Diner: Connecting Through Food

Cincinnati's vegetarians come together for more than food


My metamorphosis from a meat-centered diet to a vegetarian one occurred 30 years ago at the impressionable age of 17. I had always been an animal lover as a kid, and my family will tell you I brought home any cute and fuzzy creature that remotely looked hungry, injured or lost. Many were nursed back to health and sent on their way; a few invariably died in the shoebox, and even more managed to enjoy the rest of their lives quite comfortably in a large household of eight wild kids and a menagerie of cats, gerbils, mice, hamsters, birds and rabbits.

On this transformational summer day I was sitting in the chicken yard of our family "farm" in southern Kentucky. Owned by someone, somewhere in our vast family tree, it was a bucolic retreat with corn fields, vegetable garden, sheep, goats, a pig or two, chickens, farm hound and barn cats.

As I sat on the tree stump and fed grain to my favorite chicken, Miss Kitty, the farm's caretaker, Aunt Sidney, appeared by my side with an axe in hand. Quicker than you could say "What's for dinner?" Sidney rung Miss Kitty's neck, chopped off her head with a Whack! on the stump and left her body to run headless around the chicken yard, nervous system on hyperspeed as she "let" blood.

I screamed like a bad B-movie queen and ran into the cornfields where I passed out from exhaustive crying.

Hours later, when I returned to the farmhouse to spew venom at anyone and everyone, there was Miss Kitty, plucked and stuffed in a roasting pan. It wasn't hard to swear off meat: I was traumatized into it.

My singular reason for a vegetarian diet expanded as I educated myself, cementing my beliefs with an enlightening book in 1987 by John Robbins, Diet For A New America. An heir to the Baskin-Robbins CEO position and fortune, the author walked away from both to pursue his own calling. His American Dream was sweeter and deeper, a dream of success for all, founded on a reverence for life.

"A dream of a society at peace with its conscience," he wrote, "because it respects and lives in harmony with all life forms. A dream of people living in accord with the laws of Creation, cherishing and caring for the natural environment, conserving nature instead of destroying it. A dream of society that is truly healthy, practicing a wise and compassionate stewardship of a balanced ecosystem."

Fifteen years since its debut, Diet For A New America still stands as one of the most comprehensive, beautifully written books that examines our dependence on animals for food. With a tender voice, John Robbins reveals much documented, nutritional research in language that's easily understood. He never plays on guilt or presents a list of shoulds and shouldn'ts.

Instead he provides information to help you select and enjoy foods "that leave your mind and heart clear and unpolluted." Diet For A New America effectively makes the case that food choices have far-reaching effects on your personal health, as well as the health of the planet and its creatures.

Robbins' book met with emphatic approval from an awakening conscience. In response to the sheer volume of correspondence from people around the world inquiring how to make a difference, Robbins founded EarthSave International, an educational organization devoted to inspiring and empowering people to shift toward a plant-based diet. EarthSave's mission became, "to encourage compassionate action for all life on Earth." With a large advisory board of high-profile names — including Andrew Weil and Dean Ornish — and 22 chapters world-wide, EarthSave has become a resonant voice and active player in the need to heal the environment that we all ultimately depend on.

On a Sunday evening at St. John's Unitarian Church in Clifton, approximately 130 people have gathered for the monthly potluck dinner sponsored by EarthSave Cincinnati. Members of EarthSave, Cincinnati Vegetarian Resource Group, friends, family and the veg-curious line up around several tables with plates in hand to sample dishes made by each. Tables are labeled with signs such as "Raw Food," "Vegan," "Macrobiotic" and "Ayurvedic."

On the raw food table sits a bowl of fresh spinach, "Super Green Guacamole," raw brownies (made from sunflower seeds, pine nuts, carob, vanilla, maple syrup and dates), a sweet potato pasta, and the must-have dish of the evening — a raw pizza. The similarity to pizza is in its shape, layered construction and sloppy eating, but that's about it. Created by one of the evening's panelists, Khassa Selassie, from sprouted wheat, sunflower seeds, fresh tomato sauce and loads of vegetables, this is one pizza I could eat whole without a guilt hangover.

I weave among the crowd noticing the diversity. More than the expected aging Flower Children or pierced and tattooed, there are families, teens and tots, professorial types, Hindus, Muslims, the well-dressed and homeless. I recognize quite a few people from my yoga class and Findlay Market regulars.

I take the last seat at one of the tables with seven others already enjoying their dinners — two couples and three girlfriends from the suburbs. One woman is microscopically examining her plate of food and taking cautious, dainty bites. She proudly announces to the table that her diet is mainly meat and snack foods, and she is quite content with that, thank you very much: She came this evening because it was the only way to hang with her girlfriend. She never quite cleans her plate like her veg-head sister, but she does proclaim, smiling, "This food doesn't suck!" as she had expected.

As we await the evening's speakers, people wander up to the microphone making announcements. "Do not throw anything away that can be composted, please." "If you know anyone that could help my friend care for a house full of rescued cats ..." There are pleas for support of StreetVibes and an enthusiastic vegan who declares: "I was near dead all the time until juicing and sprouting turned my life around!" There is a colorful air of consciousness, commitment and community.

EarthSave's monthly potluck's are usually centered around a guest speaker with topics that range from nutritional and ecological to socio-political and spiritual issues. Tonight's panel is about "The Four Philosophies of Food." WCPO news anchor Paul Schaefer talks about Ayurveda, while Tim Morand is an expert on macrobiotics. Hank Malinowski discusses "Accord-ing to the New Biology," and the topic of "Raw Foodism" is handled by Khassa Selassie, Matthew David Foor and Howard Hughes. The program, formatted into segments, includes a debate among the panelists and a Q&A. It's educational for the nutrition neophyte as well as the seasoned vegetarian.

When most of us sit down to eat, we aren't aware of how our food choices affect the world. EarthSave's programs are designed to educate, inspire and empower us to reclaim our own health and help restore it to our ailing planet. During my experience with EarthSave Cincinnati, one word repeatedly wove through my thoughts: connection. The great Chief Seattle said, "All things are connected. Whatever befalls the Earth, befalls the sons of the Earth. Man did not weave the web of life — he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself."

For information on EarthSave Cincinnati, call 513-929-2500.

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