Vegan Food: It’s Just Food

vegan food:  it's just foodA while back I was checking out at my local grocery store when I overheard a couple of employees talking to each other.  One said gruffly, “I hate vegan food.”  I try to limit the amount of talking I do to people who aren’t having a conversation with me, and so I resisted the urge to start lifting up all of my food as I was packing it into my grocery bags.

In my imagination, I hoisted up each thing, one at a time…  “You don’t like grapes?  You don’t like carrots?  You don’t like garlic sourdough bread?  You don’t like pineapple?  You don’t like baba ganoush and pita bread?  You don’t like olives?  You don’t like dark chocolate with almonds and sea salt?”

I don’t know what this “vegan food” was in his mind that he hated so much, but I seriously doubt that his statement was entirely accurate.  Like everyone else on the planet, vegan or not, I’m sure that guy has had vegan food many times over.  It could have been when he was rushed and just threw marinara from a jar onto plain pasta or made tomato soup and crackers.  Maybe it was the time he had popcorn at the movies without butter or made an entire meal out of Corona and an appetizer of chips, salsa, and guacamole at the bar.  Perhaps it was when he was a kid and he devoured his packed lunch of peanut butter & jelly, potato chips, a banana, and Nutter Butter’s.

cherriesMany people have these ideas that vegan food is healthy to the point of being bland, boring, and tasteless.  They think it must involve tofu, tempeh, seitan, sprouts, or lentil loaves.  Well, guess what?  You could actually go vegan, be vegan for years, and never eat any of those things if you didn’t want to do it.  You don’t have to grind flaxseed or sprinkle chia seeds or juice wheatgrass.  Something is vegan by way of what is absent, not what is present.  If it doesn’t include meat, dairy, eggs, or honey, it’s vegan.  And there’s a whole great big world of foods out there that don’t include those things.

But by the trepidation some people have around “vegan food,” you’d think it was a disease they might catch.  “Hello, Poison Control?  I accidentally ate a cookie made with flour, maple syrup, baking soda, oil, and semi-sweet chocolate chips (most of them are vegan).  Now I’m getting these sudden urges to buy a Prius and start composting.  Send someone quick!”

veggie burgerMaybe we should start a campaign to comfort people.  Attention human citizens of the world:  Don’t worry.  So-called vegan food won’t turn you vegan any more than Japanese food will make you Japanese or kosher food will make you Jewish.  I ate veggie burgers for years in college just because I liked them, and yet I didn’t actually make the leap until I was 30.  I ate bean burritos with no cheese and extra hot sauce from Taco Bell often during my twenties, not because I was vegan, but because I was a struggling actress who didn’t have a lot of cash.

The hesitance around vegan food is kind of ironic when you think about it, because when you hear those travel stories about people visiting other countries and being served food that they don’t recognize, their worry is never that the mystery item on the plate is… cauliflower.  The worry isn’t that they’ll unknowingly be served star fruit or goji berries.  The concern is that it will be guinea pigs or dogs or cats or monkeys’ brains.  Furthermore, do you know who won’t be serving you food tainted with pink slime or crushed beetles?  Vegans.  However, in our day-to-day lives sometimes it can feel as if vegan food is perceived as cough medicine – something to be choked down or just tolerated, if eaten at all.

cauliflowerAs a vegan, it can feel like you’d be better off surreptitiously handing your potluck dish to someone else before you step inside, so that no one is associating it with “the vegan” and trying to steer clear of it.  Now, obviously I’m not announcing to everyone at the potluck or games night, “Hey, everyone!  I brought vegan salad, and vegan potato chips, and vegan cupcakes, and vegan hummus with vegan celery!”  But they know I brought it, and so it can feel like it’s already tinged with the plague of vegan before it had a chance.  At a family gathering, my nephew joked with me that I needed to stay far away from my “pariah cookies,” so that others wouldn’t be suspicious of them.  (He was just playing around with me, and as it came to pass, they were actually a huge hit!)

It reminds me of that experiment from a few years ago in which pre-schoolers were given the exact same foods, but some were in McDonald’s packaging and some were not.  The kids were asked to try all of the foods and then questioned if the foods tasted the same or if there were some that they liked better.  The kids overwhelmingly preferred the foods that were branded with McDonald’s logo.  According to the report, “children were significantly more likely to prefer the taste of a food or drink if they thought it was from McDonald’s for 4 of 5 comparisons.”  You can see the study for yourself here.  (I saw a similar experiment a while back with adults and the perceived quality of liquor based on the bottle design.  Interesting stuff.)

I feel like the exact opposite of the McDonald’s effect is what happens for many people when they hear that something is vegan.  Hand them a cookie or a piece of bread or a cupcake.  They eat it and like it.  Tell them it’s a vegan and suddenly, they find flaws that weren’t there before like it’s dry, or too healthy, or too crumby or whatever.  The vegan stigma drags it down.

A while back a friend asked me for a chocolate cake recipe for someone whose child is lactose intolerant.  I pointed her to the recipe for Wacky Cake, a depression era cake that didn’t use animal products because of war rations.  I didn’t grow up in a vegan household, but that is the cake I grew up eating at birthday parties and celebrations.  That was my mom’s go-to recipe.  I also pointed my friend in the direction of several cake mixes and jarred, shelf stable frostings that are accidentally vegan, in case she wasn’t inclined to make things from scratch.  My friend told me that when the recipe was given, it really put the person at ease that vegan food could be so normal.  She’d always avoided their vegetarian restaurant in town because she was sure that she wouldn’t like their chalky food, but now that she saw that it was just everyday stuff, she was more open to the idea of trying more.

onion ringsSo what do you do then?  How do you change perceptions?  I have a friend who says that if something is vegan, people just shouldn’t say that it is and then others will eat it.  But of course, the problem with that is two fold.  One, it’s helpful for people who are vegan to know that, hey, there’s food there for them.  Two, it’s never going to expand people’s definitions if they’re left in the dark about what vegan means and that it can be amazing.  (And if you had one bad vegan meal you didn’t like, try it again somewhere else with something else.  Before I was 30, I’d had plenty of meals – good and bad – that weren’t vegan.  You just never know until you give something an honest shot and recognize what might be your own prejudices around an adjective.)

Basically, what it comes down to is this:  Vegan food is just food.  It’s everyday, normal, regular food.  It’s chips and salsa.  It’s a banana.  It’s french fries.  People sometimes get scared off by the term or discount it out of hand.  And I want to tell them – you’ve eaten “vegan food” many times over and enjoyed it.  You just didn’t call it that.

71 thoughts on “Vegan Food: It’s Just Food

  1. Too right! This reminds me of a conversation between two of my nieces. “I like vegan food,” said one. “It’s just food, isn’t it?” said the other. Quite so. (I like to think I helped them to this conclusion with copious helpings of vegan cake…)

  2. Hear hear! I completely understand your frustrations with this. Some people can be downright hostile and even refuse to try something just because it’s been announced that it’s vegan!

    • Yes, the hostility can be rather surprising, can’t it? I’m sure that’s something that every vegan – new or longterm – has come into contact with at some point or another. Last spring my husband posted my recipe for banana soft serve on his Facebook page, and right away a person from high school he barely remembered wrote, “BARF!” Um, it’s pretty much bananas and cocoa powder… I’m sure those are ingredients she’s eaten plenty of times before… But most of all, why be so rude about it? It’s as if some people just feel like they have to lash out at the mere suggestion of plant-based foods.

  3. I love this post! And I would have loved to have been present if you had actually had your hypothetical conversation at the grocery store.
    I used to work at an office where one of the VPs would always make comments about my food, and actually called me into his office once but told me to leave my “weird green smoothie” at my desk. That’s when I started making a habit out of drinking green kombucha and green juice at company meetings and joked with another co-worker that I might put a bowl of sticks on my desk and tell the VP they were my snack. It was so ridiculous, I decided to have fun with it. :)

    • You know how when some people get older they start saying all of the things they think? Well, here’s hoping that when I become a little old lady I just start spilling what’s on my mind and talking to grocery store clerks about kale and quinoa! ;) Right now I’m always very careful with my words, but it would be great to have the freedom to just let it all out! When that happens, I’ll invite you to the grocery store with me, and you can be a fly on the wall!

      That’s such a hilarious story about your former co-worker/VP! I love it that you just had fun with it!

  4. I love this post! I’ve had all of the experiences you mentioned – especially at potlucks. But overtime I’ve won over my friends and family and created a Vegan Bake-Off that over 600 people attend annually. We just have to keep putting great food out there – be it a fruit plate, hummus and pita or an extravagant vegan wellington with chickpea gravy. The more we enjoy amazing vegan food the more people want to come to our potlucks. :)

  5. What a terrific post! I was once a person who probably thought much like some of those you described above. It was sheer lack of knowledge and/or no interest in learning another way. But once I opened my mind and educated myself, it’s really kind of funny how true it is that vegan food is regular, real food. Simple as that :)

  6. Amen! This should be required reading for all! I actually have a rant-ish post of my own that I’ve been holding onto about the fact that everyone’s choices should be respected (looking at you, preachy vegans and carnivores who feel the need to interject “add a pork chop” to any vegan post or story on the Internet.) But this post is a million times better and so poignant and rational. I love it. I’m sharing it.

    “Something is vegan by way of what is absent, not what is present.” I would add that it’s also not deprivation by subtraction. It’s actually adding in value ;)

    • Thanks for sharing, Abby! Although, I’d still love to hear your version. You have such a hilarious and wonderful perspective on things.

      That’s very true that by losing we are gaining. It’s not always perceived that way, but as so many others have commented, going vegan often adds more variety and interest than many people would expect.

  7. Love this!! The Poison Control section made me laugh out loud! Vegan food is food – it is so funny that it takes some time to point that out to people. Of course, people had to point it out to me too at some point. We just hosted a party that was all vegan (and my husband and I were the only vegans) and people didn’t even realize it until the end.

  8. Well, obviously we just need to bring our vegan goodies to all potlucks, office parties and family gatherings disguised in McDonald’s packaging! Then everyone will eat it and love it best of all. Problem solved! *snork*

    I agree with everyone, fantastic post! Entertaining and insightful and amusing and illuminating, as usual! :-)

    • Okay, that is hilarious! There’s totally a study in there somewhere, or at least a comedy video! You’ve got my gears going!

      And thank you so much for the kind words! They really make my day!

  9. I love this. So simple. Somehow “vegan” has become a dirty word in some circles. Or people are scared that it is boring, disgusting, or bad tasting. It is a shame. This is a great post that can educate anyone about what vegan food really is. If they take the time to read it, that is.

    • Maybe I’ll just carry a copy of this post in my back pocket for a crinkled nose emergency! ;) And thank you for sharing the post on your blog. So sweet of you!

  10. In my early days of veganism, when it wasn’t commonly known that I was vegan, I used to feed people delicious baked goodies and after they’ve oohed and aahed and licked every last crumb off the plate, I’d announce that the cake they ate was vegan! :op

    Now however, everyone knows I’m vegan and associates me with it, so I can’t pull that trick anymore. Haha

    Thankfully the close minded people who wrinkle they face at the mention of vegan who cross my path are very few. When I do meet such people, most of the time I can’t help responding to them and making them see. I usually attempt to make my point using humour.

    Luckily, in India vegetarianism is a big part of our culture so even meat eaters know and accept that they are eating delicious veggie food most of the time. So talking about vegan food isn’t too hard.

    • It sounds like you have a really good attitude and take it all in stride. And that’s part of why you’re such a wonderful advocate for the vegan lifestyle! :)

  11. With regard to my being vegan, my nephew said, “I’ve had vegan food before. It was pretty good.” It struck me as odd that their was “vegan food” at all. You ate a banana once and it was pretty good? I guessed he was talking about eating at a vegan restaurant. But at least he liked it :-).

  12. I love this post – you articulated something I’ve tried for years to explain to people (it doesn’t help that I’m usually frustrated when trying to explain my feelings on the matter). So well said!

  13. Another great post! It does always seem odd to me that so many people don’t seem to realize that fruits, veggies, grains, nuts, seeds, beans, etc. are vegan. It’s also unfortunate that so many don’t know how to eat these naturally vegan foods without mixing them with animal parts, and that seems to be the problem. I remember attending a Christmas party once where even the green beans had bacon — not one dish was animal-free. Maybe people are afraid of vegan food because they are so unused to eating it. They believe food flavor comes from animals, and they are so afraid of being deprived that they won’t consider making the most of foods in their delicious vegan state. The first time I made a vegan Thanksgiving dinner, I was shocked to discover that the fabulous smells I associated with the turkey being cooked, was actually coming from the stuffing!

    I get so tired of people feeling sorry for me, or superior because they enjoy sophisticated foods like fois gras and caviar and I don’t. I don’t feel deprived to be a vegan — I feel blessed.

    • You make a lot of good points. I too remember being surprised that the flavors of Thanksgiving for me were actually herbs like thyme, rosemary, herbs de Provence, and marjoram.

      This is such a great line: “I get so tired of people feeling sorry for me, or superior because they enjoy sophisticated foods like fois gras and caviar and I don’t. I don’t feel deprived to be a vegan — I feel blessed.” All it takes is to watch videos or see pictures of geese being force-fed or veal calves being taken from their mothers and kept in tiny sheds to make those “sophisticated foods” lose their luster. The lives they live are lives of deprivation. Knowing that I’m not contributing to their suffering is a blessing every day, and I am thankful for it.

  14. This is another wonderful post! Your poison control comment slayed me. I had to read it out loud to Chris. :-)

    We have a friend who absolutely despises all things vegan. It’s almost like he makes a point to eat as unhealthfully as he can. His wife, at one time, was doing demos for Fabe’s cookies, and she would bring home cookies and not tell him that they were vegan because she knew he wouldn’t like them. He LOVED those cookies, but her sister accidentally spilled the beans and he hasn’t touched one since. Another funny story, though, is that his wife, after meeting Chris for the first time, told our friend “I never would’ve guessed that he’s vegan! He’s not pale and sickly looking- he has muscle!” Chris and I often laugh at the ideas and stereotypes of veganism that the two of them must have. The stigma behind that word is so bizarre.

    • That’s so unbelievable (but not) that your friend wouldn’t continue eating the cookies he had already tried and liked simply because they were vegan. It sounds like something a child would do, and so it makes it that much more shocking that it was an adult! But like you, I have similar stories that I could share. People are full of idiosyncrasies!

      Whenever people say that vegans are all pale and sickly, I wonder who is this “vegan person” that they’ve seen? After all, vegans come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. It’s not like there’s just one type of person out there who’s vegan. It really runs the gamut! But David and I have this ongoing joke about the tired and sickly vegan that these people have apparently drummed up in their imaginations, and we call her “Vegan Jenny.” Whenever we hear a tale like that, we weakly wave to one another as Vegan Jenny with whatever strength we can manage and assume that it’s her that they’re meeting. :)

  15. great post cadry. i too wonder what the big fear surrounding “vegan food” is all about. sometimes i think a lot of it has to do with people holding insecurities about their own food choices when it comes to meat & dairy consumption — if vegan food is weird, scary & unpalatable then there’s even more reason for them to avoid examining there own food choices.

    so that’s why my favourite way to win them is with kindness and cupcakes! xo

  16. Very cute post! So true…”vegan” is a dirty word to many. You are right when you say that when you bring a prepared dish to a party many people will look at it as being tinged with “the plague of vegan.” I think people think of overcooked vegetables, lentils, sprouts and seeds when they think of “vegan food.”

    • Thank you, Em! Whenever people ask what vegans eat, I think it’s because in their minds most of the dinner plate has disappeared! If there’s no meat or cheese, what is there? Sometimes folks can forget that they eat plenty of other foods too and grew up eating them. They just never dubbed them “vegan.”

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  18. I couldn’t have said it better! Love LOVE this post Cadry! I hosted dinner one night and we had a burly meat eating police officer over. He kept saying “I didn’t know vegan food could taste this good” Har har har ;)

  19. Love, love, love this post! I was just explaining the other day to some people at my Crossfit box about what I eat, and I just wanted to shout at them that I eat food, just like they do, just without animal products. This is a great approach to the topic and it came at a perfect time for me – thanks for your insight!

  20. An outstanding post, Cadry! My neck got sore from so much nodding up and down. It gets really old being the brunt of jokes and being the weirdo in the group fielding all of the standard (and tiresome) comments about protein and what-CAN-you-eat?, etc. My diet is now incredibly varied, delicious and creative – far more so than when I ate meat and dairy. I never, ever feel deprived or miss what I don’t have. Now…how do I get my parents to read this… :-)?

    • Aw, thank you! I hope that the soreness in your neck has died down by now. ;) It can be hard for some people to believe that a diet of plant foods could be so mouthwatering and varied, but it’s the truth! Now…. what’s your parents’ email address? I’ll send them an anonymous message. It’s a new service I’m providing. Tee hee! ;)

  21. what an amazing post, cadry! YOU GO GIRL! i think my favorite part was this:

    Perhaps it was when he was a kid and he devoured his packed lunch of peanut butter & jelly, potato chips, a banana, and Nutter Butter’s.

    i share the same sentiment with you when dealing with ignorant people who “hate” vegan food, vegan people, vegan clothes. i keep to myself for the most part. but, when i have parties or go to family get together, everyone KNOWS my food is vegan. and for the most part, no one cares(luckily). but, even if they didn’t, i’m proud to be a vegan and to make vegan food, and i will shout it from the rooftops! ;)

  22. This is an amazing post Cadry.. its a fine balance to walk and deal with the vegan food haters..and the ones that go” omg. theres no meat in this.. i cant eat it ”
    i had someone comment on fb that she hates vegan food coz she ate some at a restaurant. and i told her she grew up eating mostly vegan food made by her mom. and oohing and ahhing everytime. what she doesnt like is just the restaurant. so stop yapping:)

    • So true! All of us have been to a ton of restaurants in our lives. Sometimes the food was good, sometimes it wasn’t. We didn’t blame Thai cuisine on one crappy Thai restaurant or waffles on a lackluster breakfast at Denny’s! Eating an unsatisfying meal at a restaurant doesn’t mean that all vegan food everywhere is bad, especially since, like you said, all of us have eaten it our entire lives. We just didn’t label it as “vegan.”

  23. Yes! I don’t come across it too often but it drives me nuts when people assume it’s going to be gross because it’s vegan. I’ve had people email about making cakes because it was for someone lactose intolerant and asking me if my cakes tasted ‘weird’. Mostly I found it funny since how do they expect me to respond? “Yup, I’ve got the weirdest tasting cakes in town!”, lol
    Me and my husband have a running joke whenever we feed someone something vegan for the first time, the response is usually “wow, this actually tastes really good”, so whenever we cook something new for each other, we usually respond with “this is Actually good”, ha ha. I mean, really, what a rude thing to say to someone, like “hey, I thought this meal you went out of your way to make me was going to be disgusting, but it ACTUALLY tastes good”, sigh.

    • Oh, my gosh! Your comment had me laughing out loud! Hilarious! That’s so funny that people ask you if your cake tastes “weird.” Why on earth would you post it if it did? “Hey, everyone! Like weird cake? You’ve come to the right place!”

      I love it that you and your husband play it up with each other regarding it “actually” being good. So funny!

  24. This could be one of my all-time favourite posts! I think you put into words what so many of us feel on a regular basis. I don’t believe in hiding that something is vegan because I do think overtime (and this is happening now!) veganism will continue to become more and more accepted and “normal”. We’re already getting there slowly but surely. There isn’t as much stigma around vegetarianism and I think veganism will also see this one day in the future. It’s funny how a gluten-free diet or paleo diet do not seem to get the same kind of judgment that a vegan diet does. Thanks again for the post!

    • Thank you, Angela! I agree that there is already a cultural shift happening in terms of acknowledgement and acceptance of a vegan lifestyle. I think that is especially true in larger cities where people are more apt to get exposed to a variety of vegan restaurants. Even in my small town, I’m noticing more and more vegan specialty items popping up in grocery stores. I’m glad there are people in my community who are buying them!

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  26. Sadly, some of this may be a backlash against the “pushy vegan” stereotype. My partner has a friend like that, and it gets really embarrassing. We can’t even go out to dinner with her unless it’s a purely vegan restaurant, or she makes a huge scene. She isn’t that great of a cook either, so that doesn’t help.

    Personally, I can’t figure out why food needs to be labeled any more than why people do. (An ingredient list for those of us with allergies is nice, though.)

    And for some reason, this most made me crave bananas, veggie sausage, and maybe a vegan cinnamon roll. ;) I like your insights!

    • Dude, I’m a vegan and while all my friends know, they break on me playfully. Guess what, they still love my cooking because vegan/veggie dishes are delicious, AND I make non-vegan dishes for them without drama. So many people buy into the post-70s NYC punk androgynous female/effeminate-not-quite-homosexual male angry political vegan/UC Berkeley yoga instructor who sings “Give Peace a Chance” on street corners with an acoustic guitar they can’t play dressed in frumpy thrift shop Land’s End fashion. Some people can’t believe I’m a vegan since I don’t discuss my diet… though I did lose 50 pounds.

  27. I’ve taken to just not telling people the food I’ve brought them is vegan until after they try it. Then when their eyes light up and they say how good it is, BAM. VEGAN! And they are pleasantly surprised.

  28. Recently I’ve been struggling with my vegan lifestyle and I happened upon your blog this afternoon. Thanks for writing such awesome posts not just with great recipes and restaurant review – but great because they tackle some of the bigger issues vegans deal with. I agreed with everything you stated above, and I wish more people were open to vegan baked goods and the likes. Now I bring baked goods to work and leave them out and don’t tell anyone they’re vegan until the afternoon/next day ;P It’s sad I have to be tricky, but I’m just trying to spread awareness.

    Thanks Cadry!

    • Thanks, Megan! Your kind words are so lovely to hear! If there’s ever a topic that you think would be useful for me to cover, please let me know! I’m always open to suggestions.

      I’m glad to hear about your baketivism! Hopefully with time and treats, people will become more open minded about the deliciousness of “vegan food.” :)

  29. Oh, reading this was perfect timing! I was talking to a friend last night about a restaurant I adore and she mentioned she had tried some of one of the vegan dishes and exclaimed “wow, this is amazing!” I had to chuckle and remind her that yes, us vegans do actually like flavor and texture…..
    Was also reminded of being a very new vegan and showing up to a BBQ with a kale/ quinoa salad that was a huge hit- even with the people very actively harassing me about not eating meat (seriously, she was shoving MY salad down her yap while blathering on about protein and cavemen or something like that)
    Thanks- this was perfect!

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