Eating, an Act of Diplomacy

09/23/2011 12:03 pm ET | Updated Nov 23, 2011

I run with an interesting pack of people. Contrary to people who know me through my cooking reputation and think I must only hang out with people who eat a particular way, vegan in my case, I am here to say: I break bread with all kinds of eaters. Even though, I've been known to throw my weight around about the merits of eating a plant-based diet. I'm thinking of the time I got upset with my husband's best friend, Steve. I started noticing when we dined with him; he always ordered the biggest juiciest steak on the menu. After a while I took this personally. One night inside an over priced restaurant that I was already peeved about having to eat in I blew up at Steve. I accused him of dragging us to this trendy eating palace for no good reason except that he could flaunt that dead piece of animal in front of me.  Steve remained calm and nonjudgmental, something I was later ashamed I hadn't. This confrontation allowed us to open up about how deep our pleasures are wrapped around our appetites and personal history. 

Steve and his wife, Nicolette, have an interesting marriage. He's an omnivore and she's a vegetarian who is close to going vegan. Since I am married to a guy stricter than I am about all things vegan, I asked my friends how they co-exist at the table at every meal.  Who does the shopping? Are there food rules in their house?  And who is influencing the direction in which they feed their children?

A word comes to mind: diplomacy. Something you need at larger family gatherings, at dinner parties, traveling, and various other situations when your convictions about food will be tested. 

The friendly coexistence of vegans and omnivores makes me think of famous odd couples like Democrat James Carville married to Republican Mary Matalin. Apparently things are good between them: they merited a spread in Architectural Digest. If political rivals can make a go of it, detente al dente must also be possible in the kitchen and on the plate.

Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.
 -- Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin

I think it starts with everyone understanding that what we put on our plate determines who we are. I grew up in Memphis and mothers at that time were pretty much smitten with the food-industrial-complex: fast foods and processed foods. Even when fresh food was available, it was uncool to kids to actually eat it. Going to McDonalds or eating Swanson's TV dinners was the thing.

When you begin cooking your own food, everything changes. Whether you are making something for yourself or cooking for others, when you start to put love and care into the food you are preparing, there's a shift. You want your ingredients to be the freshest possible, and that usually means, locally available ingredients. You start thinking about how the produce was produced. Who grew it? How far it had to travel to get to your local store? You start to consider that cheapest isn't always the best anymore. Quickly isn't always the way you want to cook. The intention and focus you put into meals starts to matter a lot. If you shop at farmer's markets, you begin to appreciate what farmers do. We depend on their labor for our nourishment. Soon enough we begin to see how we're all connected. 

Then it hit me -- that's how vegans and omnivores can coexist. We all want to eat well, and that means we all need to know where our food comes from. Once we start to find that out, it connects us with the people who grow and produce what we eat. That's the common ground right there. Whether you are eating something that once walked, or something that grew in the ground, there's diplomacy in realizing that we're all in this together, interconnected.
Recently, I attended a Food Writers Symposium at The Greenbrier Hotel in West Virginia, where David Leite of Leite's Culinaria was a presenter. His culinary site was one I was aware of, but I had pre-judged it to be a site that I wouldn't be interested in nor would it be interested in my content or cooking style.  After meeting David, I perused his site and boy, was I surprised. In the recipe categories, there was plenty that interested me, from salads to soups, gluten free to vegetarian and vegan.  When I opened the vegan section guess whose recipe popped right up, MINE!  There was my Tuscan Tomato Soup with comments!

Next day, I told David how surprised I was to see my recipe on his site.  He commented that at one time he excluded certain things like veg and vegan but now he sees how important it is to include all.

We all want to eat well, and that means we all care about how food gets to our plate. That's the starting point for diplomacy in the kitchen and at the table.