Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Reinforcing Misconceptions: When Non-Vegans Weigh in on Being Vegan

I often stumble across articles in the media which are about vegans although written by non-vegans, and which don't appear at first glance to be fodder for any sort of lengthy or detailed post. Often, though, one of these articles will still contain something -- an assumption, a bit of misinformation, a certain tone -- that leaves me thinking about it long after I've moved on to read something else. I then return to it after some time spent mulling over whatever got under my skin and every once in a while, I'll try to tease it out into something I hope can lead to further discussion. This morning, it was an article by Coloradoan lifestyle columnist and chef Linda Hoffman called "Setting the table for all nutritional needs can be tricky task". Hoffman wrote the article after a neighbour approached her for vegan recipes, expecting the arrival of a couple of friends -- including one vegan -- who would be visiting for a week.

My first response to such a question would have been to suggest to her neighbour that she ask the friends in question for recipe ideas or information on their food preferences. When I visit others, I always offer to bring my own food and will often offer to fend for myself separately if my stay is prolonged. I'll even offer to cook a few meals for my hosts, mostly because I love to cook and enjoy any opportunity to share good food with others. One of my basic goals when visiting others is the same as any good guest's: To take all steps necessary to not become a pain in the ass so that the visit can be pleasurable for all. For a vegan, this often means doing a little bit extra to lighten the load and to fill in the blanks for my host so that there's no uncertainty or awkwardness during my stay. At least I try. I think it's because of this that I was disappointed that Hoffman didn't suggest to her neighbour that (s)he actually check with the forthcoming visitors to discuss meal arrangements.

Hoffman starts off on a considerate note that's actually a good general rule of thumb to follow when playing host to anyone, whether vegan or non-vegan. She states that when it comes to preparing food for a guest that

[i]t's one thing to provide food a friend can eat within the guidelines she's chosen and something else to serve food that can actually meet physical needs and makes the person feel cared for.
This is the sort of mindset that any host should hold when entertaining any guests, regardless of dietary restrictions or preferences. Unfortunately, she couches it in an initial presentation of hosting vegans as being "tricky" or "challenging". This needn't be the case at all, particularly if communication between guest and host is initiated and maintained on both ends. Hoffman makes it It's clear from the beginning, however, that she won't be facilitating this sort of communication.

Hoffman presents meal preparation during the visit as involving a need to balance options for the vegan guest as well as cater to the assumed needs of non-vegans who'll be at the table, and therein lies what I think is one of the main problems with asking a non-vegan for advice on how to deal with vegans at mealtime. In Hoffman's own words:
There is no need to impose a limited vegan diet on the rest of the group but it is important to serve a variety of foods that allows everyone to feel satisfied.
She views vegan food choices as "limited" and the attitude she conveys is that feeding vegan food to non-vegans is unthinkable -- that it would somehow leave them feeling unsatisfied. Of course, if you're reading this blog post, there's a really good chance that you're a vegan and that you've fed at least a few non-vegans at some point in your life and that you know from experience that this is bunk.

I think that given that she's an actual chef, Hoffman's suggestions for a week's stay of vegan meals are, in fact, embarrassingly "limited". She actually spends an entire third of the article discussing different variations on a bean and rice salad that can be served up as separate meals, insisting that "[b]eans and rice combine to provide complete protein". The thing is that there's no need to combine plant-based foods to obtain "complete protein"; this protein myth was discredited a very long time ago. Furthermore, it's just really disappointing that a chef -- a real honest to goodness chef -- would end up devoting an entire third of her article on what to feed vegans to suggesting variations of bean and rice salad. There are so many other equally simple ideas which could have been offered by anyone with far less expertise.

The other food options she brings up are "soy products" and grilled vegetables. At least she recommends serving the soy products with greens on the side, and she suggests allowing "the guest to choose" which ones to buy (remember -- communication between guest and host is key)... but she then suggests that the soy products can be "stir-fried or grilled next to steak or chicken breasts". I think that I speak for many ethical vegans when I say that I'd rather have a fourth or fifth (or sixth) meal of never-ending-variations-on-bean-and-rice-salad than eat meat substitutes fried up with animal flesh. What's sad, too, is that the idea that tempeh could possibly be served to non-vegans seems to escape her completely. She presents the same either/or scenario when discussing making open-faced sandwiches with soy cheese for the vegan but "real cheese for the others", as if somehow soy cheese is untouchable to anyone but a vegan.

The thing is that there are many dishes that non-vegans commonly eat which don't ordinarily (or always) contain animal products. These dishes can be shared by vegans and non-vegans alike at a meal without perpetuating this mistaken idea that every single meal enjoyed by non-vegans either does or should contain animal products (which then need to be substituted with soy replacements for vegans). How about pasta with marinara sauce alongside a garden salad and a grilled baguette brushed with olive oil, garlic and herbs? What about three-bean chili served with corn chips and guacamole? Or what about a gorgeous Middle Eastern mezze with raw vegetables and pita bread served with hummus and baba ganoush, rice-stuffed grape leaves (or other roasted vegetables like bell peppers, falafel, kalamata olives, marinated artichoke hearts and/or fava beans and tabbouleh? How about any number or variety of Asian stir fry served with rice or noodles or a scrumptious Thai curry made with coconut milk? These are all dishes my non-vegan friends have made at some point -- and not just when I was sharing the meal with them.

My point is that each meal need not be viewed as requiring the preparation of two separate meals, or of requiring any sort of special additional knowledge about vegan food that a non-vegan host might not readily have. Furthermore, each meal need not require the switching in or out of substitutes to cater to this idea that every single meal eaten by a non-vegan necessarily contains meat, dairy or eggs. Even when a vegan isn't sharing a non-vegan's table, vegan-friendly fare may be had from time to time. Add to this that any vegan guest would be happy to share his or her own meal ideas and to even cook something for his or her hosts that might be a little out of the ordinary, and I think that it would be difficult to agree with Hoffman's assertion that a host should view vegan food is "limited". I think it would be difficult to concur that that non-vegans would somehow be unable to leave the table satisfied or that they would feel "imposed" upon if fed any number of the things I listed above.

Still, as I wrote back in August, there are some non-vegans who do feel that they somehow need to consume a piece of flesh or a a mound of cheese to call something a meal. Hoffman would clearly fall into this camp. At least, her article would lead one to think so, which is why it's a shame that when mainstream media offers up bits of advice on vegans and non-vegans sharing a table that the point-of-view is always a non-vegan's. It invariably presents what a vegan would eat within the confined context of what the non-vegan writer imagines a vegan would eat; the general public ends up reading this and issuing a collective groan at the thought of ever facing the daunting task of hosting a vegan. Worse is that instead of providing them with useful advice, it reinforces any conclusions they may have been drawn from limited knowledge and experience and previous misinformation picked up through similar articles.

Wouldn't it have been a treat to read a piece which would have described how varied and delicious vegan food actually is? Wouldn't an article presenting the preparation of vegan meals as an opportunity to think outside the box -- to try something new without relying on animal products -- have left a more positive impression of veganism for Hoffman's readers? We need to get the word out any way we can that non-human animals aren't ours to use. In doing so, we need to knock down the barriers non-vegans set up for themselves when the message they're constantly and consistently delivered by other non-vegans in mainstream media is that going vegan is difficult, or that it's restrictive and tantamount to self-flagellation. We need to deliver a louder message that it's not, and that going vegan is, in fact, a joy.


Ray said...

This sort of commentary is truly bizarre. Veganism inadvertently taught me about abundance - there is an enormous amount of beautiful plant-based food in the world. I suppose animal product-centric chefs don't always get the opportunity to learn this... In this case, they also seem to have a rather poor grasp of basic modern nutrition! I wonder why many chefs don't take the time to learn their trade in more detail...

Nika Skof said...

Well written. Recently I came across an article covering this topic - you can check it out here: .

M said...

Renée, I agree with you completely. If anything, going vegan exposed to me to such an incredibly wide variety of new foods, most of which I may have never sought out and tried had it not been for my taking time to research plant-based nutrition.

Anouk Beta, thank you. Thank you, also, for sharing that link. I glanced at an article about that very study around a week ago and wanted to write a post about it, but got sidetracked by other goings on. The study's results were no surprise, whatsoever.

The Compassionate Hedonist said...

I don't get it, at all. Everyone can eat vegan food, so a vegan should never have to serve animal products. A kosher jew would never be asked to serve non kosher foods. Being vegan has not only made me a morally better person, it has made me the most creative person I have been since Iwas a teenager. I have so much fun with food now.