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Tejal Rao, The New York Times’s California restaurant critic, enlisted a fridge full of ’70s-era vegetable Muppets this month to help announce her new vegetarian newsletter on Twitter — and her followers couldn’t get enough of the googly-eyed cabbage, corn, carrot and coconut chilling on the shelves.
That’s the inviting spirit Ms. Rao hopes to bring to her newsletter, The Veggie, which debuted last week and comes out every Thursday. It’s part of The Times’s effort to serve readers who want to eat more vegetables.
In a conversation, Ms. Rao discussed her ambitions for the newsletter, revealed some rejected titles and divulged the one vegetable she can’t stand.
You’re an omnivore — when did you start eating vegetarian foods?
I’ve been eating vegetarian food my whole life. Both of my parents cooked at home a lot and it was probably vegetarian at least a few times a week — a Gujarati-style dal with rice and a vegetable or two, or something more French or Italian-leaning, built around dried lentils and starches, and seasonal vegetables. Meat and seafood were a part of the week but weren’t necessary at every meal and weren’t always at the center of the meal.
How did your diet change during the pandemic?
When the supply chain broke down, I bought way, way less meat and fish. I signed up to get a farm box delivery every other week and cooked mostly vegetables, and that really reoriented me as a cook.
Vegetarian recipe views on NYT Cooking increased nearly 50 percent over the past year. Did the idea for this newsletter predate the pandemic, or did it grow out of the uptick in interest in vegetarian content?
My editors have been talking about publishing more and more vegetarian recipes for years, and the newsletter is something I’ve wanted The Times to do for a long time, but that data is still useful because it points to an immediate appetite for the work.
Is the newsletter geared toward longtime vegetarians, or toward people who may not be vegetarian but who want to incorporate more veggies into their diets?
It’s for anyone with an interest. But I have to admit, I especially love the idea of persuading people who think they’re not at all interested in vegetarian food that they are, that it’s delicious, that it’s approachable, that it’s very much for them.
Was it always called The Veggie?
One of the rejected names was Totally Herbaceous, which didn’t get far because it’s too long and very silly and no one liked it. We all immediately liked The Veggie — it just felt warm, friendly and inviting. And that idea came from Owen Dodd, an engineer who worked on The Veggie in its earliest days. A lot of the rejected names didn’t feel right because they connoted diet culture in some small, insidious way, and I absolutely didn’t want to do that — The Veggie isn’t about abstaining, it’s about feasting.
Is there still a social stigma around being vegetarian?
I think it depends on where you are, who you spend time with and what you have access to, but to me that feels so misguided, and so boring.
It seems like The Times is including more vegetarian recipes in its coverage these days. Is that the case?
We’re publishing fewer meat recipes than we used to, and the number of vegetarian recipes will only continue to increase.
You’re based on the West Coast. How does California’s vegetarian scene compare to New York City’s?
There’s a really vibrant vegetarian and vegan scene here, from baking to cheesemaking to fast food. I’ve reported on it a little bit — I wrote a piece about vegan taquerias last year. But what’s really exciting is that it’s not happening just here.
Confession time: Is there a vegetable you really don’t like?
Raw bell peppers, something about the aroma and the wateriness is a little repulsive to me. I love them cooked, though! Just not raw.
Oh, no! They’re my favorite vegetable!
They explode with crunchy, juicy goodness. The orange and yellow ones are the best.
Hmm, no. [Laughs]
To sign up to receive The Veggie, click here.