Friday, May 27, 2011

Reading Between the Lines in Restaurant Reviews

Why is it that over half of all vegan cookbook or restaurant reviews in the media always start with the writer asserting quite adamantly that (s)he has rejected veganism? The most trivial of reasons are given in a flippant manner and, before the actual review has even begun, the writer often finds a way to disparage or misrepresent veganism or vegan-friendly products. This is often done by perpetuating misconceptions and stereotypes of vegan food; it's also too-often nestled in a jumble of misunderstanding of what is even meant by "vegan" or "vegetarian". What's funny is that readers who may be most interested in reading reviews of vegan or vegan-friendly restaurants in their area are likely vegan or at least open to the idea of eating plant-based food. What could possibly be accomplished, then, in using antipathy as a starting point for an article? And what could possibly be so difficult about doing a small bit of research beforehand -- particularly when writing for the public -- to actually get simple facts and definitions straight?

Part One

In a recent piece on a media website in Pennsylvania called Upper Moreland-Willow Grove Patch, "classically trained chef" and self-described "avid carnivore" Heather Greenleaf provides readers with a review of a restaurant in Huntingdon Valley, PA called Wild Ginger. It's not really the critique of the dishes served up at this "restaurant specializing in vegetarian and vegan cuisine" that is problematic -- it was actually mostly positive; what left me rolling my eyes was mostly the context she provided for the review.

For instance, Greenleaf presents processed meat substitutes as being some sort of necessity for those who don't consume animal flesh. She then describes her own negative experiences with a few of them as having left her opting not to play masochist with her taste buds and as having cemented her decision to continue eating non-human animals :

In recent years, I have tasted various garden burgers, imitation bacon products and tofurkies. In each instance their displeasing taste and texture have confirmed that I simply don’t have the commitment needed to adhere to this diet.
I've served up substitutes to any number of non-vegans over the years and have more often than not witnessed positive reactions. Regardless of this, though, who needs heavily processed meat substitutes to not eat animals? Has she been reading too much of Mark Bittman's gibberish?

Perpetuating the idea that vegan food is generally yucky to set the tone for a review of a vegan-friendly restaurant is bad enough; it's when she contextualizes further and goes on to spell out what she describes as "levels" of vegetarianism, however, that she really fumbles quite badly.

[Her many friends] eat at various vegetarian levels – some eat fish but not red meat, some eat beef but not pork, and some have chosen to be vegan, giving up all animal proteins including dairy and eggs. [...] Each of their diets has many restrictions, and I imagine that it is hard for them to find something on a menu when eating out.
Of course, eating one species of animal but not another is not "vegetarian", and I hardly think that choosing not to eat cows would in any way leave anyone struggling to find something to eat on a menu. Also, veganism is most certainly not just a variation or "level" of vegetarianism (nor is it merely a "diet" for that matter). It's evident that Greenleaf is horribly confused about terminology and even basic biology, though, when she writes that she and her dining partner were "committed to eating like we were vegetarians" and that they proceeded to order octopus: "I’m not sure whether cephalopods count as meat, or if they are technically fish, but the dish was wonderful."

The rest of Greenleaf's review involves discussing and praising actual vegan dishes, although again dwelling on how "realistic" the meat substitutes in one were. Even though she does go on to praise the food she and her friend consumed, her positive review still remains swaddled in misunderstandings of both vegetarianism and veganism -- and she leaves her readers no doubt that she is convinced that the vegan food she did actually try at Wild Ginger was more an exception than the rule.

Part Two

A second review I read this morning was featured on Houston's CultureMap media site. In "Where's the cheese? A meat eater takes on the new Heights Ashbury coffeehouse's vegan offerings", writer Sarah Rufca begins by making it clear that the idea of not using animals for food is unthinkable to her, and that sending her to review vegan dishes was a mistake: "Cheese is my favorite food, and my second favorite food is all meats. It's just not going to work."

As if to present herself as earnestly wanting to try to find something positive to write, she insists that the decor at the coffeehouse was swell. The bulk of her food review, on the other hand, was mighty unfavorable. What's worse is that she twice mentions grading dishes "on a vegan curve", as if it's to be expected that the taste and quality of the food should be lesser without animal products. She also ends up assessing dishes based upon how accurately they mimic non-vegan dishes which ordinarily rely heavily upon animal products:
I ordered the macaroni and cheese dish, which I'll admit upfront was a mistake. At the moment, I was working under the impression the food was merely vegetarian, and I was not remotely ready for the introduction of a cheese sauce imposter. As far as cheese substitutes go, this one wasn't terrible [and i]f I was grading on a vegan curve I would call it not bad, but compared to the real deal it just doesn't hold up.
She comments positively on the Ni├žoise salad she orders, but then assesses it in terms of its lacking "the signature fishy taste" which usually comes from the tuna and anchovies in its traditional non-vegan form. At this point, I had to wonder if it had occurred to her to try a dish that wasn't attempting to offer itself up as a plant-based replica of one which ordinarily relies on some sort of animal product. So many non-vegans -- and sometimes vegans, too-- have a hard time thinking outside of the omni-box when it comes to meals; they readily assume that vegans need fake _____ on their plates for a dish to be satisfying and delicious. The coffeehouse's website lists no menu, so it's hard to speculate whether or not she had some options made available to her which weren't simply trying to emulate ordinarily animal-product heavy dishes.

She spends the rest of the review finding something to criticize about each subsequent dish she samples -- the only item that's praised is a glass of lemonade! The truth is that Rufca walked into the place with her mind already made up about vegan food. She sums up her visit by bringing up the "vegan curve" again, making it clear that expectations concerning vegan food should somehow be lower: "If it wasn't vegan food, it'd be terrible. But for what it is, maybe it's OK." To be fair, it's possible that the food at the coffeehouse Rufca reviewed actually wasn't great. Whether or not it was, though, it never really stood a chance of being assessed for what it was, instead of being assessed for what it was lacking. Even if it had been tasty, I've no doubt that Rufca, too, would ultimately have left her readers thinking that it was just a fluke in the otherwise gustatory wasteland which she believes vegans inhabit.


Claire said...

Yeah, it's really a pervasive myth that vegetarians eat the SAD - meat + meat substitutes. People who are perpetuating this really should know better.

Something I've noticed recently is that when a restaurant has a separate vegetarian section, the reviewers don't even mention it! There are a couple of nationally known restaurants here that I thought were total meat-bombs that are vegan-friendly and I only discovered it by accident. (Reading menus online looking for new things to cook is a hobby.)

That Height Ashbury Coffeehouse review was just confusing. I can't tell if the food was good or not. She didn't describe anything, really. But it's down the street, I'll check it out! Maybe I need to do what Anna did for San Antonio and write up my own restaurant reviews.

M said...

Claire, if you do go and decide to write a review, please let me know. I'd love to share it as a follow-up to this other sad review.

Lisa Viger said...

I've been vegan for about 4 years, and enjoy food more than ever. Vegan food is amazing. I think some folks like to pretend they're being sophisticated and "real foodies" when they disparage vegan food out of hand.

The Rational Vegan said...

Papers do this often for other types of reviews, and it usually turns out the same way. Let's send the classical piano guy to a death metal concert! Huh, he hated it. Go figure. Yawn.

I've been also reading a lot of supposed pro-vegan articles lately that just have to be prefaced with "I'm not vegan" and of course end up giving a few backhanded compliments. I'm not sure which is worse.

Unknown said...

I don't usually read food reviews, but I wonder if the authors are this disparaging to other food subcultures in their reviews. You know, "well, the Japanese are bastards and my family swore long ago never to forgive them for Pearl Harbor, but man, they make some wicked udon soup."

Adam Kochanowicz said...

Ahhhh, that first quote. I cannot stand when people judge veganism by how well you can make omnivore food out of it.

That is like saying omnivorous food sucks because I tried a stalk of celery made out of beef. It was awful. Therefore, vegan food is superior.