Egg whites are notoriously the most difficult substance to replicate with any real consistency in vegan baking, which is why I don’t try. Other people do, and they’ve done a great job. There are the flax egg whites in Miyoko Schinner’s The Homemade Vegan Pantry. Maresa Volante of Sweet Maresa’s Bakery in Kingston, New York, has made macarons for ages, without the use of aquafaba. But there is also aquafaba, the brine from a can of chickpeas, that most people use when they want to do something egg white–like. I use it to make icing. I’ve not seen anyone create a perfect vegan angel’s food cake yet, but does anyone need to?
Because I’ve read the cookbooks, eaten the macarons, and whipped aquafaba to nearly stiff peaks (and also experienced its utter failure under high humidity), imagine my surprise when I received an email telling me “the world’s first chicken-free egg white is here” and will be used to make macarons, the fussy French cookies that have been available in a few vegan forms for years now. (“A few vegan forms” being key here—ingredient diversity! We love to see it; it comes naturally when focused on the plant-based world.)
What kills me is that it came from a vegan source, meaning the person who reemingly reprinted a press release about The Every Co.’s egg white made with “precision fermentation” could ostensibly know better. I expect omnivores to have no clue about flax eggs or Versawhip; I hope vegans and vegetarians can have a little bit more pride in those who’ve come before.
But it’s not shocking that I find the ingenuity of vegans doing experiments in their kitchens a lot more interesting than a company printing the DNA of a chicken egg onto yeast that is then mixed with sugar in a fermentation tank. Why biotechnology and labs when we have cooking and kitchens? It’s my eternal refrain. Yet I know that the U.S., a settler-colonial empire without an overarching food culture beyond the hamburger, has been made ripe for food-tech takeover.
…I also am interested in how can we stop replicating the same extractive models that we have been working in over the last 100 years, this kind of industrial capitalist model? Where does that stop? And where can we find new models, or reach back for older models of producing nutrients, producing food that is culturally appropriate for the populations that are eating it? That reflect the actual capacity of the land that is being used to produce it? And I think that those questions are much more interesting than saying, ‘Ok, lab-grown meat or salad greens grown hydroponically is the only answer for the future of food.’
Believing tech solutions are “the only answer for the future of food” is the continued denigration of women’s work, when it comes down to it, and further alienates people from their food when what we all need to do is get closer to ours. What’s depressed me so much about the hyperbolic statements and promises of companies creating products like this is that they erase years of toil, labor, and sharing of techniques and recipes. Perhaps the recipes in Soy Not Oi! and other vegan zines don’t yield the best-tasting or best-sourced food, but they were written in and for a community. These companies are creating products for profit. Why is that more compelling than the guidance that comes in a cookbook?
There’s a reason my research into vegan and vegetarian food focuses on cookbooks (or maybe you didn’t know that it focuses on cookbooks—it does!), and it’s because I believe the kitchen needs to stay central in our relationship to food. I don’t think that’s radical, yet this push toward biotechnological “solutions” to made-up problems has been about pretending there are animal-free foods we need that we cannot create on our own.
There are comparisons to be drawn to tech start-up culture, the failures of which we’re now seeing dramatic renderings of on streaming services. Michele Simon has drawn this out in regards to lab meat. I thought about this again reading Malcolm Harris in The Nation, writing about the problems of the U.S. economy being based on a finance-led growth that rewards the unnecessary ideas of these “founders”: “It takes a special kind of person to plow through millions in investor cash and come back smiling for more—not an especially creative or interesting or thoughtful person necessarily, but special nonetheless.” Should these kinds of bubbles be determining how we eat? As Simon writes, “when it comes to food, consumers have a heightened expectation of transparency.”
As Isa Chandra Moskowitz wrote in the introduction to Vegan With a Vengeance in 2005, it was and is absolutely necessary that vegans know how to cook vegetables, legumes, etc. in order to thrive. I’d say it’s necessary for everyone. It was the same when, ten years later, Schinner published The Homemade Vegan Pantry, showing pantry staples people were accustomed to buying at the supermarket were possible to make at home, with a shorter list of ingredients. I hate to see the ingenuity glossed over by ridiculous statements that are then regurgitated as fact in the media. Decades of culinary ingenuity, wiped away.
At the end of the day, the replicas of animal foods are about a lack of imagination—a desire for a sterile world where no one has to figure shit out in the kitchen, where squeezing egg-like product out of plastic is somehow preferable to whipping up a chickpea omelet flavored with kala namak or, hell, an omelet from eggs laid by chickens down the road. Imagination has never been a problem for the people doing the work of writing recipes, of feeding and teaching people from their own labor. I’ll continue to follow them.
Last week’s podcast featured LinYee Yuan, co-founder and editor of MOLD. This Wednesday’s will feature Robert Simonson, cocktail columnist at the New York Times and Punch on his career, changes in the cocktail world, and the launch of his newsletter, The Mix. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or adjust your settings to receive an email when it’s out.
This Friday’s From the Kitchen dispatch for paid subscribers will be a discussion thread on pantries and kitchen tools: What did I overlook? What’s in yours? I’ll also provide a cocktail recipe, to keep it interesting. See the recipe index for all past recipes available to paid subscribers.
I wrote about the new HBO Max show Julia for Gawker.
I’m taking part in “Unpacking Meat: Values, Cultures, Futures” at Tufts University on April 8. It’s open to all and the lineup is really interesting.
Benefit by Siobhan Phillips in preparation for a conversation with her about the connections between food writing and literary writing, sugar, power, and academia, that will be part of Bellvue Literary Press’s series.
A beautiful coconut curry with collard greens, using a recipe from Preeti Mistry’s The Juhu Beach Club Cookbook as my guide. (And don’t miss their appearance on the podcast, if you haven’t listened or read already!)