A 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.
Many 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!”
Maybe 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.
As 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.
So 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.