You touched on the masculinity aspect of meat-eating briefly in your book. One of the reasons why I was interested in interviewing you for GQ is because I think the magazine’s evolved approach towards plant-based eating is actually a great example of progress on this front. Have you personally seen that attitude change at all since you wrote the book?
It certainly has evolved. I think of my own partner I’ve been with for 23 years and he just ate the standard American diet. And then I moved in and it all turned to plant food. Within a couple of years, his doctor said, “Richard, what are you doing? Your blood work looks so good now, your vital signs look so good now.” And he said, “Frankie moved in.”
But I really do feel that has really changed as these super chefs have come forward. And unfortunately the super chefs are still largely men. I also think that men are human too, right? They’re seeing role models of male chefs who are leaders in the plant-centered diet. I think that there has been a big shift from any sense that, “Oh, plants are just too a feminine way to eat.”
I’m glad you brought up the chefs, because I’ve been curious: What did you think of the news that the Michelen-starred restaurant Eleven Madison Park went plant-based?
I don’t really pay any attention. It’s not where my attention is. We have this world with extreme inequalities and if they want to do this and charge a lot, whatever. It’s just totally not my thing.
Diet For a Small Planet has been called a “hippie cookbook” and definitely has some crunchy associations. Do you reject or embrace that label?
My kids tease me, “Mom, you missed the ’60s. You missed the sex, drugs and rock and roll. You were too serious.” I got married when I was 23! I got serious and started writing a book. So, yeah I certainly was never a “hippie.” I was always very driven. It’s true that Diet for a Small Planet came out in that beautiful era of questioning so much, whether it was racism or foreign intervention in Vietnam. There was so much that was being challenged. There was so much going on, including people going back to the land. “This hyper-industrial consumer society is not for me.” The hippies weren’t just feel-good people, they were rejecting a very materialist and destructive worldview. And I admire that. So I don’t really mind being associated with that.
What’s your opinion on the rise of tech meat companies?
It’s still concentrated corporate power. They are still using the same system to generate these products. There are a lot of additives in them and we are not getting the fiber and all that we need. And it’s just still so much hidden from us about what we’re actually eating.
I just find it a huge distraction and not really going to the heart of our addiction to processed foods and our intense concentration of power in the food system, and lack of accountability and real transparency in what we’re eating. I’m so convinced that it doesn’t address the multi-faceted dimensions of the climate and health crisis and species extinction crisis.
As you said and even outlined in the first chapter of your book, everything is worse and plainly getting worse if you look at the statistics. So how do you stay hopeful on a personal and spiritual level?
Goodness is not good enough right now. Just being a good person is not enough. What we need is courage. And how do we become more courageous? We’ve got to surround ourselves with people more courageous than we are and count on being emboldened by them. I think that’s the key, choosing carefully who we bring into our lives. If we have people in our lives who are sending signals that it’s all over and there’s nothing we can do, then we—I’m not saying leave your friends but, you know, just bring others into your life who are taking risks and who are loving the thrill.
What do you want your legacy to be?
I think the main thing I want my granddaughters to carry forward is this idea that if you care enough, you can do anything you want. I didn’t have the credentials to become a book writer and all the things I’ve done. That’s why I love to tell college students that I made a D on my first English paper in college. That’s so encouraging, right? You know, that you never know what’s possible.
This interview has been edited and condensed.