Monday, August 09, 2010

What Would Miss Manners Say?

I read a piece a week ago that reminded me a heck of a lot of a story about which I'd written back in February. It was half about basic communication and half about sucking it up and behaving like a grown-up when that communication fails. In a nutshell: Vegan plays guest to non-vegan host, vegan stays consistent about his or her veganism, non-vegan rants about said veganism after the fact. The more recent story I read was published on BC's Times-Colonist's website on July 28 ("Visiting vegan leaves carnivore cook wondering"). In her article, Pam Freir writes about a recent week-long visit with a vegan and of how although her guest seemed polite and non-confrontational, Freir still walked away from the visit with heaps of resentment for her guest, which she promptly transformed into resentment for her guest's being vegan.

Freir establishes off the bat that she's no vegan or vegetarian and then spends the rest of the article focusing on food. She dives into discussing the various dishes she ended up preparing during her guest's stay, ranging from a mushroom-pecan burger she found in a Rebar Modern Food cookbook (which was a success), to a cake made from a 12-year-old's recipe which she... ah...
stumbled upon somewhere online (and which ended up being merely OK). Then there was the failed risotto whose failure she decided to blame on its lack of animal products, and it's from this point on that the anti-vegan rant begins, apparently revolving around her conclusion that it's unreasonable for her to be expected to risk ruining a recipe for everyone by making it vegan:

Bottom line: Cooking for vegetarians is a relatively simple undertaking. Cooking for a vegan narrows one's options significantly. I found vegan cookery to be an ongoing exercise in compromise. A risotto without butter and cheese proved to be a pale shadow of its dairy-drenched counterpart.
And because one pot of risotto per meal is my personal limit, I chose not to repeat the process to satisfy the tastes of others at the table. We all ate the vegan risotto. Not all of us applauded the experience. Vegan rules. Like it or lump it.
Maybe instead of merely omitting ingredients in an animal-product-saturated dish, Freir should have taken the time to do a Google search or two for risotto recipes that incorporate substitutes (such as this one by Bryanna Clark Grogan) or some of the many tried and tested risotto recipes, some incorporating animal product substitutes and some not. over at Or, quite honestly, maybe Freir could have just found a different recipe that isn't traditionally saturated with animal products. If she had wanted rice, why not opt for an Asian stir-fry with rice? If she had wanted something Italian, why not a pasta dish with marina sauce? Or maybe she could have simply asked her guest for meal ideas?
Although Freir admits that not once did her guest even suggest that her host (or that others present) should also eat animal-free food, Freir's gripe is that by virtue of merely being there, the vegan somehow forced Freir to feed everyone animal-free food (that ended up somewhat less than palatable at Freir's hands) for the sake of convenience:
How is it that despite there being only one vegan present at a meal for four, three out of those four acquiesce, without comment or complaint, to the preferences of one?
(The risotto is just one example. The eggless cake is another. Coleslaw minus mayo was a vegan-dictated compromise as well).
I was struck by the deference vegans demand -- not overtly, not in so many words but defer we did because it was just too much hassle to do otherwise.
Had Freir done a bit of research, or had her guest perhaps been a bit more experienced with staying with non-vegan hosts for extended visits, they could have resolved this so incredibly easily. Not all meals have to be one-pot meals, for instance. A variety of different things ordinarily viewed as "sides" could have been served (vegetables, grains, salads of all kinds, et al.) that would have easily left everybody happy. Wraps and sandwiches are unbelievable easy to prepare and would have left diners able to shuffle various ingredients in or out. Certain types of ethnic cuisine (think Asian or Middle Eastern) traditionally offer up vegan-friendly fare, as well.

Perhaps her guest should have been proactive and offered up suggestions or volunteered to cook for the family for a few of their meals. It's quite possible that her guest did so, but Freir doesn't mention anything along those lines. Instead she focuses on what an inconvenience cooking for a vegan ended up being, and on how this inconvenience left her stewing. One can only assume from Freir's article that communication was minimal both leading up to and during her guest's stay.

So what's a vegan to do or say, then, when planning an extended stay at the home of a non-vegan? What steps can be taken to make life easier for host and guest and to facilitate things running smoothly? I asked some vegan friends on Twitter, and here were the suggestions they had to offer:

"If they'll be cooking their own food during their stay, then that's pretty simple. If not, tell them to explain their requirements to the person cooking so there won't (hopefully) be any unpleasant surprises in their food/drink."

"What I had to do: pack a cooler with my food essentials. No one felt put-out/inconvenienced and I still had food to eat
"Bring money for food, go shopping as soon as you get there and make sure you know where your top 3 veg friendly restaurants are.""Take some great recipe books and offer to do most of the cooking!"
"Last visit I had like that I came armed with favorite recipes and took a trip to the grocery story when I got there. I made it about sharing great recipes and cooking together, and the side effect was that I had plenty to eat!"
"Explain your lifestyle & buy your own groceries."

"Assume the worst, plan to shop, cook, pack food, fave recipes if possible and share. Smile, maintain ethics w/dignity and clarity if baited."
"Pack plenty of vegan treats, plan to hit the grocery store & help cook, find vegan-friendly restaurants in area on"
"Go shopping as soon as possible, make food to share, explain your reasons for being vegan away from the table. Be firm but polite turning down food. Offer to bake- cookies win people over."

"Remember to be nice, but firm. It's very important to set clear boundaries."
Are you picking up on a few reoccurring themes here? Bring/buy your own food. Offer to prepare your own food and to share it. Find a vegan-friendly place to eat outside your host's home once or twice while you're there. Be clear and firm about your needs and be nice when doing so. At most, you and your host will find yourselves enjoying a wonderful stress-free visit.

At the very least, you won't find yourself surprised when you stumble across a rude rant online from someone who, rather than try to make the most of an awkward situation, opted to let her frustration fester to the point of publicly taking an unwarranted and irrational swipe at veganism, complaining that in finding herself struggling to meet the simple needs of her vegan guest, her guest's "personal choices become expectations foisted, unthinkingly, on others".


DumbledoresAmy said...

Another awesome article! An useful ideas from everybody!

Vegan said...

You have some great suggestions, and I have to admit that when I was younger vegan, I wasn't very good about giving suggested recipes to a host or offering to cook. But I don't think we need to suggest to non-vegan hosts that they serve meat as well as vegan foods at the same meal, to satisfy everyone. That seems to imply that those people cannot be satisfied with vegan foods.

I would also like to point out that the host's frustration is typical of the type of frustration that comes from trying new recipes. Trying a new recipe can be stressful, and if it turns out badly, that's really disappointing. It doesn't matter if the recipe is vegan. The host is taking her new-recipe-frustration out on the fact that the recipes were vegan, when it probably had nothing to do with the fact that the recipes were vegan.

Thanks for writing about this issue!

M said...

Thanks, DumbledoresAmy!

Vegan, the suggestion wasn't that non-vegan hosts should serve meat at the same meal, but that different options can be provided so that there doesn't have to be one "make or break" dish that ends up a failure. For instance, the writer of this piece spent a great amount of time bemoaning the centerpiece risotto of one meal which she screwed up (and of course, she ends up blaming everything on its not containing animal products, which is beside the point). I agree with you completely that a lot of her frustration really seemed to stem from her own failure at preparing new recipes, hence my highlighting that she obtained one left by a supposed 12-year-old on some random site (i.e. rather than actually doing some serious Googling to find a tried and true cake recipe on any of the hundreds of awesome websites or blogs out there dedicated to sharing vegan recipes), and my sharing suggestions that vegan guests could do a lot to stave off this sort of frustration by helping to ensure their own needs are met by providing food and recipes or helping out with the cooking.

Vanilla Rose said...

I am not a great cook, but the very first time I made vegan cupcakes, a meat-eating friend of mine said, "Not being funny, you really wouldn't know there was anything different about them". I can also recommend the cakes sold at Idyea in Brighton (in the south of England).

Elizabeth Collins said...

Great article! I love this comment by Eva Batts from her article Why Veganism?:

"Another deterrent to a few, is the reluctance to refuse animal food when accepting hospitality. This discomfort is quite unnecessary; surely if any should be embarrassed it must be those who have not taken the trouble to provide good, humanely produced food for their guests and actually expect them to eat dead animals, or margarine made from the body of a whale which has been killed by shooting explosives into its insides. Our friends do not realize these things, so it is up to us to make the facts generally known."

That sums it up for me. I almost want to print out the article and highlight that part then send it to people, before they have me over for dinner (not that I ever go anywhere for dinner lol).

Abby Bean said...

Most telling about the author of the rant you cite is that she did not leave open the option to comment on her post, so obviously she is a close-minded person on many fronts!

I don't know any vegan who would stay in an omnivorous household and blindly expect to be catered to, so my assumption is that the guest probably offered to do or at least help with the cooking, and the author was too stubborn to accept.

Cassidy said...

I started reading your blog a few weeks ago and have caught up on a lot of past entries. I just have to say your blog has jumped to the top of my favorite blogs list!

M said...

Vanilla Rose, I thought something similar about her cake gripe. It was a bad recipe, regardless of whether or not it contained animal products.

Liz, thanks for sharing that Eva Batt quote!

Abigail S. Bean, that wouldn't surprise me, either. For several years, I dealt with a family member who would always insist when I suggested that I'd bring something that "it wasn't necessary" and that there'd be something for me to eat. That "something" ended up being a plain baked potato or roll the first few times I actually felt self-conscious about asserting myself and bringing something anyway. From that point on, I would always bring a couple of dishes to share with everyone (and they were always a hit with other guests).

M said...

Cassidy, that's awfully kind of you to say. Thanks so much! I'm glad that you've enjoyed some of the stuff I've been sharing.

Anonymous said...

It always amazes me, the big to-do that is made over a vegan guest, but not one who is Jewish or has food allergies or intolerances.

Would there have been so much whining if the risotto dish couldn't contain dairy because the guest was lactose intolerant? What if she had celiac disease and couldn't consume wheat products?

While I really am lactose intolerant, I consider myself all animal product intolerant. What's the difference?

tru said...

It's just nice to "come home" after reading a thread elsewhere - among the many contributions included the assertion that vegans should serve meat to their guests if they expect to be accommodated when being hosted by omnivores.

Lara Campbell said...

Great article...thanks for tackling this one! Not only are your blogs great, but the graphics you find to accompany them are fantastic!

Lara Campbell said...

Great article...thanks for tackling this one! Not only are your blogs terrific, but the graphics you choose to accompany them are awesome. This one made me laugh out loud.

The Compassionate Hedonist said...

any real chef loves a challenge. There are so many books and websites with a variety of vegan recipes from gourmet to simple.
a great gourmet book is
Great Chefs Cook Vegan