The Occasional Vegetarian

A former ad man in Bridgehampton crafts the soft sell for eating less meat.

“He’s very charismatic. He’s a persuasive dude. He’s one of these guys who speaks softly so you’re inclined to lean in and listen,” says Jason Weiner, chef of Bridgehampton’s Almond Restaurant. He’s speaking of Sid Lerner, the marketing force behind Meatless Mondays.
Lerner has quietly and successfully been persuading eaters across America and overseas to skip meat on Monday for their own health and the planet’s. He estimates there are now tens of thousands of schools, restaurants and food-service companies promoting Meatless Monday around the world, including in Japan, Kenya and Denmark, with growth attributable to social media and word of mouth. Not to mention millions of households around the world doing the same. A recent survey, says Lerner, indicated that “half the country is aware of the campaign” and that nearly one in five Americans participates in Meatless Monday on an occasional basis. “A recent study showed American meat consumption has dropped some 5 percent in the past ten years, and our campaign has been cited as one of the many factors behind that.”
One gastronomic payoff: Food writers, bloggers and chefs are delivering a harvest of Meatless Monday recipes that explore the kind of ethnic flavors Lerner happens to love. “The timing is right,” says Weiner whose own Meatless Monday menus have been pulling in increasing customers in the past year. A decade ago, Weiner tried a vegetarian menu; it folded due to a lack of customer interest. In March, Weiner’s restaurant in Manhattan added Meatless Monday. It didn’t hurt that Lerner and his wife, Helaine, who have been summering in the Hamptons since the early 1960s and who bought a house in Bridgehampton 1994, are Almond regulars.
Customer interest in vegetables is like a new day for chefs—Weiner says it “gets his juices going”—with roots and greens getting treatments once reserved for sauces for meats. On the table at Almond one Monday was an appetizer of a whole cauliflower roasted to a deep golden brown accented with sage, capers and currants, served with a salad of warm orange and red beets, the deep, sweet-tart play of flavors built from pistachios, pomegranate seeds, smoked feta and herbs. This was followed by worth-the-trip goat cheese ravioli and a
crostata of blue oyster mushrooms, roasted Brussels sprouts and cipollini onions. It’s a new chapter in eating.
Mario Batali added Meatless Monday items to his 14 U.S. restaurants in 2010; the grilled portobello
entrée at the Birreria atop Eataly is a Meatless Monday–inspired option. At Michelin-starred Dovetail, John Frazer, who added Meatless Mondays in 2011, also runs a nightly $85 vegetable tasting menu and is set to open a vegetable-oriented restaurant this spring in the hip setting of André Balazs’s the Standard, East Village, hotel.
Like so many prime movers in the food world, Lerner was born loving to eat. As a blond Jewish kid whose immigrant family kept a kosher table, he sold salami he didn’t eat to three generations of Italians on Saturdays in his family’s grocery store. He went on to carve out a major 30-year career with several top advertising agencies before founding his own firm. Now he focuses his “Mad Men” marketing expertise on the health implications of eating less meat, and the resulting campaign has turned into a movement.
“Sid is an amazing guy,” says Marion Nestle, professor of food studies at New York University and an astute observer of the national food scene on her blog, in an e-mail. “Meatless Monday was a brilliant idea for helping people think about the balance of meat and plant foods in daily diets. It’s simple, understandable and effective, and that’s why so many places are doing it. Not many people can say that they started a movement on their own, but in his quiet, gently persistent way, that’s just what he did.”
It all began in 2003 at a think session at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, where doctors, epidemiologists and sustainability experts wrestled with the excess fat and cholesterol that were making American diets so life-threatening. Lerner had just been put on the cholesterol-lowering drug Lipitor. He learned that research studies with solid evidence linking soaring deaths from heart disease, stroke and diabetes to fat and cholesterol sat gathering dust in university research departments. No one was marketing them. “Why not?” he questioned as he learned that a 15 percent decrease in meat consumption—three meals a week—might pull many eaters into safe territory. “Would you care to take this on?” he was asked.
“I can’t think of any other business where you spend all of your time doing something and don’t have anyone out there to promote it or sell it,” he frowns. “That’s what public health [was] all about.”
Since that invitation, he has devoted his expertise as a marketer—who once inspired a nation to sip Maxwell House instant coffee, reach for Toast’em Pop-ups, taste Smooth and Cool and try beers and scores of other products—to tackling neglected areas of public heath. “We’ve never had so much to eat, so many times a day, in so many places and at such an unbelievably low cost compared to total dollars spent; it’s self-inflicted to a large extent…suicide eating,” he says.
Working with Johns Hopkins he launched nonprofit Meatless Mondays, a name from food rationing days in World Wars I and II. He cut out eating meat himself completely at first. But as a savvy ad man he reflected, “Early on, we didn’t want support of vegetarians, to get chalked off as ‘Oh, it’s a vegan thing, a veggie thing, a tree-hugger thing.’ We didn’t want to talk to five percent of the population in a country of 350 million.” So from the start Meatless Mondays took a broad-based aim at colleges, companies and communities.
The next year, Lerner created the Monday Campaigns, a nonprofit umbrella corporation to address exercise and smoking-cessation, and later kids’ cooking and caregiving. It also works with Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health and his alma mater, the University of Syracuse, which now has a Lerner Center for Public Health to which he and his wife, Helaine, have given support.
Public health had been an ignored orphan in the advertising world. Lerner tracked down research reports languishing in university closets and uncovered other peer-reviewed research with useful data. But even though cancer was one of the four main killers of Americans along with heart disease, stroke and diabetes in 2003, it was not added to campaign promotions until solid evidence emerged firmly linking cancer with diet.
“We did not create anything that’s not already there,” says Lerner. “We’re just branding and packaging stuff that’s out there.” Today a mixed bag of interests, including vegans and vegetarians, are gathering under Lerner’s Meatless Monday umbrella to send out a primary message: Cutting out meat even one day a week can heal you and the land. The campaign turned to the press and blogosphere to convince listeners that Monday food could taste as good, if not better, than a charbroiled steak or fried chicken.
Chef Batali, who advocates Meatless Monday benefits on the popular TV show The Chew, wrote in an e-mail, “The fact is, most people in the U.S. could benefit from exercising a little moderation when it comes to eating meat.”
“It’s one of those things that’s so obvious,” Almond’s Weiner mused. “Why didn’t we think of this before? But maybe it took somebody with Lerner’s background and his ability to sell stuff to make sense to a wide swath of chefs and consumers and producers.”
In 2009, the idea of skipping meat on Mondays grew legs. That year, Paul McCartney launched Meat-Free Monday in the UK, and 20 other countries added their version of meatless Mondays without the campaign’s instigation. The Philippines launched theirs in 2011, and Israel last year.
Oprah added Meatless Monday choices to both her Harpo Studio cafeteria and her television lexicon. It won vegan-cookbook author Kathy Freston’s praise. Food chains, like the 411-unit Moe’s Southwest Grill, bought the meatless deal. Meatless Monday hubs have begun in Aspen, Colorado, Loudon, Virginia, and the North Carolina Triangle, and city councils in San Francisco and Los Angeles have espoused it. Sodexo, an international institutional food service company, extended its 2011 introduction of Meatless Monday options (to 900 hospitals nationwide) to more than 2,000 corporate and government clients in North America, including Toyota, Northern Trust Bank and the U.S. Department of the Interior.
In 2009, the blogosphere and press began a drumbeat of stories that continues today on Meatless Mondays from the Huffington Post to the Washington Post and Bon Appétit. For example, Apartment Therapy’s has just reviewed Kyle Press’s new and beautifully illustrated U.S. edition of The Meat-Free Monday Kitchen with a foreword by Paul McCartney that captures the bolder and more varied flavors of the new vegetarian kitchen. (A few years back, McCartney, who has had a home in Amagansett, was spotted wearing a T-shirt from Vickie’s Veggies, a popular hamlet vegetable stand on Route 27. The shirt read, “I’m not Vickie.”)
Lerner’s love of food clearly informs the campaign. Meatless Monday’s Web site is crammed with scores of recipes from bloggers, columnists and food writers aimed at individuals and restaurant chefs. There are e-books of chili and burger recipes to download. Lerner talks of the campaign’s tie-in with C-CAP, the Culinary Arts Program, which works with underserved high school students in seven cities.
During a recent TV interview, Lerner recalled his favorite food memory. “Did I talk about an amazing pasta in an elegant restaurant in Rome?” he chuckled. “No.” Instead he remembered the flavor of the rye bread his Hungarian-born mother charred over an open flame, rubbed like sandpaper with garlic, slathered with butter then put in a brown paper bag and tossed out the window to her son playing in the snow. “I love gnocchi, pesto sauce, potato pancakes, all those non-meat side dishes of other countries, cuisines which use meat as a condiment.” He talks so enthusiastically about the skewers of grilled seitan marinated with
chimichurri sauce at Manhattan’s vegan restaurant Candle 79 that I had to try it. It was excellent, a measure of today’s new vegetable kitchen. And as Lerner said, ”You think you’re eating a beautiful meat.” Today he does eat chicken several times a month as well as fish and is looking forward to weekends in the Hamptons and its bounty from the sea and farm stands.
“What is your favorite food?” I ask.
“I love garlic,” he sighs, ”My wife makes a fantastic garlic salad. She got the recipe 15 years ago from a soul food restaurant. I can’t wait until we get here Friday night and have a garlic salad.” •
Geraldine Pluenneke writes from Montauk where she is completing a book about flavor.