Alicia Kennedy is a food writer and cultural critic with a forthcoming book called “No Meat Required.” Photo by Israel Meléndez Ayala

What would America without meat at the center of the plate look like?

Cultural critic Alicia Kennedy, a widely published food writer and former editor at New York Magazine, pondered this question in her intriguing, thoughtfully written book “No Meat Required: The Cultural History & Culinary Future of Plant-Based Eating,” due out at the end of the month from Beacon Press.

In this fast-paced exploration of the last half century of vegetarianism in the U.S., Kennedy imagines what culinary world could lie ahead by examining what has gone before and the “people who’ve gotten a head start on eating for a different future.” There, she discovers “more diversity of thought in the refusal of meat than in meat-eating,” and as she relates this history, she sketches an outline of a more egalitarian world filled with a range of vegetarian foods.

Kennedy, a vegetarian who has dabbled in veganism and run a vegan bakery, recognizes that “quitting meat is a hard sell when it represents so much in the broad culture” and its consumption is experienced as a “pleasurable act” by many. At the same time, she rejects “the absolutist framework” that limits most talk about vegetarianism to commercial food products and widens that conversation to include food sovereignty, food justice, farm worker rights, local food economies and decolonization.

“No Meat Required: The Cultural History & Culinary Future of Plant-Based Eating,” by Alicia Kennedy. Beacon Press. $26.95.

In doing so, Kennedy wrestles with hard facts, such as how the U.S. government “subsidizes the industrial meat and dairy industries for $38 billion per year,” thereby endorsing the “horrifying working conditions in a country that won’t give us Medicare for All.” She points out that both political parties support the meat industry. The Republican party is known as a booster club for meat eating; however “Biden began 2022 by injecting $1 billion into meat processing to stir up ‘competition’ when what is needed is less meat,” she writes.

Yet in the midst of this, Kennedy discovered hope in “a rich history of resistance to industrial agriculture and its horrors, and if there is much more work to be done, this history shows us that change is possible.”


Kennedy, who grew up eating meat on Long Island, New York, and now lives in vegetarian-friendly San Juan, Puerto Rico, begins the book’s historical tour of the last half century of vegetarian influencers and events with Frances Moore Lappé’s landmark 1971 book “Diet for a Small Planet.” Lappé “created a new blueprint for talking about our personal and political roles in the global food system.” Kennedy credits Lappé with aligning vegetarian meals with the efficient use of resources and shifting the conversation from overpopulation to overconsumption by wealthy nations.

Looking back with the fresh perspective of a younger generation, Kennedy also examines how Lappé’s book began the process of cementing plant-based eating with white, middle-class culture, even as people with Black, Indigenous and other non-European backgrounds at the time were turning to vegetarianism as a way to solve oppression in the global food system.

“The European colonizers were the ones who created the style of farming that has led to an inefficient meat-based diet, yet white people have led the charge for a plant-based diet in the U.S,” Kennedy explains. By “leading the charge,” she means white voices have historically been elevated (although she sees change afoot in the 2021 reissue of Black civil rights activist Dick Gregory’s influential 1974 vegetarian book, “Natural Diet for Folks Who Eat”).

Kennedy suggests one reason vegetarianism has been linked to white people in the American imagination is to limit its reach and makes it “easy to dismiss.”

I reached Kennedy at her home in San Juan. “I sold the book in 2020,” she told me. “It’s a totally different world now, and I do think that in terms of the conversation around vegan and vegetarian food, we are miles ahead of where we have been. The conversation around industrial animal agriculture has reached a point where even omnivores are talking about it.”

This discussion, Kennedy says, is causing “a shift in the consciousness of people who are aware of climate change and labor conditions and animal agriculture.” At the same time, the capitalist push of high-tech vegan foods is reshaping the way non-vegetarian Americans eat.


“It is now normal for any white American dude to eat a Beyond Burger,” Kennedy told me. “There has been so much happening in the last 50 years to make that possible.” The book itself — one of a mere handful of U.S. vegetarian histories that have ever been published — is proof of this.

Kennedy points a finger at her own industry of food writers and food media as forces that work to suppress vegetarianism. The 2021 move by Epicurious website to stop publishing beef recipes because of cattle’s negative impact on the climate was “bold,” she writes, and she hopes it leads to a broader examination of animal-based meat pollution. But its decision remains an outlier. The “food media at large does not take climate change seriously,” she goes on to say, and consistently fails to report on the climate impact of the meat- and dairy-centric recipes and restaurant meals it highlights.

This failure occurs at the same time the mainstream media has increased reporting on the new wave of vegetarian foods. Kennedy worries that vegetarianism’s historic links to fighting against oppression could weaken as plant-based cuisine becomes more and more mainstream. Kennedy argues that the U.S. needs a new politics of plant-based food that rejects both “profit-driven industrial agriculture” and “the slaughter of confined animals.”

In “No Meat Required,” Kennedy illuminates the types of changes needed to achieve an America where meat is no longer at the center of our plates. Along the way, she shines a light on the pervasive presence of vegetarians in the past 50 years of U.S. cultural history.

Avery Yale Kamila is a food writer who lives in Portland. Reach her at

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