When Jarrod Moore introduced “vegan soul-food Mondays” to the Brunswick East burger bar The B.East, the new menu instantly took off. It was so popular, in fact, that he says it’s completely transformed the business.
“We had more and more people asking for it, so we decided to give it a run and … it just massively took off from there. I’d say that more than a third of our overall food revenue [now] comes from vegetarian and vegan customers,” he says.
Dishes on the rotating menu include a take on southern-fried chicken, with mock meat marinated and then fried in a crispy cornmeal coating, served with vegan ranch dressing.
The eatery also offers a smoked and pulled king mushroom burger, which Moore likens to American pulled pork or smoked brisket.
“People don’t want to go out and eat quinoa and green salads every day of the week,” he says. “They want to eat burgers and smokey stuff just as much as anybody else.”
The menu’s popularity has had a flow-on effect, with Moore noting that “90 per cent” of the bar’s sauces have become vegan, and that he’s started using vegan meringues in place of egg-based meringues when cooking desserts.
A burgeoning movement overseas, “meatless Mondays” and so-called “flexitarian” (flexible vegetarian) diets have been slow to catch on in Australia, although there are signs that the movement is finally taking off here.
Food culture expert Dr Rachel Ankeny pinpoints England as the launching point for the Meat-free Monday movement. In 2009, the McCartneys (Paul, Mary and Stella) launched the campaign as a way of raising awareness about the environmental impact of eating meat.
“Rates of vegetarianism in England are simply higher than here,” Ankeny says. “Our rates are creeping up, but very slowly.”
Last year, the Argentinian presidential palace launched meatless Mondays in their canteen, a controversial move for a country. Some staff were so furious that they visited a local McDonald’s, bought burgers and then posted selfies of themselves eating them inside the palace.
Back home, we’re yet to see any major institutions implement such a policy, although more Australians are adopting some form of vegetarian diet.
Natasha Murray, an accredited practising dietician and spokesperson for the Dietitians Association of Australia, says that dabbling in vegetarianism can have long-term health benefits.
“Ninety-seven per cent of Australians don’t get enough veggies,” she says. “I never knew what an eggplant was before I was 18.
“With our fantastic multicultural society, we are experimenting more with different vegetables, and different ways of preparing them. It’s becoming mainstream.”
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On average, Murray says, Australians eat a lot more than the official recommendation of up to 455 grams of cooked red meat a week. “A lot of people would have that in one sitting.”
Other countries are changing their guidelines. The Netherlands Nutrition Centre made when they cut their meat-serving recommendations to no more than twice a week, a shift that was made partly with the environmental impact of raising livestock at the forefront of change.
“Livestock does contribute quite significantly to global greenhouse-gas emissions, there’s no question about that,” says leading Melbourne University food science expert Dr Richard Eckard. “Getting out of your SUV and getting into a Prius saves about the same as an Australian getting rid of red meat and going to a vegetarian lifestyle.”
The local industry is working towards solving the problem, with Meat & Livestock Australia managing director Richard Norton announcing late last year that the industry could become carbon neutral by 2030. The industry group has commissioned research by the CSIRO into identifying ways they could achieve this goal.
The red-meat industry had already reduced its share of Australia’s carbon emissions from 20 per cent in 2005 to 13 per cent in 2015, an MLA spokesperson says.
With celebrities such as Kylie Jenner dabbling in veganism, the rise of Instagram-friendly “pegan” (paleo vegan) diets, and the ongoing success of outfits including Fitzroy vegan stalwart Smith & Deli, vegetarian and vegan diets are in the spotlight.
“I have tonnes of friends who have gone vegan or vegetarian over the last few years,” B.East head chef Moore says. These include “people you would never pick in a million years. Meat-eating, steak-loving guys and girls who … have made the change for health and lifestyle reasons, [as] ethical choices.”
Still, Dr Eckard wonders how much of a broader impact these food choices are having, with demand for red meat skyrocketing in developing countries with growing middle classes.
“What I still haven’t worked out … is, if everybody who has the privilege of going vegetarian decided to go vegetarian, what difference would that make to global emissions? Probably not a lot.”
But with the local industry signalling a willingness to tackle its environmental footprint, and the increasing popularity of flexible vegetarian diets, the rate of change that is happening suggests a positive, long-term uptake.
“It does send a collective signal that we have a problem,” Dr Eckard says, “and that we all need to deal with it in some way.”