Wednesday, April 18, 2012

"The Challenge of Going Vegan" (as Explained by a Non-Vegan)

It's been a while since I've thought of Tara Parker-Pope, a health/food writer for the New York Times. She last caught my attention back in the summer of 2009 when her "Wellness" column featured a guest piece by by Mark Bittman, who shared how he had suddenly become protein deficient from only eating animal products after 6 pm. According to advice received from a purportedly well-credentialed nutritionist (who had obviously neglected to read any research concerning protein after 1980), Bittman wasn't just not eating enough protein, but wasn't eating enough so-called "complete" proteins. (Note: The theory of protein combining--aka the "protein myth"--has long since been nixed.) Although I haven't been keeping track of Parker-Pope's work, I have been discussing food ethics these past few weeks with an interesting non-vegan friend who does, and it was he who sent me a link to her most recent column ("The Challenge of Going Vegan").

As far as I know, Tara Parker-Pope isn't vegan. Also, as far as I know, she has no immediate plans to go vegan. So why would she write a column about the supposed challenge of going vegan? Why not, really? It's a trendy topic for foodies to kick around these days and in Parker-Pope's case, she really does end up giving it what ultimately feels like a not-so-friendly kick. Her focus is unsurprisingly on food and one is left speculating whether Parker-Pope is 1) limiting her discussion of veganism to its dietary aspect, or 2) conflating strict vegetarianism with veganism (since "going vegan" isn't restricted to what you do or don't eat). Either way, what does Parker-Pope have to say about shuffling animal products out of one's diet?

Eatin' Vegan is So Hard!!

Parker-Pope assures her readers from the very beginning that going vegan is hard. It leaves you with a mess of "physical, social and economic challenges" unless you are wealthy enough to have someone with special culinary qualifications to cook for you. Indeed, she tells us that it is a "struggle" to go vegan. Your friends and family will be "harsh" with you, and giving up your beloved dairy foods for their apparently necessary substitutes will "shock your taste buds". It's a meat eater's world according to her first token authority, an academic whose research focuses specifically on people's acceptance of meat substitutes. (Sheesh! Two paragraphs into this column, I'm even starting to think that veganism may very well be too daunting for me to handle.)

Parker-Pope does admit that the number of people in the US who self-identify as not eating meat and of those who self-identify as vegan is impressive, citing a 2008 Vegetarian Times poll. However, she's also quick to point out that regardless of obvious public interest, we really have no way to tell how many people's attempts to go vegetarian or vegan ultimately end up as failed experiments. A token vegan-wannabe student is brought up to illustrate this, claiming that she can only "manage" [to eat "plant-based" food] around "75 percent of the time" since there are not enough options on her campus, apparently no grocery stores within a 20-mile radius from where she lives, and since the processed vegan meat substitutes are more expensive than their animal-based counterparts. Parker-Pope tells us that this student needs "vegan specialty foods for cooking". Is that what they're calling grains, legumes, nuts, seeds and produce these days--vegan specialty foods? Or am I missing something? Also, if you think that those around you--your loved ones--are going to be anything ranging from supportive to apathetic, Parker-Pope's token vegan shares a story about her family's condescending reaction to her gift of vegan donuts to them. Going vegan, in case you weren't sure of her point, is hard.

When Duplicating Fails

Minus a bizarre bit about her token vegan-wannabe's misadventures trying to use miso to stuff pasta shells (which maybe sheds some light on that person's family's reaction to her homemade vegan donuts), much of the rest of Parker-Pope's column is fixated on this assumption that vegans need to replace meat and dairy with fake meat and dairy. Rather than discuss the more recent substitutes which have made their way into the market to win people over (e.g. Daiya and Gardein), Parker-Pope backs up her assumption by bringing in two more authoritative voices--two food-related researchers--to drive home that since humans eat meat and drink the milk of others as early as infancy, the taste and texture of these products become sort of imprinted on our palates and cannot be reproduced effectively. One expert insists that "[a]ny substitute would have to mimic the total sensory experience elicited by meats". The other dismisses non-dairy milks, stating that

[c]onsumers do feel the difference between milk-based and soy-based products. And once their first reference is milk-based products, they tend to reject plant-based products made with oat and soy or other vegetable-based food.
Other attempts to replicate a cheesy flavour using "weird" ingredients like miso, nutritional yeast or blended cashes, Parker-Pope tells us, end up being "overwhelming" for new vegans experimenting with them for the first time. Her continuing message? Say it with me, kids: Although some may persevere, going vegan is really hard.

So Here's the Thing About Habits...

Old habits can indeed be a pain in the arse to change. The thing is that this applies to any significant changes we attempt to make in our lives. When we weigh the idea of going vegan, we're not simply contemplating changing one bad habit like biting our nails or guzzling soda with meals: Going vegan means having to reexamine all of our choices as consumers and to change the way in which we make many of those choices. This can seem a little overwhelming at first, I admit, but doing some initial research (e.g. on hidden animal ingredients) and keeping resources and reference materials--or even a vegan mentor--handy can make the initially overwhelming a lot less daunting. The internet is a great place to start, with websites and apps providing information on animal ingredients abounding (see here and here, for starters). Social networking sites and services like Facebook and Twitter are also good places to seek out basic information, in many cases from just regular old vegans.

... and About Coping with Others

Parker-Pope's token vegan wasn't too far off the mark in describing what many vegans do experience interacting with others. I've written a few times before (e.g. here and here) about how the hardest part of being vegan isn't the process of learning to go vegan. Learning to familiarize yourself with the sources of animal exploitation so that you can more easily avoid them is something that can take a bit of time and patience, but it gets easier. What's often most complicated about being vegan, though, is interacting with others and learning to stay afloat in a mostly non-vegan world. Individuals in our lives may not always react well when we make major changes which reflect a shift in how we view of the world and how we want to live in it moving forward. There are no simple or easy answers to how to go about navigating our relationships with non-vegan loved ones, regardless of any defensiveness or animosity they may display in the face of our ethical choices. The most we can do is communicate our wants and needs clearly while staying true to our choices and sharing with those loved ones why the manner in which we make those choices has changed. Having a support network of other vegans will also certainly help and the truth is that although some of our loved ones may end up becoming antagonistic upon hearing of our having gone vegan, in most cases that antagonism will wane. Issues will invariably arise, but such is the business of this thing we call life, whether we wander through it as vegans or otherwise, no?

On Phonies that Taste Fake

As for this question of substitutes, Parker-Pope ends up making an assumption that I guess you could say she comes by honestly, since so many non-vegan foodies make the same assumption that vegans somehow need plant-based clones of animal-based foods. She also makes an assumption that because meat and dairy analogues don't taste precisely the same as meat and dairy that most people will reject them, bringing in her experts to emphasize this. The funny thing is that every single year, all I see are more and more (i.e. in terms of both number and variety) non-dairy milks and cheese and meat analogues on my store shelves. When I look in people's shopping carts, I see soy and almond milk, tofu dogs and Daiya, sometimes even alongside animal products. Something's obviously working since there's obviously a demand for these products.

It's also worth pointing out that not all vegans (or those who decide to go vegan) crave replicating and continuing to experience the taste of animal products. For some, the association is decidedly not a positive one, so although they may seek out substitutes for convenience or to feed those with whom they co-habitate, it's not really an issue for them if those substitutes aren't exactly like the flesh and secretions of nonhuman animals: In some cases, they
prefer that it not be so.

Who Needs a Phony, Anyway?

Although some non-vegan foodies like Mark Bittman have also perpetuated the myth that being vegan involves eating mock meats and other animal product substitutes, the reality is that not all vegans consume them. The reasons whether they do so or not differ. Some prefer to cook with whole foods and have learned to think beyond the meat-starch-vegetable dinner plate of yore. Others (as mentioned above) aren't interested in seeking to replicate either the taste or texture of products they associate with suffering, injustice and death. Then again, there are indeed others who may fall into the camp described by Parker-Pope and who are uninterested in consuming analogues because they don't find their taste and texture convincing--so they just don't use them. It may be surprising to Parker-Pope, but the thing is that vegans don't need substitutes, whether psychologically from having the taste of meat and dairy imprinted on them as infants or for nutritional reasons. We just don't. Presenting that those substitutes aren't up to par or that they're too expensive and that this poses a challenge to those seeking to go vegan smells a little straw-manish, but it would be disingenuous of me to pretend to have expected a non-vegan--even a New York Times columnist like Tara Parker-Pope--to present a reasonable account of what authentically and realistically constitutes a challenge to going vegan. But of course, how would I know?


lauren said...

I got halfway through your commentary before I rage quit. The first time I had a vegan diet was because I WAS BROKE. SIGH.

Nadine said...

Thanks for your commentary - I find articles like hers a bit infuriating because it perpetuates the picky vegan stereotype, not to mention her blanket assumptions are inaccurate.

I just discovered your blog the other day and have to say as a fellow vegan (and canuck) I really resonate with your perspective and insights - so thanks for writing!

Nicole Graziano said...

Thanks so much for doing this. I really enjoyed reading it.

DumbledoresAmy said...

To give you some tips on cheap vegan eating, may I recommend:
---Rice & Beans---

There are many other cheap, healthful, vegan options. I know, because I too am broke (and vegan).

My gas has been off since the 10th. I loaned a videocamera to pay the last hassle-related turn on fee. Though I have been taking cold showers 9 days, and haven't been able to cook food, I am still vegan. My groceries probably total about $100 a month and I am never hungry or even bored from my food.

I keep reminding myself that this a a first-world, human problem. I have access to water, period. Many people do not. The non-human animals affected by non-veganism are much more miserable with the lives and deaths inflicted on them than I am by whatever problems I have faced in my life.

Leftyvegan said...

Excellent piece. Thanks for writing. Unbelievable how somebody who has never been or tried to be vegan can be so opinionated about it. I think Ms. Parker-Pope suffers from serious Guilt Issues, and is trying to compensate for it and explain away why she isn't doing anything about it.

I was a meat eater and had a "come to geezus" moment and a Vegan the next day. Sure it took time to get out the kinks and figure a few things out, but hard? NO... Commitment? YES!