Is “Vegetarian” a Dirty Word?

According to the UK food-industry mag The Grocer, British consumers are uncomfortable with the term vegetarian, and Guardian blogger Anna Pickard ponders why consumers prefer products that are “meat-free.”

But why is ‘vegetarian’ a difficult word for people to ally themselves to? Is it the memory of unappetising vegetarian options glimpsed over tables? The grim one-person teas you made for yourself during years of over-zealous Morrissey-led teenage temporary vegetarianism while the rest of the family were tucking into shepherd’s pie? (I’m speaking for myself here, four years of meatlessness for little other reason than The Smiths told me it was the thing to do).

Perhaps the issue is that people don’t want to label themselves, but joking aside, some vegetarians are proud to be defined by their dietary preferences. In a blog called Resistance Is Fertile, a barbed post equates people who believe in women’s rights but don’t define themselves as feminists with people who push meatless food but make it very clear that they are not vegetarians. Here, the blogger sarcastically takes down Mark Bittman:

You know what else I love? When that same someone goes on a food radio show plugging their book called ‘How To Cook Everything Vegetarian’ (a most insulting, solipsistic title, if you ask me) and says right off the bat that tempeh sucks and they wish they didn’t have to have the word ‘vegetarian’ in the title of their book.

Does anyone else think it’s a little strange that a guy who is capitalizing on a meat-free cookbook has a beef (sorry about the bad pun) with the word vegetarian? Here’s how Bittman (sort of) explains himself in the radio interview linked above: “I think of it as a meatless cookbook and that doesn’t really imply so much deprivation as just a different way of looking at things, or looking at the same things from a different point of view.”

Personally, I’ve got all of Bittman’s books and I’ve had much success with his recipes, but I don’t understand why there’s a stigma against describing food as vegetarian. Am I alone here? Does anyone think his book would be more appealing if it were titled How to Cook Everything Meat-Free?