The godmother of “vegetable” life

Frances Moore Lappé’s last hamburger was in 1971, the same year she published “Diet for a Small Planet”, her hugely influential book on food and sustainability, which practically created the journalistic category of food policy and made Lappé what she once called self-deprecatingly “The Julia child of the soybean cycle”.

In Diet, Lappé argued that Americans eat too much meat, especially beef, and that our meat-centered meals are a tremendous waste of resources. Both our bodies and the planet would be healthier if we followed a plant-based diet instead.

Vegetarianism was a strange, if not heretical, way of feeding yourself back then. The center of the American plate was reserved for a large pork chop or steak. In the introduction to an issue of Diet, she recalls promoting the book on a local Pittsburgh TV talk show in the mid-1970s. Lappé was booked next to a UFO expert and her only question from the host was, “What do you think they are eating on UFOs?”

At that time, becoming veggie was also a logistical challenge. Mollie Katzen, who read Diet as a 20-year-old college student and later used it as a reference when she helped start the Moosewood vegetarian restaurant in Ithaca, New York, from which she became very influential herself. Moosewood Cookbook, ”recalled that many ingredients were not easy to find in supermarkets back then.

“There weren’t any fresh herbs anywhere,” Katzen, 71, said in a recent interview. “People didn’t cut onions. They only used onion powder. They couldn’t even find a bottle of olive oil – it was Wesson cooking oil. “The introduction of a vegetarian diet, Katzen said, is” definitely a long way off Main Street. “

Propose half a century and Lappé not only saw “Diet” turn 50 – an updated anniversary edition was published in September – but also saw her ideas about food and nutrition be accepted by millions of Americans and Even marketing buzzwords have spawned the wellness industry. (Lappé was “vegetable” long before the term existed.)

One recent afternoon, Lappé greeted a reporter at her home in a leafy city outside of Boston to talk about the way we eat then and now. Despite her success – “Diet” has sold more than 3 million copies and she was awarded the Right Livelihood Award, a kind of alternative Nobel Prize – Lappé, or Frankie for her friends, is a down-to-earth, happy woman of 77 years. She greeted her guest with a warm bowl of the soothing carrot and onion soup, one of the recipes in “Diet” that she had specially prepared that morning.

“I made this soup for Betty Ballantine,” Lappé said cheerfully, referring to the book publisher, who was so impressed with Lappé’s message that they took the risk of commissioning a book from Lappé, a former community organizer . Until then she hadn’t even published a letter to the editor; Since then, she has written 19 more books, including everything from preserving our democracy to raising children without television.

Over the years, many people have categorized Lappé as a cookbook author or cook, like another of her contemporaries, food activist Alice Waters. In fact, it was Ballantine who suggested Lappé include recipes in “Diet” to soften what was essentially a political manifesto and make it more salable. Many of the dishes were crowdsourced from friends.

Lappé said she never saw herself as the leader of a revolution that is strictly fought in the fruit and vegetable department. As she put it, “The reward is not how many vegetarians I have created.” Rather, she is happy when people approach her and, as many say over the years, “I read your book and it changed my life . “

If you’d rather eat tofurky than a real bird this Thanksgiving Day, there is some way of thanking Lappé. The inventor of the vegetable protein Seth Tibbot read “Diet” and the way he told the makers of a Vice documentary about the future of food, it changed his life. Ethan Brown, the founder of Beyond Meat, is another student. And of course you can count the author herself among those whose life has been radically changed by the ideas in “Diet”.

Frances Moore Lappe at her home in Belmont, Massachusetts (Cody O’Loughlin / The New York Times)

Lappé was 25 and attending graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley when she began to question her purpose in life. Like many of her generation, she had read The Population Bomb, the 1968 book by Paul Ehrlich that (it turned out) predicted an impending famine due to overpopulation, and was inspired by the ecological movement that led to the first day of the Earth.

Lappé was also exposed to new and different foods, including bulgur and tofu. She began auditing courses in soil science and studying scientific reports at the Berkeley Agriculture Library to better understand the food system and global hunger.

She was surprised at her results; in particular, that over half of the acreage harvested in the United States at the time was used for feeding cattle, so if those resources were diverted, more than enough food would be left. Lappé printed out a one-page handout and distributed it in Berkeley. Through a friend of hers, an expanded brochure found its way to Ballantine.

“Diet” was an unlikely bestseller, a broadside against the good old hamburger with dry charts on US crop yields and a homemade cover illustration of corn and wheat. But it was released during a “very idealistic time for American youth,” Katzen said, adding, “Many college students like me were looking for an alternative way of life that had less of an impact on the earth. There was also this idea of ​​the personal being political. Your book filled in the gaps. “

A similar desire for personal and planetary health pervades culture today. There has been such a shift in awareness about food that fast food restaurants serve plant-based burgers, and climate activists are again calling for beef consumption to be reduced, albeit for different reasons, including the oversized impact on greenhouse gas emissions.

While reviewing the current landscape, Lappé approvingly mentioned the proliferation of community and school gardens and the thousands of farmers’ markets across the country. “They didn’t exist yet” 50 years ago, she said.

But worried about the way healthy eating has become an elitist activity, Lappé says of $ 12 worth of green smoothies, “That’s not my point at all.” She’s also ambivalent about plant-based meats made in a lab: while they’re less of a contributor to climate change, they’re not a solution to mending our broken food system, she said.

“Processed foods remain as our staple food,” said Lappé. “The answer is healthy foods that come straight from the earth or as close as possible.”

Nowadays people seem to be eating a lot better and a lot worse. Sugary processed foods dominate the supermarket shelves, and nearly one in seven Americans now has diabetes. “Food is life itself – and we made it a killer,” said Lappé. “It’s amazing.”

Her daughter Anna Lappé, 47, who continues her mother’s work as a writer and advocate for sustainable food, said when she thinks of her parents’ house, “I can imagine big jars with beans and lentils.”

The family shopped at a food cooperative in bulk, and Lappé cooked simple, healthy dishes like carrot soup and froze leftovers for quick weekday meals. 50 years later, Lappé is still cooking like this. (And she still has that inner glow of healthy eating.)

But while the family lived in crisp Berkeley, it has to be said that Lappé wasn’t a hippie. She grew up in a literal cow town in Fort Worth, Texas, where she was a football cheerleader, and her activism took root in her little Quaker college in Earlham. Her stylish, composite appearance on television and in college auditoriums made it difficult to dismiss her as a Californian weirdo. As Lappé’s Twitter biography suggests, she has always seen herself as a “hope maker”. (“It’s getting harder every year,” she said with a laugh.)

Sitting in her kitchen with the same jars of grains and beans on the shelves, Lappé reflected on her long-ago conversion. “Not eating meat is what I call my act of rebellious reason,” she said. “It was like opening the door. The world of taste, color and texture lies in the world of plants. I tell people it wasn’t a victim. It was a discovery. “

Which brings us to her last hamburger in 1971. Lappé was expecting her first child. As she put it, “Women who are pregnant have certain cravings,” so she found her way to a joint called the Smokehouse. Lappé was chewing on a grilled burger and looked up to see the man helping her edit her book stepped through the door.

“The most embarrassing moment of my life,” said Lappé, laughing again. “I felt like a fake. I was so humiliated. And that was my last meat. “

This article originally appeared in the New York Times.

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