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On the ‘Grandma Rule’
My Terroir Symposium talk is a first foray into Critical Bourdain Studies.
The day after I give a talk on being flexible around food while traveling, I am tested. I’m in Banff, on a trip for all the Terroir Symposium participants. I find out we’re doing a restaurant tour where I’m being served whatever I’m being served; we weren’t polled on diets, and few adjustments are able to be made. I work around it as best I can. I accidentally bite into a samosa, which at first cut appeared filled with a potato and pea mixture, and find spiced meat (perhaps bison). I’m doing my best, under pressure, to be a vegetarian under conditions where a regional food system (Alberta) is on display, and this is a meaty land.
When people say they’re able to strictly abide a certain diet under any circumstances, I feel both a bit jealous and also incredulous: what are you missing? Not just food-wise, but conversation-wise. I find it important that I’m always coming into friction in the world about being a bivalve-eating vegetarian: how else would I know how unfriendly the world is to a plant-based diet? How else would I be told stories of the vegans who eat cheese only in Spain or the vegetarians who make accommodations for certain seafood? I want to know these stories, and I want to know everyone’s food story. I’m nosey, and I also like that we’re wrestling with these questions together. That is, after all, why I’ve traveled so far to be around folks who do care about what food means in our lives.
I want to write from a position of being in the real world—as much as I can, considering my wildly privileged position as a food writer for whom food is work and life, etc.—and that means discomfort and adjustment. It means curiosity and research. It means fucking up (according to your own beliefs) and knowing it’s not the end of the world. A practice, not an orthodoxy.
Back to the talk: It’s my first foray into what I’m calling Critical Bourdain Studies, meaning an excavation and critique of what a certain moment in food culture has meant, its repercussions and its good impacts. Encompassed in Critical Bourdain Studies is the work, yes, of Anthony Bourdain, but also Lucky Peach and the notion of chefs as “rock stars” or “gods of food.” It’s a critique of a hyper-masculine approach to food that has rules and regulations about who’s in and who’s out; which ingredients are in and which are out. This is an approach to food that still mostly defines how food media approaches conversations: which ingredients are cool, which aesthetics are approved or not. Dictums.
This is all intended as fun and tongue-in-cheek. It’s also, for now, the last thing I wrote to promote my first book, No Meat Required: The Cultural History and Culinary Future of Plant-Based Eating (see last week’s piece). I realized maybe I’d be less tired if I didn’t write something new for every invitation, but what fun is there in that? Here’s the text of the talk.
I gave up meat in 2011—gradually, and then all at once. Until then, I’d not been any kind of cook, nor had I any interest in the kitchen beyond stuffing my face with whatever came out of it. I would bake, because baking was fun and frivolous, yet the daily doings of meal-making and nutritional composition seemed like drudgery. It was a drudgery I’d seen my mother take on, and she advised me never to learn how to cook. “You’ll spend your life doing it,” she told me. “For a man.” The venom of that last part, from someone who never made any feminist avowals, struck me like lightning: If having to make dinner every day could turn my mom into someone who names the patriarchy, then there must be no fate worse.
The heteronormativity of this assumption aside, I took her advice to heart, because I’d never seen women happy in the kitchen unless they were on television. Men took on cooking for intellectual or creative reasons, and they enjoyed professional success through restaurant kitchens—even the ones on TV, like Bobby Flay and Emeril, had that chef whites sheen of lived-in expertise; meanwhile, women like Ina Garten, Giada Delaurentiis, and Racheal Ray, as far as I could tell, were tasked with making women’s misery somehow more palatable and easy. They put a happy face on the unpaid labor of domesticity. As a young adolescent, I knew who I’d rather be, the kind of future I’d rather pursue: the professional one, always depicted in opposition to the domestic. My oven—when I wasn’t using it to impress people with a flan or towering sponge cake—would store shoes, like Carrie Bradshaw’s.
But as a young adolescent, I also knew I wanted to give up meat as soon as it was a feasible possibility—meaning, I had to wait for my own job and my own apartment, and these came after college with a boyfriend. He took on the role of cook in the house, though, serving breaded chicken cutlets with canned green beans and alfredo-smothered noodles, just as his mother would serve. So long as I wasn’t the cook, I reasoned, I couldn’t be in control of what I was eating, even if eating meat and dairy made me feel like crap, intellectually and often physically.
I began to be responsible for myself when he was away for work, and that’s when my forays into vegetarian and mostly vegan cooking began: first with sheet-tray dinners of just vegetables; eventually taking a turn toward constant rice and beans with a side of sauteed garlicky kale. I was finding myself enjoying the process of figuring out my way in the kitchen, and I felt a lot better (mentally, physically, and even emotionally) without constant meat and cheese. Finally, I was eating in alignment with the person I had long wanted to be but didn’t know how to become while I had no chops in the kitchen. I became an obsessive Food Network consumer not because I could learn how to make vegan meals from the shows—of course not; don’t be silly!—but because I could glean techniques I had never wanted nor had to learn before. If I didn’t learn how to cook by my mother’s side in the kitchen, I would have to learn from the experts on TV.
Suddenly, I was not just an aficionado of stuffing my face but a person who cooked, a person who loved to cook, and this was only possible because I ditched the animal products. My amateur baking turned professional when I learned how to veganize the kind of high-end bakery cookies I had a taste for with a homemade coconut oil butter. I started to read chef-y cookbooks and monitor restaurant news, noting trends and important names.
This was the early 2010s and Anthony Bourdain was still reigning king of the culinary world. I wanted to be like him, and though I looked to others for inspiration in how to write about food, I noticed—I still notice—that what people enjoy are his strong opinions, rendered plainly. People want to be cool, like him. I wanted to be cool, like him. And to do so, while not eating meat, I realized would be a strange dance indeed.
An aside: Last week, while working on this talk, I wondered to myself whether Bourdain’s work were still influential and relevant, beyond my own food-world social media feeds where his face and bons mots are commonly shared. Then, I saw a man carrying his second nonfiction work (and I’d argue his best), A Cook’s Tour; he was a tourist, on his own trip to San Juan, Puerto Rico, and using Bourdain as guide.
Then, and now, Bourdain’s word was sanctified; his judgements carved in stone. His 2010 memoir Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook contained an essay titled “The Fish-on-Monday Thing.” The piece harkened back to part of his career-making book Kitchen Confidential, and he used most of its words to apologize for his anger toward various of the Food Network stars I’d used to learn how to cook my vegan meals with proper technique. He wasn’t going to apologize for his anger toward one group in particular, though, writing, “I am genuinely angry—still—at vegetarians.”
The deflation I would feel whenever this was brought up, and it was consistently brought up, as an absolutely rock-solid assessment of those of us who chose to forgo meat was near-total. He was able to do this because, sure, he was Anthony Bourdain, but also because he supported his rage with the concept of “the ‘Grandma rule’ for travelers”: meaning that while traveling, one must act as though they are at their grandmother’s house, eating whatever is offered—whether delicious or not—and requesting seconds. It’s a rule of generosity, which apparently no one who gives up meat is able to abide by. Reading this was a great lesson in how much omnivores project a haughtiness upon vegetarians and vegans, even the ones who stay quiet and eat their plants.
Bourdain writes: “I guess I understand if your desire for a clean conscience and cleaner colon overrules any natural lust for bacon. But taking your belief system on the road—or to other people’s houses—makes me angry.” And in those days, making Bourdain angry was tantamount to exile as a hopeful gourmand. There were no highly visible opposition forces yet, either. I understood that if I wanted to be in the food world—and I’d graduated, slowly, from a copy editor with a vegan bakery side hustle to a freelance writer—that I would have to roll with the punches and incredulity when telling other food people that I didn’t eat meat. There would be no hiding from people who agreed with Bourdain that to be vegetarian was somehow inherently rude; I would have to simply learn how to speak to them, despite their publications’ consistent disrespect, whether to me personally or more broadly to the plant-based food that sustained me. This turned out to be a great writing exercise.
Travel is challenging, though, as a vegan or vegetarian, because one does want to be accommodating, polite, and accepting of generosity when traversing new cultures and cuisines. (Or, most people want to be. I hope never to meet those who don’t.) And so, how do we approach culinary tourism as meatless eaters?
First, what is culinary tourism, technically? Lucy M. Long, editor of Culinary Tourism and folklore and food studies professor at Bowling Green State University, defines it as: "the intentional, exploratory participation in the foodways of an other." This includes consumption, preparation, and presentation of a food item, cuisine, meal system, or eating style considered to belong to a culinary system not one's own.
Long goes on: "This definition emphasizes the individual as an active agent in constructing meanings within a tourist experience and it allows for an aesthetic response to food as part of that experience."
Most of us, especially here in this room at this symposium, are often finding ourselves as culinary tourists, both at home or abroad: whether we’re trying our hand at a new cuisine via a cookbook in our house, or we’re on a long-planned trip with a map set up with all the recommendations from trusted local resources. It’s through food that we experience culture.
For the everyday culinary tourist, the access to private spaces with a large camera crew—as Bourdain conducted most of his travel—will not be an issue for us: In most situations, private homes will not be the site of our culinary tourism, and if they are, we can likely tell our gracious hosts whether we have dietary restrictions or preferences. The Grandma rule suggests we should not, unless the restriction is religious in nature.
I think this brings us to a common omnivorous misconception around what it means to give up meat in a secular way: That it’s just a bourgeois affectation or a misguided inflation of one’s individual ability to create change in the world. In sum, it’s perceived as an ego trip to make a decision to eat against the dominant culture. I’d argue that it’s much more often a truly personal sensitivity and ethic, one that even if secular in its foundation has a more spiritual component when it comes to the person’s actual relationship to the idea of eating flesh. It’s true, though, that it’s often hard to see where such a sensitivity ends and our relationship to other people takes precedence: it’s a delicate dance, ongoing and never-ending. This is why I refer to my own intentional eating as a practice rather than an orthodoxy and advocate for others to frame their attempts to divest from destructive systems similarly.
This is an idea better described in stories. And so, an anecdote: I take the Grandma rule to heart and go on a cognac press trip to France as a pescatarian—it is the most flexible I am willing to be. I am served seemingly endless pieces of fish covered in dairy sauces, and it is the opposite of how I eat on a regular basis. In the end, I projectile-vomit on a train platform. I think the people whose country I was a guest in would’ve been happier not to witness this and that I had just ensured vegetarian meals for myself.
Another anecdote: My husband and I are in Mexico City. We spend hours in a museum, on our feet, and arrive to a bar owned by an absolutely famished. The owner offers us a shrimp taco, fresh from the grill, and I take it, devour it—my husband is allergic to shellfish; I often miss the ubiquitous shrimp of my childhood. I abide by my own instincts and the Grandma rule. This time, my stomach accommodates my flexibility.
The Western European context is, of course, a special one where it would likely have been easy to accommodate even a vegan diet, and in Mexico City, I’ve had some of the best plant-based meals of my life. There are plenty of places where refusing meat, whether explicitly or as part of a broth, would be an affront, as meat is globally understood as a symbol of luxury and affluence: the peak of good eating. What can we do in these situations?
In these cases, I would suggest would-be meatless culinary tourists simply be good culinary tourists: do the research beforehand and know where animal products will be in the cuisine and attempt to work around that, without too much fuss to those serving the dishes. Learn how to inquire, in the language, about whether there are vegetarian options. In most cases, there will be; if there are not, already have your path of least resistance settled upon, whether that means being ok with animal byproducts having been in a broth, fish sauce being in a dish, or eating around meat. Perhaps even eating meat or fish in some cases, if that is comfortable. Flexibility is necessary when traveling: If the hotel reservation doesn’t come through or you miss the train, adjustments will be made. Eating is the same.
Yet these cases will be rare, because in most places around the world, they know what a vegetarian is (vegan can be a tougher sell) and there will usually be options, even if small ones. Doing research on the cuisine and places to eat beforehand as well as learning some of the language in order to communicate and read the menu will likely enable one to travel well without insulting one’s host. And we also have choices in where we travel: As a vegetarian, I wouldn’t want to go somewhere if I find out that they’re hostile to anyone who doesn’t eat meat. It’s a choice I’m willing to make.
As Long defines culinary tourism, it is an active and intentional process where we must be informed and engaged. Being a good culinary tourist is like becoming a good cook: it requires study and practice, whether one eats meat or does not.
And so, while the ‘Grandma rule’ suggests that a vegetarian or vegan should never leave their house unless it’s to go to a vegan restaurant, the lived experience and academic meaning of culinary tourism allows us to make informed choices around where to travel and what to eat while we’re there.
Food media has also softened to vegetarians and vegans, as well as become more interested in discussing how, exactly, to best be a guest in the world even when eating plant-based. Sarah Jampel, writing in Bon Appétit about traveling as a vegetarian in 2019, says she sets her rules ahead of time for how much leeway she’ll give herself—fish sauce in Vietnam, yes; street food with pork, no—in order to enjoy a trip and not be too restrictive to her companions. It’s also now more common than ever to be a food writer who doesn’t eat meat, whether for ethical or environmental reasons. No longer are we living in the old “gods of food” era when you’d incite anger for preferring tempeh bacon to pork. A rationality about the detrimental impact of a thoughtlessly meaty diet has emerged, though I’m always arguing that food media needs to go further and focus more on meatless dishes to ensure a necessary shift in cultural context toward plant-based eating.
Just as giving up meat incited me to learn how to cook, it has also pushed me while traveling to find smaller restaurants or less-publicized aspects of national cuisines. While in Buenos Aires, I went off the well-beaten steak path for simply seared oyster mushrooms and sous-vide celery root; in Puerto Rico, where I live, I eat guineos en escabeche and fritters of banana flower; in the hillsides of Tuscany, I ate a rustic pasta in a creamy chestnut sauce.
Meat doesn’t dominate the plates of the world, if one isn’t always looking specifically for it, and meat doesn’t have a monopoly on deliciousness and satisfaction. This lie only serves the continued use of 80 percent of the world’s agricultural land to grow feed for livestock that provides just 18 percent of calories; this lie ensures the use of cows, pigs and other animals for food, as well as livestock feed, is responsible for 57 percent of all food production greenhouse gas emissions.
Plants are everywhere, and meat doesn’t have to be the focal point of one’s daily life nor one’s travels. To be a good meatless culinary tourist is not to follow the ‘Grandma rule,’ but to do one’s research and be willing to have conversations while away from home. I would suggest this update to Bourdainian dogma. It’s an update that meets the times.
I’m still always getting better at talking to omnivores about why I eat how I eat, but I’m no longer going to apologize—if I’m traveling somewhere new, I’m simply going to sit myself down and learn. Isn’t that what Bourdain taught us to do? It was curiosity, after all, that got me cooking and has kept me writing. It was curiosity that made me a culinary tourist. Why should it stop?
This Friday’s From the Kitchen will be a new take on mushroom pâté, one of my most popular recipes. I found the right inspiration here to really kick it up a notch! See the Recipe Index for all recipes available to paid subscribers.
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My small capsule jewelry collection with By Ren, whose designs are handmade to order in Philadelphia, is live through the end of 2023. There are cocktail picks with a pearl on them, which are my favorite thing ever! Perfect gift.
We’ll see what happens when I get home.
From the Desk of Alicia Kennedy is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.