An original 1971 edition of “Diet for a Small Planet” by Frances Moore Lappé sits atop a 20th anniversary edition and a 50th anniversary edition of the bestselling book, surrounded by some of the ingredients used in the book, which launched vegetarian food into mainstream American culture. Photo by Avery Yale Kamila

Anointed the “Godmother of Plant-Based Living” by the New York Times last year, bestselling author Frances Moore Lappé is a household name to many because she ushered in the modern vegetarian era with the 1971 publication of “Diet for a Small Planet,” quickly vaulting soy beans and veggie burgers into American kitchens and inserting the excessive land and water use of animal-based foods into the national conversation.

Since its publication 51 years ago, the landmark book has sold more than 3 million copies and has been reprinted and reissued many times, including a 50th anniversary edition last year. Next weekend, Lappé delivers the Saturday keynote address at the Common Ground Country Fair in Unity.

When I reached Lappé (who goes by Frankie) at her home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, by phone, she said she was looking forward to speaking at the vegetarian-friendly fair, hosted by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, which was founded the same year “Diet for a Small Planet” was published. This year’s fair marks the Common Ground’s return after going dark for two years because of the pandemic.

Bestselling author Frances Moore Lappé will deliver the keynote address Saturday at the Common Ground Country Fair in Unity. Photo by Michael Piazza

“It brings back so many memories of the whole journey,” said Lappé, who was just 26 when her book was published. “The 1970s was the era of questioning, and so much questioning over our relationship to the Earth and to consumerism. It was a great time to become an adult. People were feeling empowered to change their lives. They were questioning in a positive way.”

In the forward to the original edition, Lappé began by telling readers: “This book is about PROTEIN – how we as a nation are caught in a pattern that squanders it” and that “our heavily meat-centered culture is at the very heart of our waste of the earth’s productivity.” The book provides detailed information – with considerable updates for the 50th anniversary edition – about the problems created by animal agriculture along with the proposed solution of eating plant-based proteins. It concludes with more than 120 practical pages of vegetarian and vegan recipes and menu ideas, refreshed for the most recent edition with submissions from food heavyweights, including Bryant Terry, Alice Waters and Mark Bittman.

“Diet for a Small Planet” was a major part of the 1970s zeitgeist, and it kicked off a wave of vegetarian happenings, including the 1972 publication of both “The Vegetarian Epicure” by Anna Thomas and “The George Bernard Shaw Vegetarian Cookbook” by the playwright’s housekeeper, Alice Laden. In 1973, Lappé’s publisher issued “Recipes for a Small Planet” by Ellen Buchman Ewald, who introduced Lappé to vegetarian cooking and helped create the recipes for Lappé’s book.

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I was born in 1973, and while I was growing up in Litchfield, Maine, a copy of Lappé’s book was ever-present in my non-vegetarian childhood kitchen. The same year I was born, the iconic Moosewood Restaurant opened in Ithaca, New York, and the following year, it self-published the now classic “Moosewood Cookbook.”

At first, the Moosewood Restaurant served fish alongside vegetarian and vegan dishes, but later transitioned to an all vegetarian and heavily vegan menu. Today, the restaurant continues under the new ownership of Danica Wilcox, daughter of one of the co-founders.

In Maine, the influential Hollow Reed opened in Portland’s Old Port in 1974, and the following year, Town Farm Restaurant opened in Bar Harbor. Both relatively short-lived establishments were widely viewed as vegetarian restaurants. However, each served aquatic animals, meaning the restaurants were pescatarian but not actually vegetarian (although the Town Farm Restaurant did publish an all-vegetarian cookbook in 1979). In 1975, a major vegetarian happening was the United States’ first-ever World Vegetarian Congress, held at the University of Maine in Orono.

All of these endeavors were bolstered by the popularity of “Diet for a Small Planet.” Even so, few anticipated that what began as a one-page handout Lappé distributed in the late 1960s would enjoy instant success and lasting cultural impact.

“I thought that maybe my book would appeal to a few hundred people in the Greater Bay Area (of San Francisco) when I wrote it,” Lappé said. “It was a big shock when it started to sell and sell.”

In “Diet for a Small Planet,” Lappé shows how food is wasted by the transformation of mountains of grain into much smaller quantities of animal flesh. Every edition has advocated for people to eat meals centered on plants, both as a way to safeguard the environment and to feed the hungry. Soon, Lappé would add better democracy, increased social justice and more equitable community economics to the benefits of a plant-based food system.

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“Democracy is the root of all solutions,” Lappé told me. “We the people are not making these decisions, because there is so much corruption of big agribusiness in food policy.”

Realizing how much of the American food system was shaped by the influence of money in politics, Lappé has worked to improve American democracy in the years since the book’s initial publication. She co-founded the Center for Living Democracy and has published many books on the subject, most recently “Daring Democracy” with Adam Eichen.

During our conversation, Lappé spoke of the erosion of political rights and civil liberties in the United States during the past decade. She pointed to the annual Freedom in the World index, which has measured the U.S.’s slide from ranking alongside top democracies in 2010 to ranking alongside emerging democracies by 2020. Freedom House, which maintains the index, says U.S. democracy is threatened by and has suffered because of inequities created by racism, money in politics and extremism fueled by partisan polarization.

Lappe’s message of freedom, democracy and simple, plant-based living is sure to resonate at the Common Ground Fair. As I wrote last year, MOFGA has been known for its vegetarian-friendly vibe since the organization’s 1971 founding. Fair vendors serve many vegan and vegetarian eats.

“Diet for a Small Planet” played a role in cultivating this plant-based culture at MOFGA, according to Abbie McMillen, an early MOFGA organizer and its newspaper’s first editor, and Roberta Bailey, who has written the Harvest Kitchen recipe column in the MOFGA newspaper since 1984. Both told me last year that Lappé’s book shaped their thinking about food.

Lappé, a vegetarian herself who is trying to get herself to switch to oat milk in her morning coffee, acknowledges the long list of problems facing humanity. Yet she remains hopeful. She told me she wasn’t an optimist, but a “possibilist.”

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“The theme song of my life,” Lappé said, “is the more choices we make that align ourselves with the world we want for ourselves and others, the more that world builds. Food is a connector to everything.”

Frankie’s Feijoada

6 servings

This recipe was one of the favorites from the first edition, with updates from a Brazilian friend for the 20th anniversary edition. – From “Diet for a Small Planet”

1/4 cup oil
1 large onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 scallions (white and light green parts), chopped
1 green bell pepper, seeded and chopped
1 tomato, chopped
3 cups cooked black beans, or two 15-ounce cans, rinsed and drained
2 cups vegetable stock
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon white wine vinegar
2 stalks celery, chopped
1/2 sweet potato, diced (optional)
1 ½ teaspoons salt
Chopped fresh cilantro and 1 sliced orange, for topping

Heat the oil in a large pot and saute the onion, garlic, scallions, green pepper and tomato until the onion is translucent. Add the beans, stock, bay leaf, vinegar, celery, sweet potato and salt. Bring the mixture to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer, covered, for 20 minutes.

Mash some of the beans in the pot to thicken the mixture and continue cooking for 5 more minutes. Remove the bay leaf and top the stew with chopped cilantro and orange slices. Enjoy with rice and greens.

Avery Yale Kamila is a food writer who lives in Portland. She can be reached at: [email protected]
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