Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Confessions of an Ex-Omnivore: Vegan Food Standards

I’m pretty sure half the reason people look at us oddly when we say “Oh, I’m vegan” is because they think our food is awful. I generally just say “Yeah, all the food’s great”. And I’m not lying. I’ve had amazing vegan food, and do consistently.

So why do omnivores think we have such awful food? Let’s explore some of the reasons:

1. “Dinner is meat and potatoes. You don’t eat meat, so you must just eat potatoes. How dull.” And omnivores aren’t the only ones who think this; some vegans do too. This isn’t just dangerous for your tastebuds, but may also put your health at serious risk. More below…

2. “I used to be vegan, but I kept on getting sick, so now I eat eggs/dairy/meat again.” Every omnivore has a story about someone they knew / someone that someone they know knew / etc. who went vegan but got all pale and sick, then ditched the diet and got better. Interestingly, other than for people with medical conditions, these oten seem to be the people who think they can live just by pushing the meat off their plate.

(NOTE: If a vegan diet is making you feel ill, talk to a doctor, nutritionist, or other health professional, or check out www.veganhealth.org, or the new health guide “Vegan for Life”; don’t just deal with feeling sick, or just dump the diet!)

3. “I went vegan to get healthy!” NOOOOOOOOOOOO!!! Vegan food is lumped with “health food” all too often as it is. And as much as it is much healthier (ooo controversial), most omnivores imagine us munching carrots and celery. Probably in a cage.

4. “Oh, I’m a vegetarian, but I eat fish/chicken”. Vaguely related, but really it’s a whole other kettle of fish. Bucket of asparagus. Maybe I’ll explore this later on.

Sound familiar?

As a consequence, omnivores see the vegan diet as a sub-diet; something that’s cute for a novelty, but completely lacking in taste, variety, and anything of interest. So they make excuses: “Oh, that’s delicious for a vegan meal.”

Let me demonstrate:

My partner Matt and I recently went to a popular restaurant to try their new vegan offering (you’ll have to forgive my vagueness). Matt had previously talked to chefs about having at least one vegan option on the menu, and had provided them with recipes and suggestions; the works. But they decided to go out on their own.

And that’s all very well if you’re working with things you’re used to; vegan chefs know vegan ingredients and how they work together, just as omnivorous chefs know omnivorous ingredients and how they work together. But don’t cross the streams!

The result was… less than satisfactory, to say the least. The ridiculous thing is that if they’d made the same thing as a regular omnivorous menu item, it would never have made it to the menu, at least not without some serious revisions (you know, to make it edible). But because “it’s vegan”, they made, and make, excuses for below-par results.

But what’s worse? We make the same excuses.

As conversation over the meal evolved, Matt said that most vegans would consider it excellent.

My parents have said that if they could change one thing about our upbringing, it would be to raise us on bread on water, because we have rather high culinary standards. As it is, owing to Matt being quite an excellent cook, I’ve gone from having high culinary standards as an omnivore to having similar high (or possibly higher) standards as a vegan.

But apparently many vegans don’t (not entirely out fault). And so, like the omnivores, we make excuses. We decide that because we’re doing the right thing, we can take our hard knocks and deal with food being a bit bland, or downright tasteless.

You know what? Vegan food can be just as good as, and often better than, omnivore food.

YOU KNOW WHERE THE CONTROVERSY IS. YEAH. RIGHT HERE.

The best brownies I’ve ever had have been vegan. And the best cookies. And the best mac-and-cheese. And the best soup. We’ve all had that one meal, even if it has just been one, that’s shown us how amazing vegan food can be. The cookbooks are out there, and the chefs to continue to make them. There’s no reason to make excuses for bad vegan food, because it can be amazing.

Well, maybe there’s one.

We all buy bad vegan cake. It’s just a fact. We go to that shop, because we know that it has vegan cake. And not just any cake, but probably the worst cake in the world. But, despite this, you walk up to the counter and you get a piece of this and a piece of that thank you, and you eat it (or at least attempt to).

You know you shouldn’t, because somewhere in the back of your mind a niggling grain of capitalist ideology tells you that if you stop supporting them, they’ll realise that their product isn’t good enough and they’ll improve it.

But, especially in Brisbane, if we don’t support vegan businesses, they won’t improve their products or price, they’ll just go out of business.

This is the knife edge we walk: we can either take what we’re given and accept that it’s not amazing, or we can have higher standards and end up with few, or no, options.

The solution seems to be to harness the spirit of the vegan community: gently make suggestions to improve the quality of vegan food at restaurants, but support them through the change, and let them know how good things are when they improve. With omnivorous restaurants, make sure they know there’s a demand there, but let them know that we do have higher standards.

And we should have higher standards. Yes, for our own tastebuds, but also for the omnivores. We can have a world where the vegan option isn’t the house salad with chips (which probably aren’t vegan anyway); where omnivores see our meals coming and drool jealously. Where we can take omnivore friends to restaurants and not have to apologise about the poor lighting, the bad service, the not-quite-so amazing food, and look on awkwardly as they look bemusedly at the menu; places they’ll take their omnivore friends because the food was so good.

We can absolutely change how omnivores see vegan food, but we need to set the bar high and lift our game.

Or maybe we should just eat at home.

3 comments:

  1. Oh this made me laugh, because it is so true. I still feel like I should support people business making a vegan effort, even if it is not a good one.

    Once I bought a piece of cake for myself and took it to a vet meeting. It was awful. All the sins a vegan cake can have. But because my anti-vegan boss was there, you can bet I ate it like it was the best thing ever, thankful that I hadn't bought more for people to share. ;)

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  2. I kind of feel the same. The last thing we need is less options! I think it's getting better, and hopefully it will just continue to improve.

    Your story made me laugh so hard. I'm sure every vegan knows how that feels :P Whenever I talk to omnivores, I spend a bit of time explaining why I'm vegan, and then 90% of the time going "Oh the food's AMAZING". Of course, no one believes me, but we do what we can!

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  3. I just stumbled across your blog! Love it! I love that you're spreading that vegan food news :)

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