The Trials and Tribulations of Eating Plants
-Essay by Joshua Wanger-
“The longer I live, the more I see that I am never wrong about anything, and that all the pains I have so humbly taken to verify my notions have only wasted my time.”
—George Bernard Shaw
What each of them was silently ideating, I will never know. Sitting closely around a table, friends all of us, I imagined our interlocutions as obscurely masked figures, undefinable but clearly hiding more acute thoughts. Peering through the masks were eyes filled with concern, judgment, disappointment, exhaustion. I suppose these may have been natural responses to my already rather exasperating personality…
“Oh,” was perhaps the most telling response to my announcement, as it bore a great deal of detail in the tone with which it was spoken—a sudden octave shift upward followed by the slightest slide to an undefined pitch all within a quarter-second—and the subtle accompanying body language—an uncomfortable squirm to prevent either the right or left buttock from going numb from shock, a twitch of either the left or right eye, a darting glance to either lend support or to beg for aid from one or more nearby allies, et cetera. This new layer of belligerent self-righteousness was going to be more difficult for my friends to stomach than I had anticipated. As a foodie, though no self-respecting gastronomist would refer to themselves as such (nor, of course, would they refer to themselves as gastronomists), I had spent several years reading, researching, experimenting, and eating the best of the best, attempting along the way to increase my culinary acuity and to show off said acuity at every possible instance. I was absolutely that guy.
Several times per year, I hosted dinner parties where I would prepare, occasionally successfully, multicourse dinners using tools foreign to most plebeian kitchens: immersion blenders, sous vide machines, whipping syphons, spherification kits, scales, and more. As my experiments included molecular gastronomy, or the science of food preparation, my larder was stocked with a variety of acids, salts, gums, and hydrocolloids many of my guests could not pronounce.
With much practice, I felt prepared to host Thanksgiving dinner for nine of my better half’s family members in our rather small apartment. Six weeks out, I began practicing each course to ensure I would be able to successfully recreate it with an audience on an important prandial holiday: sous vide turkey breast, turkey leg confit, caramelized carrot soup with coconut cream, parmesan breadsticks, Hawaiian bread rolls, cornbread with honey beurre noisette, cranberry fluid gel, pomme puree, pistachio crème brûlée (fired table side, of course), chocolate cream pie, and vanilla cream pie with green apple foam.
Then I nixed all of that, almost.… Vegan was a poor choice of term. Ineloquence again left me with no succinct way to describe my self-imposed dietary requirements. One useful phrase might be ethical eater: I will only eat animal products if they meet my rather strict ethical guidelines for animal breeding, husbandry, and slaughter and if the environmental impact is negligible. The Gap system, which ranks farms on a 1–5+ scale based on their animal farming practices, has been useful when applied. However, this is not typically the case, and traceably ethical animal products are hard to come by as well as prohibitively expensive. Dinner out becomes awkward when servers cannot answer questions regarding the source of the meat, dairy, or eggs used in their restaurants’ dishes (this calls to mind a certain Portlandia episode wherein the main characters have their server hold their table while they visit the farm where the chicken was raised). Easier to say, “I’m vegan,” and know for certain my dish will meet my ethical requirements. Obviously, this implies that I am not truly vegan. This is accurate.
My quietly reactionary friends said they understood my decision following the aforementioned explanation, though their visible consternation waned not. I had to relearn to cook without many of the ingredients that, to typical eaters, make things taste good, like butter (how does one cornbread without butter?) or cheese (“You’re giving up cheese?!” one friend shouted). The real issue most people had, it seemed, was not that I wished to forgo meat, but rather that I would not eat dairy—I am careful to say will not and would not rather than cannot or could not as I am perfectly capable of consuming animal products and have no ethical qualms with animal products conceptually; it is the process I take umbrage with. To me, it was an easy and logical jump from ethical vegetarianism to ethical veganism; it seemed rather hypocritical to give up steak and foie gras because I cared about steers and ducks but to continue pouring milk from a disgustingly mistreated cow over my Cheerios (the plain kind; honey is not vegan). “But cheese!” they said. I will readily and wholeheartedly admit that vegan “cheese,” or cheeze as it is cheesily dubbed, is lacking. But the vegans more than made up for this loss when they figured out how to make baked goods taste better than the originals sans eggs and butter.
Interestingly, many people outside my friend circles have found it appropriate to comment on this particular decision: “Salads are what our food eats,” they said. Or, “Meat is life. How could you live without meat?” One of my favorites is the uncreative half-joke about plants’ feelings, particularly when accompanied by references to articles which apparently state plants are sentient. What is it about not using animals that enrages people so? Perhaps behind the façades that we present to the public, our true selves deviate from the superficial moral compass society imparts. Perhaps we all see how the factory farming industry is inconsistent with our inner morality, but do not want to confront our doubts concerning the dietary status-quo, or worse, sense the path of departure is marred with self-loathing. Defensiveness as a form of evasion seems to me a logical response.
The difficulty with veganism, in my experience, is not the diet—there are many products, cookbooks, and websites that make the change as painless for people with no kitchen skills as for people with gourmet-level skills. Nor is it the lack of options at popular restaurants or the necessity of providing your own plant-based burger at the cookout. The difficulty, the challenge, the struggle of veganism is people, mostly friends and family, constantly making faces at your plate or telling you it is crazy or inconceivable that food could be good without cow product A or pig product B. It is the relatives pushing desserts on you at the holiday dinner and becoming offended when you politely decline. I do not mean to engage in identity politics or declare my critics polemical. What I mean to do is present a non-Vegan (with a capital V) perspective on not eating animals. Animals are treated terribly, and morality, as fluid as it is, is not optional for me—shocked faces or not. It is my opinion that people cannot live well if they are inconsistent in their actions with their morality—if they are inauthentic. This manner of being is unsustainable—nearly as unsustainable as the animal agriculture industry itself.
Joshua Wanger is a singer, actor, chef, writer, and copyeditor. While he is actively pursuing a performance career, he always makes time to cook lavish dinners and write stories. After he graduated with a BM in vocal performance from Westminster Choir College of Rider University, he began copyediting theses and dissertations for graduate students. Joshua’s biggest passions are music, food, and language, and he is proud to be involved with Monologging.