“This is a book about my favorite vegetables,” writes Hetty Lui McKinnon in the introduction of Tenderheart. She has always loved vegetables, growing up with a father who worked at a wholesale produce market. But she began to experiment with them anew during quarantine, she writes, learning all the ways she could “fashion several diverse meals from just one cabbage.” She encourages readers to embrace frozen and canned options, and in her book’s pages you’ll find photographs of bowls overflowing with leafy greens or multicolored potatoes, and lush descriptions of the vegetables themselves. Carrots are identified by “the smell of the earth, of pine, grass, and the woods.” “To dream about eggplant,” she writes, “is to wake up hungry.”
For all of the words McKinnon uses to celebrate vegetables, the one you won’t find in her book — outside of a few descriptions of both herself and certain pantry ingredients — is “vegetarian.” Instead, as Tenderheart’s subtitle says, this is a “cookbook about vegetables.” That description, which serves as both a declaration and a clarification, is one that has become increasingly common in the cookbook landscape. Vegetarian and nonvegetarian cookbooks alike employ similar wording: In these pages you’ll find vegetables, they say — not vegetarian recipes, necessarily, but vegetables.
The last few years have given us titles like Abra Berens’s Ruffage: A Practical Guide to Vegetables; Joshua McFadden and Martha Holmberg’s Six Seasons: A New Way With Vegetables; Jeremy Fox’s On Vegetables; Jose Andrés’s Vegetables Unleashed; and Alice Hart’s The Magnificent Book of Vegetables, a book that does use the language of vegetarianism, but also encourages readers to “treat vegetables as heroes.” Along with Tenderheart, this year has seen Sophie Gordon’s The Whole Vegetable, which focuses on “sustainable” cooking by putting “vegetables at the very center of the table”; Sheela Prakash’s Salad Seasons, which promises “vegetable-forward recipes all year”; Andrea Nguyen’s Ever-Green Vietnamese: Super-Fresh Recipes Starring Plants From Land and Sea; and Susan Spungen’s Veg Forward, in whose recipes “vegetables claim a starring role.” And in late October, Nik Sharma will publish Veg-Table, a cookbook full of “vegetable-focused meals.”
Between the environmental impact of eating factory-farmed meat, the adverse health outcomes associated with a meat-heavy diet, and the sheer cost of meat compared to produce, the boom in “vegetable-forward” cookbooks seems to reflect a growing desire among both authors and home cooks to appreciate all that vegetables can do — and the publishing industry’s desire to capitalize on it.
“Vegetarian” doesn’t always mean vegetable-centric, as any college vegetarian surviving on instant ramen and Oreos can tell you. But for McKinnon, using the word “vegetarian” to describe her cooking is both too broad and too restrictive. “It makes people feel that they’re missing something,” she says. Instead of focusing on what her recipes lack, she has wanted her readers to pay attention to the varying textures and flavors of the recipes themselves. And so far, that’s what they seem to be doing. “When To Asia, With Love came out,” McKinnon says, “people said to me, ‘I cooked half of that book before I realized it was vegetarian.’”
Spungen says one challenge of centering her book around vegetables is the expectation that it is vegetarian. “People automatically see ‘veg’ and they think the book is vegan,” she says. But it’s not; its recipes are instead an argument against the expectation that meat be the thing around which a meal is built. While there is some meat in Veg Forward — a little chicken, a smattering of bacon for flavor — “there’s nothing where there’s meat in the center,” Spungen says. “It’s more like a flavoring ingredient that could be easily left out.”
McKinnon, Spungen, and Sharma all say their books are a reflection of how they cook at home, and hope to convey both the ease and the benefits of centering vegetables. Spungen mentions the environmental effects of mass cattle farming, but also the ability to keep costs low with vegetables by joining a CSA or growing one’s own. Sharma, who has a degree in public policy and a background researching health and diet, also notes that he’s passionate about the health benefits of more vegetable-focused eating.
But he also wants to break the binary between a vegetarian diet and the meat-centric meal that has had a stranglehold on the U.S. diet. While he says many Americans have a misconception that all Indians, especially Hindus, are vegetarian, he adds that he himself grew up used to more variety. “It was never like we ate one dish and called it a day,” he says. “You’re used to a few little things on a plate, and maybe one of those things has a little bit of meat in it. Everything else is probably vegetarian. So that’s kind of the attitude that I went with.”
And really, that’s what meat and vegetable consumption has looked like for so many people. How many cooking traditions, whether because of poverty or seasonality or just flavor, have vegetables as the star and meat as an afterthought? Precious few cuisines and lifestyles portray dinner as a piece of meat with two vegetable sides. Although the authors of these cookbooks all come from different backgrounds, together they’re showing readers how most of the world eats.
Still, adopting a vegetable-centric diet takes convincing for many Americans. It’s a label thing: “Vegetarian” may sound like too big a leap if you don’t consider yourself one, even though you’re probably eating vegetarian and vegan foods all the time. “Vegetable-forward” sounds like a softer shift in focus, which may be more approachable for some people. “This is everyday food,” McKinnon says. “I can eat this every meal of the day and feel like I’ve just eaten like a human being. I’m satisfied, I’m comforted, I’ve received all the sensory things that I’m looking for in food.” There’s nothing special about focusing on vegetables. That’s the point.