Meatless Mondays Catch On, Even With Carnivores
- By KIRK JOHNSON - June 16, 2011 - The New York Times
ASPEN, Colo. — Friction between the health-and-eco-minded hippies who came here for a Rocky Mountain High in the 1970s and the super-wealthy second-homers who followed from the intersection of Hollywood and Hedge Fund is an old story here at 8,000 feet.
But now there is a new potential skirmish line: Meatless Mondays.
For whatever reason, chefs and restaurateurs say, the big outside money that fuels economic life here, often flying in by private jet from places like Malibu, or the Main Line, tilts heavily toward the carnivorous.
“It’s very interesting, but for some reason when people come to Aspen, they want to eat meat,” said Mimi Lenk, a vegetarian for more than a decade and the manager of Syzygy, a downtown restaurant where elk, bison and lamb are the big sellers.
A new nationwide pro-veggie effort, however — aimed at persuading people to go meatless at least one day a week — has been embraced here more than in any other city in America. At least 20 institutions and restaurants, including Syzygy, are offering vegetarian choices on Mondays under a plan announced this month.
“Nobody is saying, ‘go become a vegetarian,’ ” said Martin Oswald, a restaurateur who led the effort in signing up Meatless Monday participants among his food-industry friends. Mr. Oswald said he thought the dynamic that made Aspen such a prime place to expand Meatless Monday was not philosophy or health, but rather the cutthroat economics of the restaurant business — keeping up with the Joneses for fear of being left out.
“The key was to get enough restaurants involved, then I could say: ‘Well, that guy does it and that guy over there and this guy does it over here. Do you want to do it, too?’ ” he said, sitting across the table at one of his restaurants, Pyramid Bistro. That approach, with its hard-to-say-no overtones, worked well. “So far, nobody has actually refused,” he said.
In food, as in so many other things, Aspen was already nowhere near average. In a state with the lowest obesity rate in the nation, an alpine outdoor menu — biking, rafting, hiking, rock-climbing and, of course, skiing — make it a fitness capital. And local institutions already led the charge in healthier eating.
Aspen Valley Hospital began boosting vegetarian choices several years ago in its food services. This month, the cardiac rehabilitation unit, where 20 percent to 30 percent of the patients are second-homers, began urging patients to patronize Meatless Monday restaurants in town.
In the public school system, which embraced Meatless Monday two years ago, whole grain pancakes, dubbed “breakfast for lunch,” are a popular Monday rotation in the elementary and middle schools. And even during the rest of the week, school lunches, down to and including the ketchup, are made from scratch, overseen by a chef hired away from a downtown restaurant.
“We roast our own beets,” said Tenille Folk, the director of food services for the Aspen School District’s middle and elementary schools.
The ambition and scale of the wider restaurant effort for Meatless Monday, which started on June 6, has made Aspen “the nation’s first true Meatless Monday community,” said the Meatless Monday campaign, a national effort in association with the Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health.
It can be a delicate process, and many chefs here stress that they are not trying to convert anyone. The customer is always right, they say, whatever he or she wants to eat. Indeed, many say that in the tougher economic times of the past few years, meat consumption has probably gone up, perhaps as comfort food. A strictly vegetarian restaurant in Aspen closed a few years ago.
But that environment of competition and cost-control also created an opening, boosters of Meatless Monday say. Vegetables, in addition to having less impact on the planet than meat in energy and water usage, are much cheaper as an ingredient. And some local restaurateurs participating in Meatless Monday also said they had noticed an increasingly prominent gender gap, too, in recent years — with women tending more toward the vegetable side of the menu — which they can now overtly exploit on Mondays.
“It’s all about getting somebody in the door,” said Tico Starr, the chef at Rustique Bistro.
Still, some restaurants remain skittish.
“It’s something you need to study,” said Alex Harvier, the manager at Cache Cache, a French restaurant where entrees on recent Monday night included osso buco and calf’s liver, with prices ranging from $30 to $58. He said the integrity of the menu and the dining experience had to be considered in adding any new dishes.
“You can’t just tack something on,” he said.
The local government has also taken a cautious approach. Meatless Monday backers, in approaching the City Council for a public resolution of support — similar to ones passed in San Francisco and Washington, among other cities — got nowhere.
Some residents said the Council’s reluctance was rooted in the old Aspen — rowdy and antiauthoritarian, as epitomized by the gonzo author Hunter S. Thompson, who came to the area in the 1970s and died in 2005. Others said it was the newer Aspen at work — a fear of alienating second-homers by acting in a way that might come off as superior or elitist.
“It’s not government’s role, or municipal government’s role, to be talking about personal choice,” said Torre, a City Council member, who uses only one name. Torre, a tennis instructor when not on city business, said he and one other person on the five-member Council already practice one-day-a-week vegetarianism.
“But is it appropriate to pass a resolution on behalf of Aspen?” he said. “That’s a lengthier conversation.”