possibly be linked to.” This slim statistical support is countered by the fact that high performance athletes like Martina Navratilova, Carl Lewis, Edwin Moses and a ton of wrestlers, weightlifters, football players (Joe Namath, for one) and basketball players are vegan or vegetarian. Winning mostly has to do with who you are and how hard you work, less to do with what you eat.
4. Children need to eat meat to get enough protein to grow
Research on the impact of a vegetarian diet on kids is a game of ping pong. Ping! Some studies have shown that vegetarian kids grow more slowly at first than omnivore kids. Pong! The Harvard School of Public Health shows that girls who eat a meat-heavy diet go through puberty at a younger age. Ping! One study shows that vegetarian kids have a higher average IQ than omnivore kids. Pong! A researcher at the University of California at Davis found that adding meat to vegetarian kid’s diets increases physical and mental development.
Ultimately, here's what I’d say to pretty much every question about health and being a vegetarian: everything is fine in moderation, except maybe cocaine. Use your common sense and ignore scare headlines.
5. You should throw away the tops of greens
I’m not sure why people do this. In a world where we revel in eating every part of a pig — from snout to tail to trotters — why do we throw away delicious greens? At Dirt Candy, I’ve done everything from make pesto out of beet tops to grill carrot greens and people always act surprised and impressed. Fine with me — I’ll take the praise.
6. Vegetarians are freaks who want to ban all meat
One of the things I’ve discovered after opening Dirt Candy is that there’s a silent majority of vegetarians out there who don’t care that much about animal rights, who aren’t focused on their health and who could care less about what anyone else eats. There are a lot of them, and just because they don’t talk about their diet (and the only conversation more boring than describing your dreams is describing your diet), that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Even more common are people who are quietly eating less meat, but not going full vegetarian.
7. Celery is boring
One of the reason people find some vegetables “boring” is because we’ve gotten used to having them only prepared a certain way. Celery is never cooked, cucumber is always served raw, beets are always roasted. If you cook them a different way you often discover that once you divorce a vegetable’s taste from its texture you’re going to get a surprise. I had no idea celery was so bitter until I started cooking it. I didn’t realize cucumbers had a rich, umami taste until I roasted them. Not many people are experimenting like this, but that just means there’s less competition for me. For decades, the “right” way to serve brussels sprouts was to boil the hell out of them. That changed, and now no one would consider drowning them in hot water ever again. Who’s to say how we’ll eat bitter, tangy celery next year?
8. All vegetarian food is "healthy"
Processed food isn’t that great for you in large quantities, and that’s the same whether you’re talking veggie burgers or SPAM.
9. Backyard barbecues are sad, sad events for vegetarians
Nothing sends people into a panic faster than learning I don’t eat meat. Where will we go to eat? Will this restaurant have vegetarian options? Are you going to come to our house for dinner and starve to death and die? Chillax. I’ve never been in a restaurant that didn’t have something I could eat and the same goes for backyard barbecues. I’m a sucker for sides, and I usually like them more than the main course. It’ll be fine.
10. Juicing is only for cleansing.
Yes, it is. That is why there are approximately nine billion juice stores in New York City right now. It’s because we’re all so clean.
11. Anthony Bourdain hates all vegans
I don’t know about Bourdain, and he’s never been to Dirt Candy, but bashing vegetarians is like guys with receding hairlines who have ponytails: you sort of feel sorry for them. A chef who says they hate vegetarians is a chef who has a tired “Mmm…bacon” t-shirt in their closet.
12. Vegans only wear sandals and patchouli
Amanda Cohen is the chef of Dirt Candy in New York City and the author of the Dirt Candy Cookbook — part graphic novel, part memoir, part awesome. In Fall 2014, Cohen plans to open a bigger and badass-er Dirt Candy on the Lower East Side.